“Oh, Fire Emblem…in my pocket…”
The third title in less than a year out Nintendo’s new mobile initiative is Fire Emblem Heroes, an attempt to introduce the niche strategy RPG to a wide audience. As opposed to the aforementioned previous efforts, Heroes does manage to capture the genuine feeling of the Fire Emblem franchise instead of adapting it. Unfortunately, whether that will actually win over mass audiences remains to be scene.
Fire Emblem Heroes does posses an actual premise, however thin. You, as the player, are considered a character who is pulled into the world of Heroes and given the ability to summon characters from previous Fire Emblem games to join you and form a fighting unit. Players join the Askran Kingdom to fight the opposing Emblian Empire. The Askrans can open portals to other worlds, but the Emblians are the only ones that can close them because reasons, and they are currently refusing to do so, instead conquering the worlds and building their own fighting force. As a “summoner,” players call upon other characters to fight back and free each world. As for a plot, that’s basically it. There is some indication that there may be more going on with the Askran leader Alfonse, but it isn’t made a priority.
As you can imagine, it is the titular heroes that form the hook of the game. Each hero is its own unit that ascribes to the well-work Fire Emblem battle system. Without getting too into how this works: it’s a rock-paper-scissors system based on what type of arm held. Some units instead wield magic that has it’s own check and balance system or have ranged items with no counter assignment, but have to attack from a distance. This is exactly how it works on console Fire Emblem games, and a convenient reminder of how combat breakdowns sit at the bottom of the screen. Tapping that icon gives calculations on how your group matches up. Stats and levels then come into play to calculate damage, resistance, and how far one can move on the map.
Put simply, the measured gameplay of Fire Emblem ports perfectly to mobile. Moving each unit with a finger drag is easy and intuitive, and while there is a lot of information to take in, it is carefully laid out at the top and bottom of the screen. Some tweaks were necessary, though. Both weapon lifespan and permadeath are gone in Heroes, and rightfully so. Weapons are basically ascribed to heroes specifically, and having to manage a large convoy clashes with the streamlined gameplay. Also, while purists will always attest that permadeath is how Fire Emblem is “supposed” to be be played; having units die in this game wouldn’t work, since the core of the game’s microtransactions lies in obtaining new heroes.
Which brings us to the first big sticking point of Fire Emblem Heroes. To summon new characters to your side, you must use Orbs. Orbs can be obtained one at a time by clearing a story mode map or purchased in various bunches for real cash. To the game’s credit, that’s all that there is-money and the item you’re paying for, not some imaginary currency meant to create a feedback loop but accomplish nothing. That doesn’t mean everything is great in microtransaction land. I’ve been critical of the implementation in other games before, and here is no different. Let me explain how the summoning of a character works to illustrate:
In order to begin a summoning, you must pay five orbs. Handing them over takes you to a menu designed like the actual Fire Emblem, complete with five gems. These can be red, green, blue (corresponding to the weapon triangle), or colorless for the units existing outside those roles. You don’t get to pick which colors appear, but you do get to pick what color to summon, and a random character is called. This character will rank anywhere from a bronze 3-star rating to a gold 5-star rating. Gold ratings appear to be reserved for very special characters, at least for now. If you have the orbs, you can pick another color to summon, but it will cost at least four orbs. The number does go down if you chain colors, but again, you can’t actually choose what colors appear.
Basically, every step of this process is randomized. The method is called “gatcha” and, admittedly, is similar to opening a card pack or blind box-that is to say it can be exciting. The moment can pass if you hit a repeat character, a 3-star, or even just a character you didn’t want. That’s all after you actually get a color you want to begin with. Plus, to get enough orbs for even a single summon, you’ll have to play over one whole chapter of the story. Another chapter and change will have to be played before you’ll be able to afford the second. Or, of course, you could pay money. Oh, and gameplay itself is limited by a stamina meter. While I didn’t run into too much of a problem in my time so far, since I played in decently long, but not extensive, bursts, the reality is a wall will eventually be hit and you will have to wait.
That extends into the other game modes as well, which is a shame because there is a lot to do. A training mode gives maps to raise the level of recently obtained characters strategically, and special challenge maps get distributed every few hours that can automatically recruit a character upon completion, but these both take stamina. You can also challenge other players teams on, which are taken on by AI. These battles cost “swords,” of which you only get three before a timeout. For what it is worth, while the gatcha can be irritating, 3-star characters work perfectly well when used in tandem with the provided characters, and their ranking can be raised. Story levels do not increase in stamina consumption, though as a result the yield of orbs does not increase either. This constant balance of pros and cons is what makes giving this game a thumbs up difficult.
I’m not quite sure what Nintendo’s strategy is here. They just released a $9.99 mobile game in Super Mario Run, which was fairly successful for launching on a single platform. Heroes feels like the complete opposite: free to play, with a microtransaction system so baked in, it seeps into the game’s backbone. While it seems like Nintendo is trying to court the best of both worlds by introducing Fire Emblem to a new audience and attempting to draw them to a full console game (in case you were wondering why three games in the franchise are all of a sudden in production) while making money off of dedicated fans. Except that financial backbone likely would rather play a core console title and many of the obtainable heroes are not recognizable for casual audiences or even players like me, who only really got interested thanks to the changes made by Fire Emblem Awakening. I feel that if the game had more original characters to the story, and saved the heroes as a completely optional function, things would jive a bit more.
In spite of all of that, I still really like Fire Emblem Heroes. The gameplay actually works, and has a significant level of polish. This is kind of good looking and feeling game you get when craftsmen are allowed to make mobile games, with adorable solid line sprites and full voice acting and special art (notably, the artist and voice actors are listed in the status information and downloading screens), and again everything feels snappy. The short bursts of combat are satisfying for the most part and the streamlining is especially welcome when doing some grinding.
Perhaps that’s Nintendo’s real gambit here: to see if they could make a reliably fun mobile title that managed to get me to look over the shortcomings and maybe even kick back a few bucks. I’m unconvinced this game does that. However, for a free-to-play title that is at least upfront about the penny pinching you really can’t get better than this right now.
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Format: iOS, Android (Reviewed)
Released: February 2nd, 2017
Game is Free-To-Play. Some in-game purchases made by reviewer.