Hot on the heels of Super Mario Run and Miitomo, Fire Emblem Heroes is Nintendo’s third big mobile offering. The Fire Emblem franchise has come a long way to earn this spot. Though the first entry shipped on the Famicom back in 1990, the first Western release was 2003’s Fire Emblem (a.k.a. The Blazing Blade), the seventh game. Thanks to the success of Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates, the series has gained acclaim both inside and outside Japan. Fire Emblem Heroes is an attempt to capitalize on FE’s growing popularity, and it does so with simplified turn-based strategy and a costly hero-summoning system.
Unlike other Fire Emblem games, FEH is light on story. Prince Alfonse and Princess Sharena of the Askr Kingdom must fight against the opposing Emblian Empire. Along the way, they visit different worlds from the series’ universe and battle their armies. Each chapter consists of the same premise: the world’s characters oppose you, then recognize your strength after you defeat them. It’s a far cry from the series’ intricate storylines and character development, which are usually what compel me to finish these games. As it is, this story is forgettable fluff. As an upside, the tale doesn’t appear to be complete as of this review, so perhaps the story could improve in updated chapters.
At least the classic turn-based strategy gameplay returns in FEH—sort of. The game’s mechanics are simplified for the mobile platform. You take turns moving your heroes on a grid to attack the opposing army’s units, just on a much smaller scale. Instead of large maps filled with dozens of enemies, FEH features two armies of four dueling on 6×8 grids. Missions end within minutes, which is perfect for the on-the-go phone gamer. Each unit is limited to two spaces of travel. Skillfully outmaneuvering enemies and navigating around map obstacles can prove tricky, especially if you’re outnumbered. Once your unit reaches an enemy, you can see how much damage each character will inflict, then decide if you wish to carry out the assault. This continues until one army is completely defeated.
The iconic weapon triangle is also in full-force here. Red units (swords, red tome magic users, etc.) have an advantage over green units (axes, etc.), who outdo blue (lances, etc.), who in turn do well against red. Meanwhile, colorless units have no weaknesses or strengths. Ranged fighters, flying opponents, and enemy counterattacks are also important to consider. Essentially, the series’ core parts survived the transition to mobile.
There are numerous missing elements from the main games, for better or for worse. Paired units? No. Support between units? Nope. Items? Nada. You can’t choose where each unit starts on the map. Even critical hits and misses are absent, though you could argue that removal of random elements is a good thing. There is one mechanic that I’m glad is gone, especially since heroes are hard to come by: the series’ notorious permanent death. If your units fall in battle, they won’t keep any experience points, but they thankfully won’t disappear forever. Between the smaller maps and the removal of certain mechanics, FEH serves its mobile audience and provides a fun, accessible entry point into the series. But in the process, the game has been stripped of the parts that made it unique. As a result, the gameplay becomes stale after the initial high.
There are a few modes outside the main story. You can play practice maps in the Training Tower to level up your heroes or attempt a continuously changing array of Special Maps to earn rewards. In particular, the latter features some difficult challenges in which you cannot let anyone fall in battle. By far, the most interesting mode is the Arena, in which you face off against computer-controlled versions of real players’ teams. The drawback is that you’re limited to dueling three times a day. Additionally, the unbalanced power between units is quite apparent here. For instance, the character Takumi is notorious for being an overpowered bow-user who can counter at both far- and close-range. If you want to do well in the rankings, you’ll need teams that specifically counter these prevalent units. Due to these unfair advantages, winning boils down to having a strong team as opposed to playing strategically.
The difficulty is otherwise easier than traditional FE games for the most part. In Normal and Hard difficulties, the computer’s AI is somewhat predictable and lured fairly easily. Once you reach Lunatic difficulty, you may hit a wall. If your maximum level units can’t even dent your opponents’ armor, you may have no other choice but to rebuild your team. This is much easier said than done, since FEH is also a “gacha” game.
“Gacha” refers to a game style prevalent in Japan where you pay in-game currency to receive a randomized prize. In FEH, you pay orbs to get playable units that are categorized by colors (weapon type) and stars (strength potential). When you decide to summon a hero, you are presented with five random colors. You can choose which color to summon from, but you have no control over which character or what star ranking you receive. You’ll likely want to pull someone from the highest ranking five-star pool, but they have a very low chance of appearing. Even then, not all five-star heroes are created equal. And though four-star units can be strong, they may not carry you through the toughest maps.
The problem lies in how you get the orbs. Early on, in what could be called the “honeymoon phase,” you can earn over a hundred orbs by completing story chapters. The game also offers free orbs upon daily log-in. However, aside from a few special maps and rare rewards, orbs quickly become scarce. There is one option left: you can purchase orbs with real-world money. While it’s unsurprising for the game to ask for your money, the gacha system rarely pays off. It costs five orbs for one summon, though that number goes down for subsequent summons performed in the same session. The minimum 20 orbs for a full five-hero-summoning session costs roughly US$13, and you are essentially gambling for random prizes. It’s exciting to get lucky and pull your favorite characters, but it’s frustrating when you sacrifice hard-earned orbs, only to receive mediocre units.
At the very least, summoning isn’t necessary to beat the game if you put some work into enhancing your own units. You can boost a unit’s strength regardless of its star ranking. By defeating enemies, your character level up their stats and skill points (SP), which can be used to upgrade weapons and learn unique game-changing skills. You even have the opportunity to unlock a unit’s potential and increase its star ranking, though the cost is astronomical. To upgrade a four-star into a five-star unit, you must pay a separate in-game currency – 20,000 feathers. Putting it in perspective, the easiest way to gain feathers is through winning in the arena, which only pays a couple thousand each week.
As if the gacha system weren’t enough, FEH has a stamina meter that just screams mobile game. You have a total of 50 stamina points, which deplete when you play a map. Your stamina continually recharges every five minutes, so early maps that cost one or two stamina won’t be a hassle. During the early honeymoon period, you can easily plow through multiple chapters of five maps each. But once you get to later chapters on higher difficulties, the game screeches to a halt. You might blow almost half of your stamina on one difficult map. If you can’t beat it within two tries, you’ll have to wait another few hours just to attempt it again.
At the end of it all, despite my criticisms, the app itself is rather solid. While I’m not a fan of the gacha mechanics, FEH is admittedly cheap compared to the competition. As far as mobile games go, FEH is comparatively polished. I didn’t experience any bugs. The menus load quickly, and the user interface is intuitive. The app’s castle area is a great hub for reading announcements and talking to your friends’ heroes. Since you’ll likely be playing in short, intermittent bursts, FEH is fair in terms of using data and battery life. Though be aware that you need to be connected online to play. Completing specific missions, such as beating a certain level with a bow-user, adds replayability and offers good rewards. The game is fairly generous with items that boost your playtime, though it’s easy to hit a wall hours in. By that point, even if you stopped playing, it’s a solid several hours of a free game with traditional Fire Emblem mechanics.
The visuals are eye candy, especially if you are a fan of the franchise’s anime artstyle. The designs are inconsistent due to different artists, but most of the characters’ reimaginings look good. There are multiple portraits for each character based on their attack and critical condition stances. On the map, units are represented with cute in-game spritework, and the super-deformed battle animations are appealing to the eye. The music is top-notch, borrowing from the mainline entries’ wonderful soundtracks. Finally, each character has a small repertoire of voice samples. While they sound great, get used to hearing a lot of “Ready,” “Yes,” and “On it” during a single play session.
If you’ve always wanted to try out Fire Emblem, this free, streamlined version is a great start. You’ll probably be less inclined to gamble your money away for units if you’re not familiar with the characters. It’s a harder sell for hardcore Fire Emblem veterans who may not like the simplified strategy mechanics, unbalanced units, low pay-off summoning system, or lackluster story. To the game’s credit, the very basic strategy gameplay is still intact, and the quick skirmishes work well for phone gamers. As with Super Mario Run, Nintendo did a good job translating core tenets of Fire Emblem to the mobile market. With continual updates, Nintendo can potentially continue to improve the experience for both early adopters and newcomers.
Note: Version 1.0.0 on the iPhone was used for this review.