I’ll admit that I’m still somewhat new when it comes to the Fire Emblem series, having played none of the games until Awakening graced my 3DS. As a lover of tactical strategy games, I’m always impressed by the way the series manages to be both entertaining and challenging, and I believe playing with permadeath enabled is the only way to go. When I heard about Nintendo’s plans to bring Mario to mobile platforms, I shrugged, but the news of Fire Emblem Heroes got me excited, so I was happy to see that it serves as a great entry – even if the free-to-play influences are strong.

A minimal story is introduced via the tutorial to set up the idea that there are 2 warring countries who apparently have the ability to travel to other worlds. Each one is populated with heroes from previous titles in the series, from Shadow Dragon all the way up to Fates, though with just a handful from each to allow for further additions with future updates. Each character has unique artwork done just for the game, along with newly voiced lines. Some of the voices are definitely misses, but the artwork is excellent, both for the profile cards and the mini models used in actual combat.

Battle-damaged character artwork comes when low on health, but never gets skimpy just for the sake of showing more flesh.

Battle-damaged character artwork comes when low on health, but never gets skimpy just for the sake of showing more flesh.

Victoria, of the Emblian Empire, typically goes into these worlds and tells all the heroes there that you and your friends are bad dudes and it’s up to you to convince them otherwise…by invading their lands and defeating them in a series of battles. How this works is anyone’s guess, but of course it’s just a way for the game to move along.

For the uninitiated, Fire Emblem is a game all about tactical combat. Parties face off against a grid-based field, slowly advancing on one another until they meet in battle. Units are separated into different types that have advantages over each other in a rock-paper-scissors format – red types (swords, fire) are strong against green (axes, wind) which are in turn strong against blue (lances, water) and it cycles around. There are also colorless units comprised of archers and healing mages – no specific benefits, but no weaknesses, either.

Heroes is more of a condensed version of the overall game experience, eschewing some staples of gameplay in an attempt to streamline the play. Many mechanics from previous titles are removed, such as hit chances, critical hits, and the possibility of permadeath. Stats have been reduced to 5 key points – HP, Attack, Speed, Defense, and Resistance. It’s a great point of entry for anyone curious about the series to get the basic ideas before perhaps moving on to the more challenging entries in the series.

Some maps have very familiar touches from previous titles.

Some maps have very familiar touches from previous titles.

That’s not to say the game isn’t difficult. While the Normal and even Hard modes of the story missions can be managed pretty easily, there’s also a Lunatic mode which requires much more tactical forethought with the weapon triangle and the skills of the units involved. Some of the maps are not very infantry friendly, or will be populated with mages that can wipe a team full of heavily-armored warriors. But it can be rewarding, as well. Taking on challenging foes means more experience, which increases those stats and unlocks more skill points which can be used to unlock abilities to make characters even stronger. They have to survive the map to the very end for it to actually count, though. Every move will need to be planned out far in advance, because losing the battle means not only the experience is lost, but it’s a heap of wasted stamina.

What’s that mean? Well, being a free-to-play game, Heroes includes a large number of progress prohibitors. Stamina is the first of these. Players have an allotment of 50 stamina points which are spent to play levels, be they story missions or attempts at the training tower. Initially this cost is negligible, 1 or 2 points with 1 point regenerating every 5 minutes. Later missions get costly, though, with some the final lunatic levels costing a whopping 23 stamina. Fail the mission and it will take just under 2 hours to recoup the cost.

Eventually, the initial characters you get just won’t cut it, so you’ll want to grab more. Here’s where the monetization comes in. Fire Emblem Heroes works on a gacha system, named after the gacha capsules in Japan – place money in, get a capsule with a random prize inside. It’s the same here, but with orbs. With 5 orbs, a hero can be summoned, but it’s better to wait until you’ve got 20 as summoning multiple heroes at once makes successive summons cheaper. Initially, a truckload of orbs can be gathered by completing the story missions, but once they’re done, you’re left holding out for the daily 2 orb log-in bonus or shelling out real money. It’s a bit of a downer, but there’s usually enough content that 20 orbs can be gathered each week and the prices aren’t the worst for a system of this type.

Sometimes the draw is kind (left). Other times it spits in your face (right).

Sometimes the draw is kind (left). Other times it spits in your face (right).

Either way, getting the best character is not guaranteed. Each character has a rarity level, noted by the stars on its profile card. This mostly affects stats, i.e. 5-star characters will always be stronger than a 4-star version of the same character. Summoned characters are always 3-star at a minimum and 1- and 2-star characters can be obtained from daily challenge maps. Characters can be bumped to the next rank, but it’s not an easy process.

Once the story missions are completed, you may be curious what else there is to do. The answer is…not a lot. The training tower does offer a way to level up weaker characters, and there are quests that can provide benefits such as orbs or items that will revive your fallen units in battle, but the main action is in the arena. The arena is an asynchronous multiplayer – your team will face off against another player’s team, controlled by the game’s AI rather than the other player. Winning arena matches grants points, which are cumulative up to 7 wins. Harder matches grant more points, as does facing off against more difficult opponents.

Here’s where the true grind comes in. Arena battles are done in “seasons” that last a week. At the end of each season, players are granted Hero Feathers based on their offense score (beating other player teams), defense score (other players losing to your team), and overall rank. These feathers are used to raise the rank of your units. The jump from 1 to 2 stars costs a mere 20, but the cost increases tenfold for each additional rank, to 20,000 for that final leap to 5 stars. It’s an absurd amount when even the very best player in the world receives 7,100 feathers for the effort, meaning they could only afford it once every 3 weeks.

Event quests can supplement your orbs, shards, feathers, etc, but can can sometimes be a tough slog.

Event quests can supplement your orbs, shards, feathers, etc, but can can sometimes be a tough slog.

It’s a shame for the system to really get bogged down by so many limitations like hero feathers, orb collecting, and more. But if that can all be ignored, there’s a great game beneath it all. The battles are fun, the artistic design is excellent, and some of the quests provide unique twists on how to play through the missions that can serve as extra tactical puzzles. Nintendo is showing what they can really do in the mobile space, and as long as they keep bringing in interesting content, I’ll be glad to hop on any time…provided I have enough stamina.

 

KAIJU VERDICT

3/4 Pops: Exceptional  A significant cut above the crowd. Though flawed or otherwise not necessarily for everyone, it does things other games in the genre do not, or tries something new with a great deal of success.

Review based on playing the game with a Sony Xperia Z4 (Android-based)

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