Fire Emblem Heroes Review
System: IOS, Android
The story of Fire Emblem’s history is an interesting one. A Japanese series focused on strategic role-playing, the franchise never found its way stateside until the rest of the world was introduced to the likes of Marth and Roy in the hit Gamecube game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. After releasing a few mainline entries that never became more than cult hits with a select few over in the Americas, Fire Emblem became all but a forgotten franchise. Then 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening on the 3DS happened, and those who were not privy to the series storied roots were treated, alongside diehard fans, to not only one of the best games in series, one of the best games that year (and one of my favorite of all time). Fast-forward 4 years and this once forgotten franchise is now on the top of Nintendo’s IP food chain. After the tepid release of the somewhat controversial Super Mario Run, Nintendo has decided to release Fire Emblem Heroes, as Free-to-Play. With a simplified take on the classic strategy gameplay, the game is a solid foundation of what makes Nintendo’s flagship franchise a fan favorite, but its pay model might be what keeps it away from being a true classic.
Fire Emblem Heroes takes the classic strategy gameplay of the series forebears and truncates it for ease of use on the go. Instead of the sprawling maps littered with dozens of units that we are used to from the series’ mainline entries; mobile users are treated to only up to 4 Chibi-style units on a 6×8 grid-based map on which to conduct battle with. Your objective is simple; eliminate all of the enemies’ units before they do the same to you. While series veterans might lament the lack of variety in mission structure, overall it is a welcome change of pace, especially for the mobile platform, as battles usually last no more than a few minutes compared to the sometimes hour-long skirmishes found in games like Awakening. It makes it perfect for short bursts throughout the day – though it’s a shame you must be connected online at all times.
The game takes the series staple rock-paper-scissors approach to combat and distills it to its simplest form. Gone are hit rates, pair attacks, and terrain effects we’ve come accustomed to from mainline titles. While it’s disappointing not see these elements come into play, the decision to simplify the meta-game of these battle’s works well for what they are going for – Red beats Green beats Blue beats Red and this attack triangle is all you need to know. That’s not to say there isn’t any strategy at all.
Team composition for one is key and before every battle, you can see just which units you will be facing on the opposing side. This is a smart feature as you can plan your attack accordingly. Do I take 3 Swordsman in my party knowing the enemy has multiple Spearman and a Blue Mage? The choice is all yours and the game gives you the option of setting up multiple teams at once to select from, streamlining the process. I only wish you could place your units on the field before each battle as the computer has a habit of putting them next to enemies they are weak to.
The other element that adds some much appreciated depth is the Skill system. As units level up they get skill points (SP) which can be used to purchase all sorts of abilities that range from offensive buffs for teammates, to passive stat bonuses, to all out special attacks. Equipping these brings a new element to a standard encounter as they can really turn the tide in some of the tougher fights and are just as imperative to your success as base level stats are.
How you forge your team is reliant on the game’s biggest selling point – in more ways than one. Using orbs, which are collected through missions, login bonuses, or straight up cash, you can summon classic Fire Emblem characters from series’ history. Each character is beautifully rendered by one of many Japanese artists, which really show off the love, care and high production values that Nintendo are known for – they are even all voiced by different actors, which is a nice touch as well.
They are come in star-graded variants – from 3 being most common to 5 star having the slimmest chance of success. Spending 5 orbs nets you a spin from a selection of 5 randomly color-coded stones and the ability to choose between them, you can decide to select additional units from this bunch after at a reduced cost, which is nice as well. The random element can be a double-edged sword as its always exciting to pull our favorite character, but even the more devastating to pull a 3 star version of said favorite or even a duplicate.
You can level each character up by having them battle or by feeding them shards and crystals, which you can earn in the Training Tower, from mission bonuses or by purchasing them. Since experience comes at a decent pace through battle – especially if you decide to use orbs to upgrade your castle early on for the EXP bonus – training missions are a great way to grind your unit up to a higher level and grind you shall, especially if you want to complete end game story missions. It’s always addictive getting a unit or two you like and slowly upgrading them to beast levels. It’s just disappointing to see how the game treats it method of upgrading units to new star levels.
Once your unit hits level 20, it is able to unlock its potential and become a higher tier/star level. To level up a unit to the next star level costs two types of currency, badges and feathers. Badges are received from the Training Tower, while obtaining feathers comes through the Duel Arena – consisting of skirmishes featuring other players AI controlled units. In theory this doesn’t sound like a problem, until you look at the requirements of each of these currencies and how easy it is to obtain them. Gaining badges comes pretty naturally, but to get the most feathers requires you to gain points by winning 7 consecutive battles. Not only is it challenging due to the fact you will most certainly have to choose the higher difficulty levels to chain together more points, but the maximum point allotment for the week nets you only 1,600 feathers. This might seem like a decent amount as jumping from a 3 star to a 4 star unit costs 2,000 feathers, but if you want to jump from a 4 star to a 5 star, your looking at a whopping 20,000 feathers – or more than 3 months of perfect execution in Arena Duels, which also have their own recharge meter. While you can also obtain feathers by adding your Duel Arena opponents through friend invite or Nintendo’s promotional events, they either net too few feathers or come around far too little. At the end of the day, the means don’t justify the ends.
What’s worse is when you upgrade to the next star level; your unit’s stats go back to level 1. This incredibly frustrating, especially if you’ve spent hours leveling up some good 4 star units that you can’t bring to the next star level due to the ridiculous promotion requirements only to have the required amount down the road – at which they are probably already at max level. It begs the question, why should anyone bother leveling up anything that’s not a 5 star unit beyond level 20?
This fits right into the most troublesome part about Fire Emblem Heroes: the way it handles its economy. While not as in your face at the beginning, the more you play its small offering of gameplay modes, the more you can see the bright lights at the end of the tunnel – the lights being the caves filled with the real world dollars it’ll take to keep playing.
This is first and foremost a classic Free-to-Play Gacha-Style game with all the same trimmings as similar titles such as Final Fantasy Brave Exvius and Kingdom Hearts Unchained Chi. Unlike those games, Fire Emblem has more legs in the depth department when it comes to gameplay, but unlike those titles, forking over dough to play becomes more and more a reality earlier on. Law of Diminishing Returns rears its ugly head all too soon as the amount Stamina required to participate in any mission, increases rapidly. During the launch period, Nintendo has halved the cost of Stamina for training missions and waived the cost to unlock and equip skills, but when this is done it’ll will take an even bigger hit on those who want to keep playing. This is all a very obvious ploy for Nintendo to charge you for stamina potions to keep playing as most Free-to-Play joints usually do, but the prices that they are charging for orbs (which are used to purchase items) are borderline ridiculous (again the Nintendo tax). This becomes hard to swallow when later missions are taking a quarter of your stamina – capped at 50 – and become sheer frustrating when you come out on the losing side of battle, forfeiting any experience or reward. The missions I’m currently at are costing me 20 stamina a pop at this point, so after 2 rounds it’s either wait the 4 hours to recharge a full meter or pay the cost to keep playing.
While the gameplay loop can be addictive enough to tempt you to empty out the coffers, the lack of actual content at launch leaves much to be desired. Along with the aforementioned Arena Duels and Training Towers, most of your time with be spent in Story Mode. Here we get the beginning chapters in what seems to be a mostly forgettable tale, featuring the warring nations of Askr and Emblia. It will be interesting to see if the story goes in any sort of compelling direction, but with only 9 chapters – made up of 5 stages a piece – at launch, there isn’t a whole lot of game to be had here, unless you are planning on running through the increased difficulties which, of course, come with increased Stamina costs. Unless Nintendo is going to extend its early adopter bonuses in the form of extra orbs stamina potions and duel swords, if you are planning on playing this game for the foreseeable future, just be forewarned you are going to be spending real world money very quickly and until they release a steady stream of new content, I don’t know it will be worth the cost in the long run.
3.25 out of 5
I’ve played Fire Emblem Heroes for 2 weeks now and have beat the story, cultivated a team of some of my favorite characters (including a few 5 star units) and have seen almost everything there is to see without spending a dime. At the same time, there is less and less a reason to go back without any new content and the means to keep playing at a reasonable pace without forking out a ransom. Nintendo has a solid foundation with Fire Emblem Heroes, but its future success depends on how much and how consistently it can support this platform. I’ve enjoyed my time with the game, and if you are a fan of the series or enjoy Gacha-style mobile games, you will find a lot to like, from the beautifully designed character art, to the classic music themes, to finally having a Fire Emblem you can take on the go, but it comes with it share of caveats. If you don’t mind treating this game as a Casino, then Nintendo’s newest attraction might just bring you in. Just remember like any Casino, the house always wins.