Fire Emblem Heroes (2018) Review

One year and several hundred hours later…

A year ago, I never really thought that I would ever be playing a mobile game to any meaningful degree, much less enough to justify a review, but I did with Fire Emblem Heroes, a game that I have actually been playing pretty much every day since its launch.  In that time, the game has changed quite considerably, as it is a service-based title where content, updates, and fixes are added periodically, and the game itself has changed quite considerably.  Because of that, and because of hte… hundreds of hours that I must have spent on this game, I have formulated some pretty complicated thoughts on the title.  So what better time to re-review the game than now, on the game’s one year anniversary.  Or to be more exact, a few days after its one year anniversary.  Eh, close enough.

Fire Emblem Heroes (2018) Review
Platforms: Android(Reviewed), iOS
Developers: Intelligent Systems and Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo

While the initial response to hearing that this title is a mobile adaptation of the Fire Emblem series may be to compare the game to the original titles, that is not really the best way to describe Heroes.  It is for a different platform, where games are played quite differently, and as such its priorities, mechanics, and general focus are different from the mainline entries.  For instance, the story is kept rather simple, there are not a lot of characterization, there is no permadeath, and the core gameplay diverges beyond the surface level attributes of the series.

Fire Emblem Heroes is set in a new world that, in typical Fire Emblem fashion, is centered around two warring kingdoms who choose to wage war with one another by summoning heroes from other dimensions.  These transdimensional heroes are characters from other games in the Fire Emblem series, and serve as indentured servants to each kingdom due to some sort of justification that the game mostly ignores beyond the initial opening.

Initially, there really was not a whole lot to the story, with it mostly being a showcase of unique heroes from certain games in the series, taking place on maps loosely adapted from the respective titles.  However, as the updates came and new chapters were added, the story gradually grew in complexity, giving more character to its original main characters, prince and princess Alfonse and Sharena along with the recurring character Anna, and eventually expanding into a new story arc with Book II.  

Now, Book II does not substantially change things beyond the introduction of a new kingdom based on Norse mythology that involves an ice princess fighting against a lord of fire, who comes with his own unique minions.  Thus far, it is only a minor improvement over what came before it, but it is serviceable enough, and does show some creativity in spite of its fairly drab sounding premise.  As I alluded to earlier, this approach is honestly to be expected from a mobile game.  Mobile games tend to be played casually and in bursts, so it is not a very good platform for winding narratives and character building.  Instead, the focus is on the gameplay.

Fire Emblem Heroes is primarily 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 usable units in every battle to 4, and simplifying a lot of gameplay elements.  There are no class changes, no inventories, no weapon durability, no accuracy, no critical hits, and most character strengths and weaknesses are condensed into a red, blue, and green damage triangle.  Or fire, water, and grass as I found myself calling it.

For the most part, that describes what combat is.  A fairly straightforward strategy game that allows for quick and small scale battles, and has occasional bouts of variety such as maps where the player must fulfill conditions more complicated than simply defeating 3-6 enemy units.  Such as defeating waves of enemies, surviving through multiple maps, lasting until a set turn, and so forth.  However, what really makes combat so enjoyable are the heroes that the player uses.  Each of which have their own weapon, ability, and skills that, combined their their varying stats does give way to a lot of versatility during gameplay, especially after the character count surpassed 200.

Before going on, I should explain how the player obtains heroes.  While the game does provide the player with a few heroes that are available by default, through quests, or by undergoing special maps, the vast majority of the time heroes are obtained by summoning them.  Summoning heroes costs orbs, a purchasable currency that the players actually rewarded with quite regularly, and are primarily used for this expressed purpose.  When summoning, the player may pick between five options that signify which weapon type a character will be, red, blue, green, or colorless.  The player may spend 20 orbs to collect all 5 of these options for the most economical gain, and the characters they receive will be determined by their rarity.  

Rarity determines a character’s base stats, which skills they can learn, what weapons they can unlock, and so forth.  It is a five star system, but summoning only offers characters with a 3 star rarity or higher.  With 3 star characters mostly being good for fodder (more on that later), and 5 star characters being incredibly useful.  Probability works like so:  In most cases, when summoning a new hero there is a 36% chance of them being a 3 star hero, a 58% chance of them being a 4 star hero, a 3% chance of them being a 5 star hero and a 3% chance of them being a 5 star focus hero.  

Focus heroes are determined by the summoning event the player chooses when they go to summon new heroes.  These heroes often have a unifying trait about them, such as being part of some event, having similar skills, coming from the same game, and so forth.  But where things get… interesting is how the game also features certain limited edition heroes who are only made available as part of summoning focuses.  

This is the part where I feel the free to play element of this game becomes a little exploitative, as it is only giving players a few weeks, if that, to obtain these elusive characters.  They are eventually brought back into the rotation, thankfully, but the odds of obtaining all of them, even in a single summoning focus of 4 characters, are very, very low.  This in turn encourages players to A, save their orbs for only limited edition heroes or B, to pay real money in hopes of obtaining these heroes, which is still really and heavily based on sheer chance.  Considering how the game made over $240 million as of November 2017, a lot of people probably chose option B.

I would be far less perturbed by this if the game did two things differently.  Firstly, have a microtransaction economy that did not seem like a bad deal due to the large number of free orbs the game gives to players.  Basing my estimates off of a fan maintained source, I would say that a fairly typical player would have been able to obtain 2500 free orbs from February 2017 to January 2018, the first year of the game’s life, through regular play and some persistence.  Based on the most generous orb to dollar ratio the game provides, 140 orbs for $75, the title has provided players with over $1,300 in free orbs, or roughly $100 in free orbs a month.  Knowing that, I found it very difficult to justify paying a cent.  

Secondly, I would like to see the game allow players to purchase specific heroes.  Simply having an option for players to buy the character they want would alleviate a lot of the more gambling-esque aspects of this mechanic, and would likely cause a lot more people to become paying players.  Plus, the way Heroes handles player interaction is balanced to avoid a lot of pay to win elements that would potentially come with a change like this.  

Going back to character rarity, while that is determined when a character is initially obtained, all characters may be brought up to a 5 star rarity by using another currency known as feathers, a peculiar currency that the game rewards in a myriad of ways, yet the amounts needed to “increase the potential” of a given character are a bit steep.  3 stars can turn into 4 stars for 2,000 feathers, which is fairly easy to obtain after a point, and turning 4 stars into 5 stars costs 20,000 feathers, which is an absurd amount.  While copious amounts of feathers can be accumulated over time (I’m sitting on roughly 400,000 at the moment), this requirement is daunting, and made me wary of turning more character into 5 star units.

One of the biggest reasons for this is that each character has an Individual Value that determines which stats (attack, defense, resistance, speed, and HP) are increased and which one is decreased.  Much like natures in mainline Pokemon titles, and not at all like the Individual Values in the mainline Pokemon titles.  This can notably alter a character’s viability in some cases, and make them a better or worse investment depending on the characters and their base stats.  I would not have a problem with this except for how the game does not tell me which stats are increased or decreased, and to figure that out, I need to go to a wiki.  But why?  Pokemon has been telling players what natures meant since 2011, but that idea was too much for a 2017 title?

Returning to summoning, there is another issue that I should point out with this game.  The fact that it is so easy to have so many characters, and next to nothing to do with them.  As of writing this, I have over 600 heroes in the game.  Over 150 are fully leveled 4 and 5 star characters, and the rest are split between 3 and 4 star duplicates.  In general, there are three things that may be done with these duplicates.  They could be sent home in exchange for a paltry sum of feathers.  They could be merged with the same heroes to transfer over skills, skill points, and even give them an additional level in some cases.  Or the hero may be sacrificed in order for their skills to be transferred to another hero.  By skills, I mean four things.  The hero’s weapon (if transferable), their assists, their specials, and their collection of slot based skills.  

Assists are abilities that allow characters to interact with each other in combat, and have a variety of functions.  They can can switch HP with allies, move them in a variety of ways, buff up their stats for the turn, or even enable allies to move multiple times during combat.  Specials are cooldown based abilities that most often increase a character’s damage dealt in a given turn, and can turn the tide of combat when used effectively.  While skills are passive effects that fall into three categories, A, B, and C, and bestow a range of useful abilities.  From buffing allies at the start of combat, to weakening nearby enemies, to enabling counterattacks that go first if HP is under a set percentage.

In case it is not already obvious, Skill Inheritance is usually the most economical means of getting rid of unwanted duplicate characters, but it is limited by how only three skills may be transferred before that hero is sacrificed.  For the majority of characters, they only have access to two passive skills and one assist or special by default.  So it is a good idea to sacrifice a character to fill out the slots of another character.  Which actually makes certain characters very valuable, particularly ones with skills like desperation, vantage, swap, and quick riposte, while others are… not so much.

While on the subject of character building, the game has quite a few additional means of improving characters.  Sacred seals function as extra passive skills that may be placed in a single slot.  These can be forged and upgraded by using special coins that, much like feathers are earned through multiple means, though primarily through quests and the arena.  More on that later.  Weapon refining allows for certain characters’ weapons to be further upgraded, gaining stat boosts and additional effects in exchange for a two part currency system, partially earned in the arena and partially earned from quests.  

While character bonds allow for two characters to be paired together so that they will enact a passive bonus on each other if they are in close proximity during combat.  There are also summoner bonds, where one special character of the player’s choosing will be given a series of stat buffs by default.  It is all various endgame character improvement that functions as a more lateral move than the power creep that has come to plague similar games.

Now, I have talked a lot about the game thus far, but I have not really addressed what players do in it.  Well, the simple answer is that they go through the available content while undergoing a series of quests that are updated daily, monthly, or in accordance with the many events of Fire Emblem Heroes.  The main showpiece are the story maps, a collection of over 70 structured maps that interlace the story of Heroes in a mostly linear difficulty curve.  There are also paralogue maps, over 50 of them, which function more as side stories and serve primarily as showcases for certain groups of heroes, most notably the limited edition ones.

Both of these modes offer a good challenge, serve to introduce players to some of the inner workings of the game’s mechanics, and are generally enjoyable.  They come with three difficulties each, with each difficulty cleared awarding players with 1 orb.  There are also chain challenges, where players must go through an entire chapter (either 3 or 5 maps) with only a set number of teams, at varying difficulty levels.  Along with Squad Assault, which tasks players with fighting 5 maps worth of enemies, each with a unique team, and are failed if a single character parishes.

These two modes offer quite a bit of content for what they are, but their challenge always struck me as a bit overbearing.  They require a lot of powerful heroes, a lot of strategy, and also a fair bit of planning.  It is because of this that I have not touched there maps very much, as it is rather frustrating for me to get 80% of the way through a challenge, make an error, and then need to try all over again.  To a lesser extent, this also applies to some of the main story and paralogue maps, which I honestly stopped trying on my own on lunatic difficulty, and instead mimicked someone else’s strategy by watching a video.  Because it is faster, easier, costs less stamina, and does serve as a good learning experience for randomized battles.

Like many games of this nature, Heroes uses a stamina meter to limit play and the number of maps that a player may do.  While this could be an annoying limitation, it really is not.  The maximum stamina capacity is high enough that players can make decent progress in a single play session, while it regenerates fast enough to justify approximately three full play sessions in a given day.  I always felt that I could get a lot done whenever I sat down to play it, and in most cases, I was able to.  A full stamina meter is enough to clear at least ten regular maps, and enough to make quite a lot of progress when grinding up heroes.  

Most of the training is done in two places, the aptly named training tower, where the player may go through randomly generated maps, and the aforementioned chain challenge maps, though that is mostly due to an exploit.  You see, after clearing set maps with predetermined enemies and the like, characters receive less experience and skill points when replaying these maps.  However, if the player surrenders part way through a chain challenge, then they will retain the SP and EXP they earned in the completed maps while not technically clearing the chain challenge itself, thereby allowing the map to be used repeatedly at the regular EXP and SP rates.  

Combined with the double SP event held each Friday and Saturday, the fact that the first few normal difficulty chain challenge maps are easy due to the weak units featured in them, and how their level 35 characters make them ideal for topping off characters to level 40, the chain challenge maps become an invaluable source of grinding that is far more preferable than the diminishing returns of the training tower.  

Going back to that, in the training tower the player is told what unit types will be available in said map.  When the game launched, this marked a notable issue as players were stuck with what the training tower generated until the player tried another map.  However, now players can refresh maps indefinitely in order to get a more preferable group of units to grind off of.  It is actually made as simple as it could be and is a great way to streamline the process, which itself can be further distilled into a very repeatable formula.  

When wanting to level up one specific unit, the best approach in my experience is to comprise a team of that character along with two singers or dancers, incredibly useful heroes with an ability that enable other heroes to move multiple times in a turn, and one healer with the physics assist, a long-range healing ability.  By using this team composition, rotating the training tower maps to fit the character I was training, and by using the chain challenge trick I just mentioned, I was able to bring characters from level 1 to 40 within less than a day, and with relative ease.  

By implementing processes such as this, I was able to get through the available content in Heroes after a few months of regular play.  I was able to complete all of the story and paralogue maps available to me, and level up a wide variety of unique and powerful heroes to tackle any greater challenges.  However, doing this did have the consequence of me effectively becoming done with Heroes for long stretches of time.  The game does still try and give players things to do via an assortment of daily, monthly, and event oriented quests, but aside from doing the simple daily quests, not a lot warranted my playtime.  I would log in, do my dailies at the Arena, and then put the game away.

The Arena is the closest thing to a PVP mode there is in Fire Emblem Heroes, a gauntlet where players are encouraged to put their best characters forward in order to defeat other teams of similar strength, in accordance to a selected difficulty level.  These battles are surprisingly well balanced and require a good deal of strategy to complete.  They are weekly events that bear a fair amount of rewards, and serve as multi-battle endurance rounds where players are encouraged to get the highest score possible by clearing 7 battles consecutively on higher difficulties and without casualties in order to advance to higher ranks for even greater rewards.  

In addition to this, there is the Arena Assault, a series of up to seven battles where the player must fight against other player created teams using a new team for every map.  A fine concept, but it not only asks the player to go through three battles a day for the sake of quest rewards, but it also tasks the player with going through seven consecutive battles every week, which became more than a little tedious after a while.  This is especially annoying considering how difficult it can be to get a worthwhile reward in Arena Assault.  In the Arena, players get orbs and feathers.  In Arena Assault, players get materials used for weapon refining and sacred seals, and not very many of them.

That not being quite enough, Fire Emblem Heroes also features three types of events that are held periodically.  Special Maps are limited run challenges for players to tackle themed around any number of things.  Grand Hero Battles introduce and allow players to obtain a new, previously unattainable hero.  Bound Hero battles are challenge maps centered around two specific heroes.  And a series of other somewhat gimmicky maps, such as the 5 maps themed around Fire Emblem Warriors, that offer a somewhat novel experience that sometimes come with their own quests, and a series of rewards to obtain by clearing them.

The Voting Gauntlet is easily the most demanding aspect of this game, a mode that does not use any stamina and instead asks the player to go through a randomized map once every 30 minutes, themed around accumulating more points for a three-part bracket based battle of popularity.  At least in theory.  This mode has a remarkable problem where points are inflated by whichever team is losing, a mechanic that turns these voting battles into a tug of war where nobody may get the upper hand for more than a few hours, and the winner feels like they are determined by a coin flip.  This event is also the most demanding with regards to quests and player activity, which easily makes it my least favorite.  It lasts six days, and players are encouraged to drop everything else to focus on the event during that stretch of time.

Tempest Trials are 3-7 round endurance tests that have players fight against a semi-randomized series of units, trying to move quickly and avoid damage in order to get points that offer a gluttony of rewards, including a new hero.  They are enjoyable albeit very repetitive challenges that thankfully only really need to be played a few times a day in order to reap most of the rewards.  My only gripes with them are how they can grow repetitive to play through several times a day for two weeks straight, and how it gives additional points, which are used to unlock rewards, based on whether or not the player fought using special characters, who frequently consist of the most recently introduced characters, which I just find discouraging from the perspective of an Free to Play player. 

That about covers the mechanics of Fire Emblem Heroes, and my ultimate takeaway from seeing their evolution and refinement over the years is that it is pretty darn enjoyable for what it is.  While the game can seem a bit overly complicated with its deluge of mechanics, none of them are overly complicated and they actually serve to give the game some depth.  After seeing the improvements made over the years, most of my original issues with the game have been resolved, and the ones that remain are all fairly minor.  From the ones I already brought up about the design of certain challenges to aspects that I think can be more fairly monetized.  

There are also hang ups that I have with the interface above all else.  While some improvements to the game have been made over the year, there are a lot of minor things that I wish the game could do to make the process of organization more streamlined.  Simple things such as having the learn skill and equip skill menus be consolidated into one.  Making it easier to unequip seals from characters.  Providing more detailed calculations for damage and the like when considering specials, the incredibly poorly explained defensive terrain mechanic, and so forth.  But number one on my list, written in gold, would be to allow players to put their heroes in folders.  Because my goodness can it be annoying to navigate through 600 character just to find the one I want.  There do exist extensive sorting options, but the issue here is managing quantity.

Interface issues aside, Heroes is a rather appealing game visually.  The maps are well drawn backdrops that clearly portray terrain information.  The chibi sprites that represent the character in battle are surprisingly detailed for what they are, with every detail of a weapon or a character’s design being represented.  The character artwork is well illustrated by the various artists who work on this title.  While the interface manages to look nice for what it is, and I certainly never got tired of looking at it.

One of the elements I have not really brought up thus far is the level of fanservice present in Fire Emblem Heroes.  No, not the scantily clad waifu variants of certain characters, though that is present, I mean fanservice in regards to appealing to fans of this storied series.   It brings in minor characters who were introduced decades ago, with lovingly detailed redesigns when applicable, fully voiced battle lines in both Japanese and English, giving many of these characters a voice for the first time ever.  

Each character also has a unique speech they give to the player upon reaching level 40 as a 5 star unit.  I am only a casual fan of the series, but this level of detail and attention made me genuinely curious to find out more about these characters and the series, all while feeling like a very genuine and loving tribute to the games that preceded it.  Nintendo of America actually put a lot of work into making sure these characters seemed authentic, and I would certainly say that it paid off.

Another element I really do want to draw attention to is how the game has been updated over the year.  Since its launch, Fire Emblem Heroes has had a steady stream of newly added content with new heroes, regularly held events, new story and paralogue chapters, and major updates that launch every month, introducing new novel mechanics and improving quality of life aspects of the game.  I feel like the developers really care about making the best mobile game they can, and will continue to iterate and improve upon it for years to come.  At least until the game inevitably shuts down, because it is dependent on a central server, updated content, and regular maintenance.

As I have spent about 4,000 words explaining, Fire Emblem Heroes is a rather complicated mobile game when breaking things down, yet the core of the experience, mechanical depth, and regular additions made to the game amount to a title that I have played on a nearly daily basis for over a year, and intend on continuing to do so. It is a compelling little strategy RPG with enjoyable gameplay loop that is very much built around the mobile platform, but in a way that keeps the game fast and straightforward, simplified for the sake of casual enjoyability and more instant gratification, and manageable due to the smaller play sessions.  There are minor gripes about the game that have hung with me for quite a while, but what’s there is certainly one of the better gacha driven mobile games and with the developers seeming ready to respond to feedback, I think the future is quite bright for this title.  

However, I don’t really want to see that future.  While I have enjoyed my time with Fire Emblem Heroes, the act of playing it on a daily basis, of going through every event it threw my way, and of grinding away at its well done and admittedly generous gacha formula have all taken a major toll on me.  Because of this, I am going to try and stop playing Fire Emblem Heroes once the current series of events die down, as I know I can be a very obsessive person, and feel that I should stop dedicating so much of my time to this game.  This has already become one of my most played games of all time, and served as the basis for one of my longest reviews ever, but after a year of this, I’m done.  Not only with Fire Emblem Heroes, but likely all service of lifestyle games.

Okay, it took me an extra month before I actually quit, but now I’m done.

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