Tactical RPGs are my jam.  There’s just something about playing chess with swords, fireballs, and monsters that really clicks for me.  One of the better recent spins on the genre is The Banner Saga.  If you want a more established franchise, look no further than Fire Emblem.  I’ve only played a few entries in the series, namely the two excellent Game Boy Advance titles and Awakening on 3DS, but the grand stories and permadeath are always intriguing.  Fire Emblem Heroes, a mobile title released a few weeks ago, does away with a few series staples and has an endgame problem, but it’s still a fun game well worth the $0 price of admission.

Tiny battles between tiny heroes on tiny screens.  Fire Emblem Heroes is flawed but cute.

  • TL;DR: A scaled down Fire Emblem game playable in bite-sized chunks plagued by long upgrade/recharge times, especially in the endgame
  • Platform: Android (reviewed), iOS
  • Developer: Intelligent Systems
  • Time Played: 11:30
  • What I Played: Cleared campaign on normal, cleared through chapter 7 on hard, daily special maps, daily arena duels, training of newly summoned heroes

Fire Emblem Heroes, like all Fire Emblem games, is all about turn-based battling on grid maps.  Your team of four heroes from across the Fire Emblem universe goes up against another team of (usually) four.  Each hero can either move, attack, move and attack, or do nothing every turn.  The team with the last hero standing after the few minutes of strategy wins the battle.

Heroes includes many Fire Emblem standards, foremost among them being the weapon wheel.  Each hero comes with a color-coded weapon: sword (red), axe (green), lance (blue), magic tome (any color), dragon gem (any color), or bow/staff/dagger (colorless).  The wheel of bonus damage is red -> green -> blue -> red.  Attacking in the opposite direction, i.e. a blue lance attacking a green hero, comes with a damage penalty.  There are a couple of other special conditions like arrows being super effective to flying units and hammers dealing extra damage to heavy armor.  Each hero has a couple of basic stats like attack, defense, magic resistance, and speed.  Attacking a hero zooms into a close up of the confrontation with each little 2D hero swinging their weapon or casting their spell accordingly.  The animations are cute as hell.

The most notable change from the standard formula is the lack of permadeath.  In a typical Fire Emblem game, falling in battle means a character is lost forever making each move crucial.  That’s not the case in Heroes, allowing you to play more fast and loose than usual.  Another big change is the removal of weapons as items.  Each hero has a single attack that they always use rather than weapons with limited durability.  There is also no pre-battle preparation phase to arrange your units.  You might get a great random starting setup or you might get screwed into working out of a jam.

Fire Emblem Lite, now on a mobile device near you.
Heroes is basically Fire Emblem Lite.

Adding heroes to your stable is done with orbs that are gained primarily by beating story missions.  Each summoning session presents you with five randomly colored stones.  You can summon one hero for five orbs, two heroes for nine, three for 13, four for 17, or all five for 20.  Each hero has their own summoning odds and can come at a quality from one to five stars.  There is a tier list for those interested in maximizing their team.  You can get duplicates, as evidenced by my drawing three Sophias in a row, but they can be either merged together or dismissed for hero feathers, an upgrade resource that I’ll discuss later.

The list of available heroes encompasses many of the Fire Emblem games.  Some of my favorites like Frederick and Lyn made the cut, but my main man Jaffar didn’t.  My main team is Frederick to tank, Chrom and Tiki for big melee damage, and Robin for range but it’s important to mix and match your team based on the battle.  If you’re going into battle against three flying units, you might want to bring an archer like Jeorge.  Similarly, if you know the enemy is bringing a bunch of mages, you should leave low resistance characters on the bench.

Simply getting the hero you want out of a summon is far from the end of the battle.  No, if you want the best of the best, you’ll need to get a team of all five star units.  Summoned heroes can have their star rating raised once they hit level 20, but they will drop back to level one and it will cost you an arm and a leg.  Boosting a four star hero to five stars costs 20,000 hero feathers.  I’ve amassed 13,356 feathers in nearly a dozen hours of play but 10,000 of them coming as an in-game gift from a Nintendo Twitter event.  Your best bet for a max rated team is to pony up the money for orbs and pray.  A chunk of the playerbase resorted to restarting the game over and over until they got a good set of heroes.  I didn’t bother with that but it’s easy to see the potential money pit.

Some sessions, like this one, are far better than others.

Once you settle on a team, there’s plenty to do in Fire Emblem Heroes.  The campaign is currently nine five mission chapters, each with three difficulty levels.  The entire campaign and all difficulties are available for free and each mission clear nets you an orb.  Missions are fairly easy until the chapter five or six mark where I started to lose a hero in battle here and there.  Chapters eight and nine were pretty challenging and involved quite a bit of losing the first attempt, swapping my team around, and trying again.  Nintendo has said that there will be a new story chapter added every two weeks, so we are due for one in a few days.

Special maps are timed events that typically reward you with new heroes.  Each day there is a one star and two star variant of the same hero available globally.  You’d think that the map and enemy team being the same for everyone would allow for community discussion on tactics, but in reality doesn’t make much difference.  The more difficult of the two fights is only level 15 which can be handled easily after a few hours of play.  It is nice to have a non-orb method of gaining new heroes, but the time and feathers required to upgrade that two star unit to a usable four or five star makes it unreasonable.

PvP content in Heroes takes place in the arena.  You are given three free arena entries per day in the form of dueling swords.  Redeeming a sword lets you pick from one of three AI-controlled teams of other players.  You are scored based on how well you fight and your score chains together for up to seven wins.  The intermediate battles are pretty easy to win while the advanced ones are a real challenge.  At the end of each week, you’ll be rewarded a set of feathers based on how well you did.

Perfect level ups are nice Chrom, but I doubt I’ll ever get you your fifth star.

All of the battle activities drain from a single stamina bar.  Your stamina maxes at 50 and recharges at a rate of one per five minutes or, as you probably guessed, instantly with a purchasable stamina potion. Stamina costs start off low but ramp up as you progress.  By the time you reach the last chapter of the normal campaign, missions take up to 13 stamina each.  When you account for the time spent in battle, you can play about four missions before waiting nearly four hours for your stamina to fully recharge.  Many players, including myself, would like to see alternative ways to recharge stamina and/or an increase to the maximum after each chapter/difficulty clear.  Every single mission on lunatic difficulty costs more than 10 stamina, so trudging through that is going to take serious commitment.  The training area to level up your newly summoned heroes costs stamina.  Hell, equipping hero skills is currently free but will eventually cost stamina too!  I understand the “keep play sessions short so players come back later” ideology of mobile gaming, but this is a bit extreme.

It’s clear that Nintendo is trying an alternative money making approach with Fire Emblem Heroes than it did with Super Mario Run.  Rather than charging a single upfront fee, players of Heroes can sink as much money as they want to get the highest rarity of their favorite heroes and play as much as they want without waiting for the stamina bar to recharge.  Players are indeed paying up, too.  Nintendo reportedly raked in $2.9M on day one.  You can spend your money however you please and I’m not trying to stand on the “I’m an F2P player” soapbox, but remember that paying for spins on a random number generator is never a good idea.

12 hours and $0 later, here's where I stand.
12 hours and $0 later, here’s where I stand.

Nintendo is going full speed ahead with mobile games.  Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run appealed to their largest fanbases while Fire Emblem Heroes is targeted at one of their most rabid.  While there have been promises of new chapters to play, new heroes to summon, new types of maps, and more, I wonder how much steam Fire Emblem Heroes will have four months, six months, or a year from now.  I think the addition of a guild system with the ability to check on your friends and possibly even duel them would go a long way.  But, even if I never get that full five star superteam, I’ve had a great time with Fire Emblem Heroes.  I got my tactical RPG fix, still have work to do, and didn’t have to spend a dime.

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