I Need a Hero
When Nintendo first announced their partnership with mobile developer DeNA, Fire Emblem was one of the series that immediately jumped to mind as a fit for iOS and Android devices. Cue Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo’s third foray into the mobile market and a bite-sized version of the hardcore strategy-RPG series. Wrapped in a shell of free-to-play (F2P), Gacha-style mechanics based on the franchise’s likeable cast of warriors, Nintendo has succeeded in creating an entertaining game that is true to the spirit of Fire Emblem while being accessible for franchise rookies.
Fire Emblem is unquestionably a hardcore franchise, which makes Nintendo’s effort to adapt its mechanics and systems to the casual mobile audience admirable, if not unexpected. Heroes translates most of what fans love about the series in fantastic fashion. Fire Emblem”s grand, nuanced maps and large armies have been scaled down to fit a smartphone screen without the need for scrolling and gives commanders four units to control. This arrangement may seem overly simple to veterans, but the difficulty ramps up in a satisfying curve that requires strategic thinking with almost every move. With only four units on a battlefield, losing just one is devastating for the chances of success. The smaller battles lend to a system that feels fair and tactical, with each character’s move and positioning feeling vital to the ultimate goal.
Battles are given their complexity due to Fire Emblem’s classic Weapon Triangle, a rock-paper-scissors system that gives units advantages and disadvantages based on the weapon that they use. Rather than using the traditional Swords>Axes>Lances>Swords terminology, Heroes simplifies the system to Red, Green and Blue labels that are synonymous with Swords, Axes and Lances, respectively. While core titles also have a magic triangle, the colored system is neatly applied to this as well. The triangle adds more complexity than its description would make it appear, as the advantages of certain colors over others is great, forcing players to vary their armies to accommodate.
The system is not perfect, however, as there are more unit complexities than the colors would have players believe. There are distinct differences between mounted, armored and infantry units that give them specific benefits in battle over other types, and it is possible to lose matchups simply because you didn’t have as much of an advantage as you initially thought. There are also grey units, which are associated with archers, thieves and clerics, and give additional complexity to player and enemy army composition. This is part of the learning curve of the game, and while satisfying once players wrap their brains around the mechanics, could have been explained in a way that was a better fit for the casual audience.
Battles take place across a nine stage campaign that features battles against heroes from specific Fire Emblem worlds. For example, one stage has players fighting against the characters of Awakening, while another pits them against the Birthright cast. Each stage contains five levels as well as three difficulty modes for continued play. While the story is thin and mostly useless, the campaign is a surprisingly meaty endeavor that promises plenty of content for dedicated players. In addition, special stages are available each day that provide awards, such as new characters, giving players plenty of reason to login each day. The amount of content available to players is easily one of the game’s strongest attributes.
Fire Emblem Heroes’ strategic combat is given life by the diverse cast of characters that the series has cultivated over its 27 year history. Charming personalities and meaningful relationships forged on the battlefield have been series staples since the beginning, and Heroes does a great job of incorporating this large cast into its core experience. A plot contrivance allows for heroes from the variety of Fire Emblem kingdoms to come together in the player’s army, and the successful composition of an army is key to success in battle. The four available slots can be filled with favorites such as Chrom, Lyn, Roy and Takumi, and each character has their own available weapons and skills that give them unique properties, even if they are both red infantry. These skills give additional strategic layers to the gameplay, such as support bonuses that increase attack or give buffs to characters in adjacent spaces. These elements give depth to team configuration, as it is important for players to pick a team that will give a high chance of success on a particular level. The army composition of the enemy can be seen when selecting a level, so it is possible to plan in advance for the threats ahead.
The characters, known in game as heroes, are where the F2P, Gacha aspects of Fire Emblem Heroes are inserted, and as far as these mechanics are concerned, are implemented with relative success. Heroes can be summoned using orbs, the premium currency, on a board that looks similar to the titular Fire Emblem that appears in several entries. When a player chooses to summon, five colored gems appear that correspond to the four unit types. One gem is then chosen, resulting in a hero of that color in a rarity of either 3-5 stars. Players can then choose to continue summoning from the same board at a reduced cost or back out and receive a fresh assortment of choices. The asking price for heroes is fair, and orbs can be easily earned through campaign missions on three levels of difficulty, providing F2P players an avenue to summon while providing plenty of incentive to spend and expand your army more quickly. Characters are also available from special levels, giving all players opportunities to earn characters without spending orbs or real money.
Like any Gacha system, there are quirks that prevent it from being as fair as possible. The drop rates of 5-star characters are expectedly high, but it could be a little more lenient when giving players access to powerful characters. There is a pity timer that will give players a 5 star after a specific amount of summons without one, but they are still a little bit too rare, especially considering higher level content makes them essential. And while costs are perfectly reasonable, it is a shame that there isn’t any kind of guarantee when summoning. The game encourages players to summon a full board’s worth of characters at a time (which costs 20 orbs, essentially giving an extra character for free), but it is possible to receive five 3-star characters all at once, which is a downer if a player has been saving. A simple change of a guaranteed 4-star or higher per board would solve the issue and give players an added incentive to grind, then spend.
The characters themselves are another problem, as a character’s stats are rolled randomly upon summoning. This means that I could receive a 5-star Robin, but its stats could be worse than an identical character in my friend’s army. This doesn’t matter until the game’s multiplayer Arena mode, but makes a huge difference at high-level play. Having characters be identical would help me sleep better at night about my rolls, and force high-level play to be about strategy first and foremost.
These problems compound when dealing with the other systems that the game puts in place. Characters can be leveled up in the training tower, a fun way to level up new characters that is always rewarding. I have spent much more time in the tower than in the campaign, as it is incredibly satisfying to level up and promote characters to higher rarities. The momentum gained when power-leveling a character is lost whenever it is actually time to promote, as the game asks for a ridiculous amount of a currency called feathers to strengthen heroes. The feathers are tough to grind for and don’t properly reward time spent, lessening the incentive to grind for levels, which is a shame.
Stamina, the gauge that allows levels to be attempted, is another area that Fire Emblem Heroes is much too stingy. Campaign levels start with low costs but quickly become quite expensive to attempt, which takes away from the strategic elements of the game. While enemy troop composition is visible at a basic level, sometimes the selection of a particular unit can be the difference between victory and defeat. If the wrong choice is made, it can result in the loss of the valuable stamina and prevent players from trying new things or picking units for the express purpose of added difficulty. And the brilliant training tower, which owes a lot of fun to its low stamina cost, allowing continued play, currently has its stamina cost halved for launch. When this goes back to normal levels, this aspect of the game will take a serious hit. Nintendo should seriously look into decreasing stamina costs across the board.
While these problems are very real in the game’s current state, Nintendo’s post launch support and generosity provides hope that the issues will be resolved. Long-term support is essential to any F2P mobile game, and there are no signs that Fire Emblem Heroes will be lacking in this area. Players have already received plenty of free in-game currencies, and enormous bonuses can be unlocked by linking a My Nintendo account. While the return of friend codes is troubling after their absence from Super Mario Run and Miitomo, they do little to take away from the support that has been given to players already, which bodes well for the game’s future prospects.
While many critics have taken issue with Fire Emblem Heroes’ missing features, such as permadeath and character relationships, I personally have no issues with their omission. In a game where players are spending valuable currency or real money on characters, it would be cruel to have characters die and disappear. As for relationships, while missed, they are impractical in the game due to constantly shifting army compositions. The Fire Emblem elements that are included in Heroes work well together for the casual audience, and there are plenty of titles available on other platforms that include these features if fans desire a more core experience.
The Verdict: 7.5 out of 10
Fire Emblem Heroes is another great addition to Nintendo’s growing stable of mobile games. The company somehow fit the complex, strategic gameplay of Fire Emblem onto smartphones, and the result is an engaging game featuring enough content for long-lasting entertainment. While there are some currency issues, the Gacha-inspired system is more than fair, and the thrill of finally receiving a powerful hero is worth the pains of summoning frontline fodder. Nintendo’s mobile strategy is a sound one, as its games so far have been streamlined versions of popular series designed to get casual players in the door, but wanting more. If Heroes can successfully migrate players to more traditional Fire Emblem experiences, it may be telling of how the company plans to structure its business moving forward. For now, Fire Emblem Heroes is a perfect fit for the strategist in all of us that ensnares fans and novices alike in the series enthralling gameplay loop.
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Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who played through Fire Emblem Awakening on Lunatic difficulty. The experience took at least 5 years off of his life. If you would like to follow his nonexistent ramblings, you can follow him on twitter.
(Published February 11, 2017 at Middle of Nowhere Gaming)