Fire Emblem Heroes comes at an interesting point in the once niche Strategy RPG series’s life. Awakening and Fates, the two most recent core entries in the franchise, launched Fire Emblem to new critical and commercial heights. Intelligent Systems is attempting to keep their momentum rolling with Fire Emblem Heroes, a game that aims to introduce the franchise to new players while providing fan-service to series veterans. Heroes has what it takes to reach those goals, although some poor design choices and missed opportunities hold it back slightly.
Most importantly, however, Heroes marks Nintendo’s first truly great entry in the mobile space.
Game Name: Fire Emblem Heroes
Platform(s): iOS/Android Publisher(s): Nintendo Developer(s): Intelligent Systems Release Date: 2/2/2017
Price: Free to Play
Fire Emblem Heroes is Nintendo’s third voyage into the mobile market, and is easily the gaming giant’s best entry yet. The game revolves around summoning popular heroes from the Fire Emblem franchise and using them to defeat enemy armies on a bite-sized map. Fire Emblem’s classic turn-based gameplay is all here, squeezed down to fit into a smaller mobile package.
There’s a lot here for both fans and newcomers alike. In each battle you’ll command an army of four characters from past Fire Emblem games. When you first begin, you’re handed a few fighters to get started. Unfortunately, these are all fairly weak warriors. You’ll gain better heroes by using orbs to “summon” heroes from past Fire Emblem games. The more you summon, the more heroes you can use in battle. And with over 75 different Heroes currently available, each with different stats and abilities, there are countless options to create the perfect team.
In its three weeks on the market, Heroes has received frequent updates, adding even more content to the app. New characters, maps and missions are constantly flowing in and out, encouraging daily play. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even for entirely free-to-play gamers, and Intelligent Systems says content will keep coming so long as players support the game.
Gameplay: A True Fire Emblem Experience
Fire Emblem Heroes‘ gameplay is where the app shines brightest. You command an army of four on a 8×6 grid with the goal of eliminating an opposing AI controlled army. Controlling your units is easy and intuitive. Simply touch the character you want to move and drag him or her to the space you want them to go to. Moving a character onto and enemy solider initiates combat, and before you attack you can see the forecast for the ensuing battle.
Better yet, there are plenty of maps to clear. The game was released with nine chapters each with five maps to defeat, and a recent update added three more maps into the mix. Once you’ve beaten the story, you can re-challenge those levels on higher difficulties. The arena, where you’ll face off against an army crafted by another player (but controlled by the AI), is always available as well. There’s a lot to experience and with so many characters to experiment with, even players who don’t spend a dime should easily get 10 hours worth of fun.
Unfortunately, your gameplay experience is limited (literally) by a stamina system. Each battle you fight in the story and training tower costs stamina. Once you run out, you’re forced to spend an orb or stamina potion to replenish it. Waiting for the meter to fill back up is an option as well, but at high difficulties the costs are quite high. There’s really no reason for this, but at least the game is generous with its stamina potions. I’ve never spent an orb to refill the meter in 20+ hours of gameplay.
Heroes‘ crowning achievement is the way it balances tactics with swift gameplay. Every battle poses a new challenge that requires thought and occasionally team building, while still taking just five minutes to complete. Beating the best teams in the Arena requires you to carefully select your fighters to develop a well-balanced team. The series’s famous weapons triangle requires you to use an assortment of heroes that use different weapons. Swords are effective against axes, axes beat lances and lances beat swords. Archers, healers and dagger-users aren’t affected by the weapons triangle, but they have their own perks. Archers ravage flying units, and daggers provide status boosts to your characters while nerfing the enemy.
While key series components like hit and evade rates are missing in Heroes, the game captures the feeling of a true Fire Emblem game. If Heroes is your first experience with Fire Emblem, you’ll love the gameplay of the core entries.
Summoning: RNG Gives and RNG Taketh Away
Fire Emblem Heroes‘ summoning mechanic is equal parts fun and frustrating. On one hand, the most satisfying feeling in the game comes from drawing that perfect 5-Star hero. Unfortunately, you have just about no control over who you summon. It’s left entirely up to chance, and getting repeat characters is common. Worse, the cost of summoning new heroes is quite high. You’ll need 5 orbs to summon one character, which is equivalent to clearing one story chapter. To its credit, Heroes does show a bit of self-awareness here. In one summoning session you have the option to summon five characters, and the cost gets progressively cheaper the more you summon. The first hero will cost 5 orbs, the next three just 4, and the final just 3. This rewards those who stock up 20 orbs before summoning, although I still feel the cost to get new heroes is too steep.
Buying orbs is entirely optional, and can be hugely successful or a complete waste of money. I spent $26 to get 48 orbs (way too expensive for just 9 characters) twice. On one occasion, I pulled a 5-Star Marth, 5-Star Tiki, and 5-Star Roy. On the other, nothing but repeats and weak 3-Star characters. It can be really depressing to know that you just wasted a significant amount of cash on nothing, and one bad experience can sour you on the whole thing.
This could be avoided if the game gave you a better chance of summoning a 5-star character. You’ll start out with just a 6% chance to get one, but those chances increase the more you summon. After summoning five characters, if you fail to get a 5-Star hero the game will add another .5% chance to grab a great character until you eventually pull one. Then it resets back to 6%. I feel like it would really benefit the player and Nintendo if the chance to summon a 5-Star started at 10%. Getting the Hero you’ve been searching for feels so satisfying, and giving the reward more frequently would certainly get more people buying orbs.
Your experience with summoning will be quite different depending on whether you’ve played previous Fire Emblem games. Those who have will definitely enjoy the mechanic more than those who haven’t. The greatest moments in Heroes come from the joy of summoning your favorite character. Summoning 5-Star Marth had me excited for days, although people who don’t know the characters won’t get the same excitement. The mechanic can bring so much joy, but also so much disappointment (and financial ruin).
Presentation: The Nintendo Touch
I’m not a graphics guy, but the art in Fire Emblem Heroes is easily one of the best reasons to check out the game. Every single one of Fire Emblem Heroes’s available units has been redrawn and given four new portraits. There are normal, attacking, critical strike and damaged pictures that perfectly capture each character’s personality. Every unit has also been given voice acting that again serves to drive home their personality and add charm to the experience.
These lines serve as great introductions to the characters that populate the Fire Emblem world. I never cared much for the Pegasus Knight Palla previously, but she has since become a personal favorite. Her detailed art gives her a personality not well articulated in her original game. Characters also give you a nice little pep talk once you get them to the maximum level. Some are actually quite touching, while others are genuinely inspiring. Marth talks a lot about being powerless alone, but unstoppable with friends and allies. Tiki thanks the player for saving her from loneliness. It’s an amazing touch that appeals to dedicated series fans.
I do feel like Heroes missed an opportunity to endear these characters to new players, however. Each fighter has a very brief bio, but more information would have been nice. Letting players read up on Lyn’s character and story would help new fans come to understand and care for these characters. It also would spur players to check out the other games in the Fire Emblem franchise. The game’s actual story isn’t anything more than an excuse to get these characters together, so it would have been nice to see the narrative element focused on the heroes themselves. As it stands, the brief interactions players have with their units are very fun, but we could use more.
A Trip Down Memory Lane: Sound
Fire Emblem, like most Nintendo games, has always provided players with a great soundtrack. Heroes is no different. The app takes classic songs from other Fire Emblem games, including Dusk Falls (Fates), Together We Ride (Shadow Dragon) and Destiny (Awakening) and plays them throughout the chapters. These tracks are all epic in their own way, and hearing them in what is sort of a Fire Emblem All-Star game fits just right.
Fire Emblem Heroes gets a lot right. The app is constantly churning out new content and it’s genuinely fun to play. Unfortunately, the summoning system leaves a lot to be desired. Still, I’d recommend this to just about anyone. It’s free to play, and it’s one of the best games on the market.