The entirety of my Fire Emblem experience before this game was six hours of playing Fire Emblem: Awakening on a flight from San Francisco to Cleveland. I died a lot, I restarted a lot, and I got frustrated more than a lot. I’m almost certain my body is still processing that ulcer. That being said, I was admittedly excited to jump into the second foray of smart phone gaming by Nintendo, Fire Emblem: Heroes. I knew that I would be going into a game whose cousin had whooped me but good a couple of years before, but I booted up Fire Emblem: Heroes with open eyes, a clear mind, an a few antacids. And you know what I found? A surprise.
The story of Fire Emblem: Heroes breaks the fourth wall, involving the phone holder in the game as the wielder of the mystical portal-shooting gun through which they will summon heroes from all other previous Fire Emblem games to be their units for combat. With their aid, the player fights for the white-armored, and thus clearly good, Kingdom of Askr, beating back the dark-robed, and thus clearly evil, Emblian Empire. At least Nintendo understands basic color psychology.
Beyond that, the stories take place across chapters, each one presenting a new hero or villain from each of the Fire Emblem games, and increasing in difficulty with new units, weapon types and combat mechanics in a tightly combined tutorial and story. The presentation is definitely reminiscent of previous games of the franchise, with well made art for each of the characters, and quips of dialogue from the original voice actors, and together, they make for an impressive display on the phone. Thankfully that’s not all that there is to Heroes, as there is more to this game than a sleek presentation.
The expectations behind a Fire Emblem game are wrought with strategic choices of tactical combat, RPG elements of units gaining experience and leveling up as they defeat enemies, and vast, interconnected story lines with plots and subplots filled out with character interactions and romantic endeavors. To be reductive, it’s Game of Thrones meets XCOM. Perhaps the most widely known feature of Fire Emblem games is the inclusion of permanent death for characters, requiring tough decisions to be made in the battlefield by balancing safety and daring-do. In these regards, Heroes is definitely cut from the same cloth as other Fire Emblem games, but due to its transition to mobile phones some changes were clearly made to truncate the known traits of Fire Emblem, most notable of which is the removal of permanent death of characters.
When Nintendo first announced a mobile Fire Emblem game, I fully expected it to include permanent death for characters, only to require in-app purchases of micro-transactions to revive your units. While downloading Heroes, I noted that it is a free to play game, which raised my expectations of this being the case even higher. To my surprise, however, Nintendo did not make the obvious choice, and instead opted to instead remove the mechanic altogether, which, due to other decisions made in the design of Heroes, makes all the more sense.
One of the upgrade mechanics for units is the consumption of like-characters. By ‘feeding’ low level versions of characters to higher level versions, players are effectively granting the abilities and stats of the consumed characters for the now-upgraded unit of choice. Having this consumption function removes any sort of connection between the characters themselves and the player, foregoing any need for a permanent death mechanic. Again, this choice may frustrate some of the life-long fans of Fire Emblem, but is completely understandable as a design decision for a game of this nature.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Heroes is that it takes its main out-of-combat cues from gambling and gashapon games. That is to say that the player will spend an in-game currency (orbs), to play roulette in an attempt to get high quality versions of their character units. This feeds back into the system of feeding low quality characters to better versions of themselves, effectively creating a churn-and-burn system of perpetual spending, upgrading, and disappointment in poor rolls. That, again, acts as a strength on Nintendo’s choice to remove permanent death.
As a whole, Heroes definitely works as a fun diversion for fans of the franchise’s games. A few dozen characters from the various games, each with their original voice actors popping up for a few lines of dialogue interjected throughout the story, not only work as fan service for the core fans, but also as a keen means of introduction for players like myself who may not be so knowledgeable of the ins-and-outs of the stories. Each character also has a clearly defined means of attack, utilizing the franchise’s variation of rock, paper, scissors: swords, axes, lances. Heroes then builds off of that core foundation, just like core Fire Emblem games, by introducing arrows, magic, and flying units, all with their own interconnected what-beats-what rules. In all, the combat of the game is as solid as any other in the franchise.
While seeming to offer quite a lot, including pvp against random people and friends alike (albeit through the use of the much maligned friends codes for the latter), upgradable units with unique stats and abilities, and the aforementioned loop of finding the perfect heroes for your team and consuming the rest for upgrades, Fire Emblem: Heroes is a surprisingly thin game. The campaign lasts for about two days, with pretty regular play (more than just your usual toilet-time), which is a much smaller time commitment than your standard Fire Emblem fair. The game attempts to pad this by offering increases in difficulty with both ‘Hard’ and ‘Ludicrous’ levels of challenge, but the combat of the game never matches the thrill or enjoyment of its predecessors even at high levels of play.
Overall, Fire Emblem: Heroes is a fun introduction to the series, and a great jumping off point to the mechanics of tactical anime warfare. Offering the game for free definitely lends credence to the notion that this is a really good advertisement for mainstay Fire Emblem games, and in that regards it works brilliantly. Beyond that, however, fans of the series will find much to be lacking even if they find it enjoyable to be able to finish a fight or two in the stalls of their offices’ restrooms.