The Bare Necessities
Fire Emblem Heroes marks the latest push from Nintendo in the mobile market, with the strategy series following in the footsteps of both Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run. The mobile version of Fire Emblem still plays mostly like a version of Fire Emblem you’d load up on your 3DS, with a tile battlefield and a turn-based system. You pit your units against an opposing army, and the side left standing at the end wins. However, certain features from the modern series are missing here, and a pesky free-to-play mechanic puts a cap on your entertainment returns unless you’re willing to pay.
At first glance, Fire Emblem Heroes seems meaty. A surprisingly lengthy story campaign exists as a tutorial mode and an excuse for you to fight against fan-favorites from the series, like Chrom from Awakening and Takumi from Fates. It’s not well-written, even by Fire Emblem’s clunky standards, but it does its job well enough, getting you from battle to battle quickly and giving you a villain to go up against.
Intelligent Systems has a done a fantastic job boiling down the complicated tactical elements from the series into something lightning fast and enjoyable. Battles in the main franchise can take up to an hour to finish, depending on various factors. In Heroes, everything is simplified. Your armies have less units, maps are smaller, and elimination of the other team is the only objective. The tradeoff here is that Heroes isn’t as rich or challenging as the main entries, often being weighted in favor of the player (especially if you’re lucky enough to draw a couple of strong characters). This simplicity doesn’t provide the depth fans may expect, but it allows you to complete matches while you’re standing in line or killing time.
Other defining traits of the series are absent in Heroes. Permadeath isn’t an option; if your characters die in battle, they aren’t gone forever. The romantic elements of both Awakening and Fates aren’t here either. Your characters will often make sultry or witty remarks but you can’t pair them with other party members to produce children. It’s hard not be a little disappointed to be playing a Fire Emblem game that lacks those two popular features.
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Despite missing features many fans would consider essential qualities of a Fire Emblem game, Heroes is a fun time with an enjoyable gameplay loop. You fight battles to earn orbs that you can then use to upgrade your castle, which affects how much experience your units earn, and summon new characters to fight for your army. Spending five orbs gets you a random hero, and there is excitement as you anticipate seeing whatever character you’ve unlocked. Unfortunately, this has diminishing returns as duplicates are in play, and the more heroes you unlock, the more likely you are to nab a character you already have.
To make matters worse, a stamina bar is tied to your game. A full stamina bar is worth 50 points. Early on, battles require two points but as the game goes on, the stamina cost goes up. It takes five minutes to regenerate a single point, which means it’s easy to run that bar down to zero in a short period of time, leaving you unable to play unless you use a stamina potion or spend an orb to regenerate the bar fully. Stamina potions can be gifted to you and orbs are won in battle, but orbs are also your currency for unlocking characters, so Heroes is unsubtly trying to strong arm you into buying orbs with real currency in order to keep the stamina up. It’s a dubious-bordering-on-insidious system that only gets worse as the game goes on, since orbs are harder to find and you commonly draw duplicates. The stamina bar is a huge drain on Heroes’ playability, especially in the later stages; I would gladly pay for a “full version” of the game to eliminate the mechanic altogether.
About 10 hours in, I hit a wall where I just wasn’t having fun battling or drawing characters anymore. Still, that’s 10 hours of entertainment as well as a solid foundation here for something more grand in the coming months if Intelligent Systems takes the initiative and adds more features (like permadeath in the campaign). For now, Fire Emblem Heroes is a flawed but enjoyable way to pass the time for fans as well as a solid starting point for anyone who’s been curious about the series but hasn’t dived in yet.