As Nintendo’s second effort to branch out into mobile game using one of their established IPs, Fire Emblem seems like an incredibly odd choice. While the series saw a rise in popularity after the release of Awakening in early 2013, it is still a very niche franchise for the company, and does not initially seem like the best fit for the platform, as the games are story driven strategy RPGs. In actuality, Fire Emblem Heroes proves to be a surprisingly good fit for the platform, a pretty solid strategy game, and also one of the most engrossing yet frustrating experiences I willingly put myself through in quite a while.
Fire Emblem Heroes Review
Platforms: Android(Emulated), iOS
Developers: Intelligent Systems and Nintendo EPD
Fire Emblem Heroes takes the form of a crossover title with a wafer thin storyline involving two warring factions who summon characters from prior Fire Emblem games to do battle with each other. A simple enough concept, but one that stands almost contrarian to one of the core appeals of the series, that of learning more about characters and starting to care about them while going through a journey. However, capturing that sort of thing in a free-to-play mobile game is rather difficult, and instead Fire Emblem Heroes is more of a gameplay driven experience built around collecting and raising characters from the series’ past. Which offers its own problems.
As someone with limited exposure to the series (I have only played Awakening and a bit of Sacred Stones) I do not recognize many of the characters featured in this game, and there are very few in-game resourced to help me learn who they are beyond four well drawn images, a brief description, an index card’s worth of written lines, and a few voice samples a character spouts when appropriate. I was hoping to learn more about each new character I obtained and their role in the game they originated from, but all I was given were minor cosmetics and a set of numbers to apply to them. I would have also liked to see more representation from other game sin the series, but that will be provided from subsequent updates.
With its priorities established, Fire Emblem Heroes is all about taking the basic gameplay formula of Fire Emblem and making it accessible and enjoyable as a mobile game. What the developers came up with involved simplifying gameplay to a 6 by 8 grid, lowering the number of units in every battle to a maximum of 4 versus 5, fully removing series staples like permadeath and limited use items. Along with abandoning the concept of class changes, accuracy, and critical hits, streamlining character classes, restricting every character to one weapon, and consolidating unit specific strengths and weaknesses into a Pokemon-esque red, blue, and green color wheel.
What results from this is a small scale turn based strategy game that, while simple in comparison to its predecessors, does require genuine strategy, planning, and forethought in order to succeed in battles. There are more complicated elements at play, such as character classes, abilities, weapon effects, terrain, and the relatively straightforward effects of stats, but it is all very parsible and can make for a genuinely good time, at least to an extent.
You see, in traditional Fire Emblem games, or at least traditional circa 2002, the player is able to see their opposition before deciding what characters they wish to send into a battle, as well as customize their starting location. With Heroes, the player is simply given a recommended level range to be in for each mission and is loosely told what foes they will be up against. The map and specifics of what the player are up against are a mystery until the mission begins, and this led to many bitter losses for me.
That is the crux of the combat, but the combat is only one portion of the many systems that make up Fire Emblem Heroes. Basically, the game is structured around both defeating various missions in exchange for orbs that can then be exchanged for new characters, who can be trained into better more effective characters so the player may continue a loop wherein they are gradually unlocking more and more characters from the series. It is a self serving loop that manages to sustain itself through the solid gameplay foundation and the interesting cast of well designed characters, all of whom have some unique mechanical quirk to them, even if they do overlap with other characters on some things.
Beyond orbs, all of this is driven by stamina, a replenishing currency that is spent on attempting missions, whether they be for training or story related purposes. Once stamina is exhausted, the player either needs to wait for it to build up again, regaining one point every five minutes, or use a stamina potion to refill it to the maximum of 50 stamina. The system effectively puts a cap on the amount of playtime a player can do in a given time period and encourages them to come back once the stamina is regained.
However, the amount of stamina used in a mission varies based on its recommended level. In practical terms, this means that the player can spend nearly two hours leveling a group of low level characters, while they would be lucky to have the stamina needed to go for 30 minutes with high level characters. This, compounded with the fact that higher level characters need to defeat more enemies to level up, means that it can be quite time consuming to push characters up to the max of level 40.
The stamina system also encourages a specific mindset where the player is effectively losing the opportunity to progress further in the game unless they compulsively return to it every four hours or so and clear our their accumulated stamina so they can continuously earn it. Which can lead to playing the game as soon as one wakes up, before bed, and whenever they have a good opportunity during the day. It is a fairly devious means of controlling the player, and I know that I’ve lost a decent amount of sleep by playing this game right before bed in order to better use my stamina.
Going back to orbs, in addition to being used to purchase new characters, they can also be used to expand barracks, increase the base EXP units receive, and purchase certain items, making them a valuable resource that serves as the only source of microtransactions in the game. Because of this, I assumed that orbs would be greatly limited and hard to come by, but that really is not the case. The player begins with a favorable sum of orbs, there are nearly 150 that can be unlocked by playing story missions on various difficulties, a steady stream of app release bonus orbs, as well as challenges that reward players with orbs. Because of this, I had very few problems with this mechanic, though I do need to tilt my head at two things. The fact that characters are best unlocked in groups of five for the sum of 20 orbs, and how it costs over $10 to get that many orbs. Meaning that each character costs over $2, and that doesn’t seem right to me.
These characters are distributed by a percentage based gasha system, which rewards players with allies based on a series of probabilities that tell the player how likely they are to receive what characters. It really is as simple as that, and can result in a very odd dataset. Where I received three super rare characters in one draw, a group of four characters of the same type in another, or two of the same character amongst a group of five. This makes each drawing of new characters somewhat unreliable, as I have no idea if I am going to come away with a feeling of value earned, or feel like I was ripped off because I ended up with three common duplicates.
Other than this, the only ways to get additional characters is by participating in certain special events or daily events, where the player can fight a specific character on a custom map in order to recruit them. It sounds nice, except the missions are actually recycled after a few days, and the characters awarded from daily events are inherently worse than those earned from the gacha due to their low star rarity.
Every character is given a 1 to 5 star rarity that determines the skills and weapon they start out with, and their general stat growth over time. With 1 star characters being utter garbage and 5 star characters being amazing and potentially overpowered allies. All of them can be brought to the maximum star rarity, but the process of doing so first involves raising the character to level 20, which is time consuming for inherently worse characters. Once that is done, their potential can be unlocked using two proprietary pieces of currencies, badges and feathers, and doing so reverts them to a level 1 character of a higher star rarity who retains whatever skills, weapons, and skill points they earned.
The badges used in this process are awarded by completing game specific challenges, or by participating in the training tower, the primary grinding spot of the game. While the decision to have eight varieties that are used on specific characters of a specific star rarity is questionable, the process is far simpler and easier than earning feathers. Some game specific challenges award feathers, but the primary means of obtaining them involves partaking in the arena, a place where the player can battle against other people’s teams three times a day in order to build up a score based on successive victories that are accumulated and at the end of every week and converted into feathers.
There are problems with this method, such as how the challenger is not given an accurate idea of what they will be up against in each given battle, and the difficulty it holds for teams not made of 4-5 star characters, but the biggest annoyance for me is the paltry sum of feathers that is awarded through this process. You see, it costs 2*10^n feathers in order to have a character reach the next star level, with n being their current star level. This means that in order to turn a 4 star character into a 5 star one, it both costs badges that are only used on 4 star characters, and 20,000 feathers. A gigantic sum that can take months to accumulate even if you do amazingly well in the arena.
I initially assumed that this would be made more tolerable with the ability to merge or discard characters, but instead merging two of the same character together only warrants a few additional skill points and a stat boost that is discarded when a character reaches a higher star rarity, while abandoning them returns a pathetic sum of feathers. Almost as pathetic as the 10-15 that are earned daily. I would accuse this mechanic of being an almost cruel way to squeeze money out of the player, but there is no way to buy feathers.
Beyond this, there are also a lot of little things about Fire Emblem Heroes that irk me on some level, as I believe that they could and should have been done better. For instance, there should be a checklist to see what characters a player has earned and encountered, with maybe even an ability to buy a specific character at a markup. The user interface for team selection is inadequate, as every character is dumped into one list that cannot be manually sorted, nor can it be organized alphabetically by character name. It can take a few too many clicks to prepare a team for a mission, as each battle warrants a certain team composition.
The somewhat randomized stat growth for each character is skewed in such a way that lower star characters can be better than higher star characters. The number of characters of a certain type are wildly disproportionate, with there being as many sword wielding infantry characters as there are green type characters. While needing to constantly readapt to different missions can grow tiresome while grinding, to the point where I would have paid good money for a set of premade maps built around grinding characters. Just like in Fire Emblem Awakening.
All of this is presented in a fairly visually appealing manner, with characters being primarily represented with chibi versions of themselves, or to be more exact, chibi characters with character specific assets placed ontop of them. Character artwork from a variety of artists, and a pleasing enough menu system that manages to capture the series well enough. Yet despite being so simple, it failed to run reliably on my cheapo Android tablet, so I had to seek out other alternatives in the form of Android emulation. It worked well despite my inability to set the window to be vertically oriented, and the need to uninstall the game every few hours because of error code 803-3001. A communication error that has been affecting players emulating the game or using rooted devices since its launch on February 2nd.
To summarize my thoughts on Fire Emblem Heroes, it is a compelling little strategy RPG that manages to capture some of the core appeals of the series, while also partaking in numerous design decisions that discourage player progression, and encourage unfavorable behaviours, neither of which are driven by the game’s microtransactions, weirdly enough. It is a game that I feel very warmly towards due to an enjoyable gameplay loop and the sensation that comes with leveling up and receiving new characters, but admit has a large some or irksome issues that will likely not stop me from playing it several times a day.