Fire Emblem: Heroes Review

Developer: Intelligent Systems, Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Played on: Android
Release Date: February 2, 2017
Paid: $0 (Free to play)

Fire Emblem is a series that has seen many instalments over the years, yet I feel that it’s still one that flies under the radar for most people.  Certainly up until the point where I played Fire Emblem: Heroes, I always knew it as, “That fantasy turn-based tactics game that most of the sword-wielders in Smash Bros. came from”.  It intrigued me, but never enough to warrant going out and buying a game.  This probably wasn’t helped by the fact that many of the titles in the series have become highly sought-after commodities in recent years.  Regardless, its release as a free-to-play mobile game signalled an easy (and cheap) way for me to give the series a shot.

The game kicks off with your character waking up in the Kingdom of Askr.  You soon find out that you have been summoned there to command forces that are battling against the Emblians.  Teaming up with Anna, an axe-wielding veteran warrior; Alfonse, prince of Askr; and Sharena, princess of Askr, you set out to save the kingdom.  From here, the story basically turns into window dressing to give a bit of background information to each set of five levels that make up a world.  As someone who is not heavily invested in the Fire Emblem universe, I found that the story came across as little more than an excuse to throw a bunch of well-known characters into the same narrative in a way that allows them to be both allies and enemies.  Characters that were once “good” are suddenly your foes because they’re being controlled by a summoner like yourself.  Yet they are still conscious of their actions, and many express that they are acting against their better judgement.  It’s a silly setup, and while it works as a means of throwing in fan-service everywhere, it does become a bit nonsensical.screenshot_2017-02-07-09-50-36Outside of the story mode, there are a number of options, including upgrading and editing your teams, participating in online matches in the Arena (though these don’t seem to actually be PvP), level grinding in the Training Tower, and more.  All of these are tied together with a menu system that starts out overwhelming, but quickly becomes quite navigable.

Regardless of which mode you choose, fights are inevitable.  The game condenses the entire map down to a 6×8 grid, meaning that you don’t have to scroll around to find all your units.  Personally, I had mixed feelings on this approach.  I often found that things could get a bit cramped, with characters getting funnelled through single-square choke points and picked off one by one.  It can also be quite difficult to play heroes with lower defenses or less health; there isn’t much room to set up a tanky frontline with a squishy, hard-hitting backline, for example.  More commonly, enemies will just charge past your defenses, attacking whomever they feel like.  This is compounded by the fact that ranged characters have to be extremely close to their targets (within one square) to attack them.  While I can see this as a bit of a balancing thing to give the melee fighters a chance, it also means that if your ranged character doesn’t kill their melee-focused target, they can expect a sword or axe in their face on the next turn.

Aside from this, though, combat is quick and enjoyable.  You can tap and drag (or tap on the hero, followed by the target) to move your fighters around the map.  If you are able to move close enough to an enemy, you can attack them, though this must be done in the same action as your movement command.  This was something that became a nuisance; even if your hero is in range to attack an enemy after their move, they will only do so if you specifically targeted the enemy with your movement order.  Otherwise, they will just awkwardly stand by their opponent until the next turn, assuming they’re not dead by then.  Considering the game allows you to choose which heroes to move when, as well as when to end your turn, it seems strange that it doesn’t give you the chance to move characters into position before initiating your attack.  Even more irritating is the fact that there’s no “undo” option.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think a game like this would need one.  However, due to both the aforementioned issue and the fact that releasing a hero after dragging immediately moves them to the underlying square, the game could benefit from a bit of leniency.  There were a few times where I ended up botching an entire level just because I let go of the screen in the wrong place and wasted my hero’s turn.screenshot_2017-02-09-10-53-53While on the grid screen, you can open up a “Danger Area” overlay that shows what areas of the map are out of your opponent’s attack range on their next turn, regardless of where they move.  It can be a great help when you’re trying to figure out where to put your healer so they won’t get obliterated immediately.  You can also tap on enemy units to see what their individual movement and attack range is, getting an idea of how you should position yourself so you can avoid certain foes.  

When moving your hero to attack a unit, hovering over the enemy will give you a preview of the fight outcome, including how many times each will attack, how much damage they’ll do, and what their remaining health will be.  I lost count of how many times this saved me when I was about to send someone who seemed tough to fight an opponent that was actually way out of their league.

Speaking of combat, when it occurs, the game switches to a side view, showing each character launching their attacks on one another.  While simplistic, these short, animated fights break up the action nicely, making it so that you’re not just constantly looking at a grid of heroes.  There’s even the option to turn them off if you find that they get tiresome.

In combat, each hero has their own strengths and weaknesses, depending on a few factors.  First, there’s their colour, which can be either red (swords), blue (spears), green (axes), or colourless (bow and arrow).  Each colour also includes its own collection of spellcasters, ensuring that there are both melee and ranged options across the board.  However, reds are strong against greens, but weak against blues.  Greens are strong against blues, but weak against reds.  Plus, colourless characters are neither strong nor weak against any particular class of character.  This rock-paper-scissors-style system does a great job of encouraging variation in your team compositions, as each level will show you what colours and types of enemies are included in the fight.  Do they have 2 sword wielders?  Better make sure you’ve got some spear users on your team!screenshot_2017-02-07-09-13-54The other main tradeoff with characters is melee vs. ranged.  If two characters of the same type fight each other, the attacking character launches their assault first, then their opponent is able to retaliate, assuming they’re still standing.  However, if a melee character attacks a ranged character, or vice versa, there is no counterattack.  This can turn into an extremely delicate balancing act, particularly when your heroes start running low on health.

Despite the fact that diversity is necessary to succeed, it’s not always easy.  Heroes are only able to gain experience from fighting, and failing a fight causes you to lose all the XP that you gained during it.  Additionally, heroes get very little XP for just attacking; they get far more for landing the killing blow on enemies (or healing their allies, in the case of healers).  Consequently, I ended up getting to a point where I only had one green hero, and they were seriously under-levelled to deal with any of the challenges I was facing.  Luckily, level grinding is a relatively painless operation, and it’s made simpler by an “Auto-Battle” feature, where the AI takes over for you and plays out the fight.  It’s great if you know you have a major level advantage and just want to grind for some XP.  You do have to watch out, though, because the enemy AI can occasionally be a bit brain dead and borderline suicidal; switching to Auto-Battle allows this same AI to command your forces.  Nothing worse than watching a healer get thrown into the centre of the fray, only to be eviscerated on the next turn.

As a free-to-play game, Fire Emblem: Heroes needs to make money somehow, and it does this in a pretty standard fashion: microtransactions.  Thankfully, Nintendo opted to use a relatively fair system.  There is a stamina gauge that limits the number of battles you can do in one sitting, but I never actually drained it.  Maybe I just wasn’t playing enough, but even so, it seems to recharge quite quickly.screenshot_2017-02-07-10-11-17The “premium” currency of the game is orbs, which can be purchased from an in-game shop with real money.  These are used to unlock random new heroes, as well as to upgrade your castle, the latter of which increases your experience gain.  Luckily, as of the time of writing, I’ve been able to do both a fair amount, and I haven’t spent a cent.  Completing each level in the story mode nets you one orb, and various events and activities can get you bonus ones.  While these free orb quantities can seem low, it’s worth noting that unlocking a new hero costs five orbs at most.  Spending the five orbs provides you with five options for random heroes, each of which shows the colour of hero that you can get from it.  Once you’ve made your selection, you can unlock more heroes from the same selection for only four orbs each, with the fifth one only costing three orbs.  It’s a pretty decent system, as it encourages you to save up your orbs before dropping a bunch at once, hopefully unlocking a group of new heroes in the process.  The game is also fairly transparent; while the actual heroes you receive are random, there is a readily accessible list of odds, which shows the available heroes and the likelihood of getting each.  I found that it made it easier to accept it if I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, since I knew not to get my hopes up in the first place.

Each of these heroes goes into your collection, starting at level one.  They also have a star ranking, which determines their rarity and overall power.  The same hero can appear at multiple star rankings, so there’s always the incentive to try to seek out a more powerful version of some character.  If you do get duplicates, you can “merge” instances of the same hero to give them a level boost and some bonus SP, the latter of which is used to unlock new skills and abilities for them.

Characters have a slot each for an attack, support, and special move.  Support moves can include heals, buffs, and other special effects, and special moves are automatically triggered after the character deals and receives a certain number of hits.  There are also three slots for abilities, which are passive effects that apply to the character or surrounding units.  While it seems like this system could allow for customization within a particular character, the reality is that most of a character’s unlockable moves that overlap with an existing slot are simply better versions of the previous move.  However, it seems like this may have been intentional, as it again encourages character diversity on your teams, rather than just swapping out the movesets of a couple powerful fighters to suit a given situation.screenshot_2017-02-07-09-40-29The game also showers you in an assortment of items for completing various tasks.  These range from gems for levelling up your heroes to duelling crests to allow you to compete in more online battles.  However, I greatly appreciated the fact that all the items have simple functions that are completely context-sensitive, and mostly used for out of combat actions.  It meant that I didn’t have to be constantly monitoring my inventory to see what I had stockpiled; it just ends up being a passive thing that you can periodically check on if you want to power up your heroes or the like.

One thing that did disappoint me was the fact that the game requires an internet connection to play.  I know that this isn’t an issue for some people, but as someone who only gets 200 MB of data per month, I enjoy having games that I can just load up on a road trip without risking a hefty overage fee.  It’s just a shame that buffing my heroes on the go is an unlikely option.

As for its presentation, Fire Emblem looks great.  I’m tempted to throw out the caveat of “for a mobile title”, but honestly, this is a game that I would be just as happy to play on my 3DS, or even my PC.  The gorgeous character art brings each character to wonderfully-detailed life, including various stances that appear in battle depending on whether they are low on health, using a special attack, and more.  While these are just static images, on the battlefield, each character is represented by an adorable chibi version of themselves.  These sprites are also used for the battle animations, and bring a bit of lighthearted flair to the proceedings.

The sound design is pretty good, though nothing groundbreaking.  It’s a really nice touch that each character has a number of lines of dialogue and sound effects; it demonstrates the care and attention that went into making them feel unique.  However, some of these clips can get a bit repetitive, especially if you’re using the same heroes over and over.  Also, while the main menu music is a fantastic rendition of the Fire Emblem theme, the rest of the music in the game is a bit bland.  It’s not bad, but there’s certainly nothing very memorable.  Definitely a game that can be just as enjoyable without sound, which can be a nice “feature”, admittedly.screenshot_2017-02-09-10-55-30Mobile games have a hard time keeping me invested.  Even with the incentive of daily log-in bonuses, new levels, and more, there are very few that I find myself coming back to regularly.  However, Fire Emblem: Heroes has me completely hooked.  About five minutes after I started playing it, I was ranting about how much fun it was, and I think I’ve played at least one match almost daily since I started.  The levels are short enough that it can easily be used as a quick diversion, but the gameplay is so addictive that it can be hard to drag yourself away.  It has its share of problems, but there’s always the hope that things will be refined in the coming months.  In the meantime, though, Fire Emblem: Heroes remains a thoroughly engrossing mobile game, and one that I highly recommend you check out.

Also, I’m marrying Henry, and nobody can tell me otherwise.


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