Fire Emblem Heroes, as an idea, doesn’t seem to match Nintendo’s efforts in the mobile space so far.
Pokémon Go removed much of the base series’ depth for location-based social activity. Super Mario Run relegated the sophistication of Mario platforming to button taps. Fire Emblem as a series is resistant to that kind of reduction. The strategy role-playing game series is all about lengthy battles, challenging maps and memorable characters whose stories play out over several chapters.
Yet with Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo seems to finally have perfected translating the console experience to smartphones. Heroes is an excellent example of how to make an RPG work on smartphones, optimized for the platform without sacrificing the most important and appealing parts of the genre.
Fire Emblem Heroes is optimized for mobile without making too many sacrifices
Fire Emblem Heroes manages to do this by turning the franchise’s wide-ranging cast into its biggest gimmick. A story mode has the unseen player character command a team of up to four units traverse the various worlds of Fire Emblem. Each one is based on a different game in the series, from 1990’s Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light to last year’s Fire Emblem Fates.
Hopping around from setting to setting involves some nonsensical bits of explanation, but it was a treat seeing dozens of familiar faces team up and take on my own carefully constructed group of fighters. It’s not just the characters that are recognizable, though. Nintendo and Intelligent Systems also preserved the series’ battle system and core mechanics for Heroes. Memorizing the weapon triangle — swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords — is still required for making it out of those turn-based battles with all units still intact.
The battle system may not be as complex as it is on consoles, but it’s not watered down. It remains nuanced enough for me to get lost in, having played several Fire Emblem games in the past. At the same time, removing some of the more intense elements — like permadeath and weapon durability — also makes Fire Emblem Heroes accessible and appealing to newcomers. Map design, on the other hand, is lacking in comparison to the main series, but limiting the number of fighters that can enter into battle helps to provide a new kind of strategizing in place of traps and danger zones usually found on maps.
Most importantly, the battle system highlights the diversity of Fire Emblem’s characters. That rings true in all of Fire Emblem Heroes‘ modes, which are varied and bountiful. After racing through the story, I’ve spent time sharpening my favorite fighters’ skills in the Arena mode, which pits your team against those of other players worldwide to rack up chain bonuses and rewards; the Training Tower, where you can collect items and experience and level up new recruits; and the recently introduced Paralogues, which are like story mode side quests that rotate out on a recurring basis.
All of these modes give the characters room to shine and endear themselves to players, which is evident in the gorgeous character art and self-deprecating level up dialogue each one has. With modes like Paralogues, I got to meet and fall in love with new characters beyond my pre-existing favorites, which isn’t just fun for me, it feeds directly into the free-to-play element.
For all of its traditional Fire Emblem conceits, Heroes is still a mobile game with some very recognizable mobile game constraints. All of those characters that I found so endearing in the story chapters? You can’t just add them to your party. It costs in-game currency to collect them — it’s called Orbs — and that comes at a cost.
Thus far, I’ve found it easy to play Fire Emblem Heroes without spending a dime. The game hands out Orbs left and right. The trade-off? I have very few of my favorite characters (and anyone who’s finished up the entire Story mode will find themselves stuck without a free way to generate more funds).
Fire Emblem Heroes introduces a feature called Summon to build your party. Summon appropriates the Japanese phenomenon of “gachapon,” wherein players spend money for a random grab bag of characters. Fire Emblem Heroes lets players spend upward of 20 Orbs at a time for five characters. There are a ton of character variables involved, from which hero you get to their stats.
the barriers to building the best team can be frustrating
As a Fire Emblem fan with some major allegiances, this can be a crapshoot. The probability that I’ll get the highest quality version of my favorite characters is extremely low, which means I’ve amassed a good deal of new characters that I’ve never seen before and who aren’t great in battle. While Fire Emblem Heroes has some wonderful writing and I’ve come to love some new faces, the barriers to building the best team can be frustrating.
More annoying is the other big free-to-play limitation: energy costs. Every single action I took in Fire Emblem Heroes requires the use of stamina, which dwindles rapidly and takes eons to replenish. There’s no way to increase the stamina limit beyond its 50 cap, and when a battle — win or lose — costs upward of 15 stamina points, that means I’m left waiting for hours to play Fire Emblem Heroes again after only playing for five minutes.
I want to play Fire Emblem Heroes as much as possible, which is a testament to its battle system and characters. Whenever I’ve amassed enough free Orbs and summoned a hero I actually do want to add to my team, I want to use them in battle immediately and often. The stamina costs interrupt what would otherwise be an endless gameplay session, and it’s impossible to do anything about this without spending cash.