I don’t play mobile or free to play games. As a general rule I find the presence of microtransactions and immersion hampering time restrictions to be nuisances I’d rather not deal with. It’s not that I have anything against the mobile games marketplace, there just hasn’t been a game in that scene that has spoken to me. That’s changed with Fire Emblem: Heroes, the third Nintendo property to come to Android and IOS devices. With this game, Nintendo and series developer Intelligent Systems faced the difficulty of condensing the complexity of their strategy RPG into a small, mobile-friendly version. It’s a task I was mostly expecting them to fail at. Yet after spending just a little time with Fire Emblem Heroes it’s clear that even though this is Fire Emblem “light,” it is still Fire Emblem. And that is excellent.
Intuitive at a Touch
Perhaps the most striking thing about loading up Fire Emblem Heroes for the first time is how much it feels like Fire Emblem. Everything from the art, to the tutorial levels, to the story makes it feel like a core entry in the series. If you handed me a 3DS with this game running on it I would have a hard time distinguishing it from its predecessors. The UI and menus are simple to get a handle for and navigate, and it is just as natural to drag characters into place on the mobile touch screen as on the 3DS’ directional pad. Not only that but the production value is through the roof. Character art is beautiful, battle animations are excellent, and the addition of specific voice lines for each individual hero is just a massive cherry on top.
The complexity of Intelligent Systems’ Strategy RPG is also presented in a manner that manages to feel accessible and fresh rather than “dumbed down.” For example, the “weapon triangle,” Fire Emblem’s answer to “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” receives an update, simplifying the different weapon types into colors associated with characters. Red is strong against green which is strong against blue which is strong against red. While simplified, the core idea of each character type having their place in the battlefield remains intact and feels just as smooth and intuitive.
Fire Emblem to the Core
One of the joys of Fire Emblem’s mainline games is the feeling of commanding an army of cool and powerful characters in epic battles. While the scale of Heroes is confined to a relatively small 8X6 grid and you’re limited to using a maximum of four characters at a time, the battlefield manages to feel just as alive. From enemy weapon types to character stats, all the right information is available to you at the touch of the screen. Classic features like being able to check individual enemy stats and abilities as well as the “danger area” which displays all the spaces on the map where you will be vulnerable to attack make strategizing moves and planning ahead a fluid process.
And strategizing is just what you’ll need to do. Despite the relative ease of Heroes’ first few levels, combat in the later stages of the campaign requires an awareness of character traits that go beyond the simplified weapon triangle. The strengths and weaknesses of each unit and weapon type are faithfully recreated for this mobile version. Archer units decimate flying characters. Knights have high defense stats but low resistance which makes them susceptible to magic attacks. An enemy hero’s skill may do a crushing area of effect burst, even to allies who didn’t take part in the combat. There’s a lot to consider, but battles that seem impossible at first due to the high level of your foes can actually be overcome by using map features like walls, forests, and mountains to your advantage. Fire Emblem Heroes crams a lot of strategy and thinking into its small grid, and that’s just how a Fire Emblem game should be.
Of course, as a free to play mobile game the combat is not the only system present in the game. Fire Emblem Heroes’ most prominent feature is the massive cast of about 100 characters you can cull your teams of four from, ranging from the series’ original entry to the GBA classic to the new 3DS games. The catch is that you don’t simply get to select these heroes, but rather spend 5 Orbs to “summon” one random hero (or 20 Orbs for 5 heroes) which are then rated on a 5-star ranking system. There is an inherent frustration in this “gacha” system however. While it feels amazing to summon your favorite character, it also hurts a lot when you summon five low-rank or unknown heroes. That pain is exacerbated by the difficulty in acquiring orbs that occurs later in the game.
This is in part due to the game’s “stamina” system. Every time you load a map in Fire Emblem Heroes it drains a bar of “stamina” that maxes out at 50. When you run out of stamina you can’t load any more maps until it has recharged. This isn’t a problem to start as the first levels cost between 1 and 3 stamina each, and since you’re constantly refilling stamina at a rate of 1 unit every five minutes, it’s pretty easy to play the game for long stretches. The problem comes later in the game when maps start to cost upwards of 10 stamina and it becomes harder and harder to load maps.
I get that free-to-play games are not supposed to make it easy for you to play for free. I understand that I can’t expect to play this game without running into some sort of paywall. But paying 13 dollars (the cost for 20 orbs) for a random chance to discover a good character just feels ridiculous. Not only that, but the ability to upgrade the star ranking of heroes is also incredibly difficult, requiring massive amounts of items that are almost impossible to access even if stamina did not stop you from playing the game. I would purchase the ability to upgrade my 4-star Eliwood but there isn’t even an option for this. This is a game I want to spend money on but the randomness of the outcomes and the lack of choice to purchase anything other than a chance to spin this wheel of chance leaves me feeling like I simply cannot justify it. This compares unfavorably with Pokemon Go for example, which featured in-app purchases that directly served to improve the player’s enjoyment of the game in ways that could be concretely understood and accounted for. Your purchasing power in Fire Emblem Heroes is basically random. And that doesn’t feel good.
In the sheer sense of design, Fire Emblem Heroes is the best game Nintendo has made for mobile so far. It manages to strike a balance between accessibility for new players and depth for series veterans. Not only that but Nintendo has confirmed that they will support the game post-launch with new story chapters added bi-monthly and additional heroes coming later. It has an immense cast of characters coupled with fantastic production design. It is difficult, tactical, and satisfying. There are some mechanics at play that have hampered my experience, but that could be chalked up to my preference for playing games for long periods of time. At a certain point deep into the game I’ve had to ask myself why I’m playing it. With all the time and effort it’s going to take to rank up a single character or discover the heroes I want, what is my playtime actually angling toward? Then I remember how fun the battle system is and that I downloaded it for free, and I find myself picking up my phone, loading a map, and getting swept away in the game’s deep strategy.