Fire Emblem: Heroes Review

A few weeks back, I did a recap post of all of the information coming out of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Direct event. Since that post, the first of the four games mentioned in the Direct event — Fire Emblem: Heroes — has released on mobile devices. I downloaded the game’s iOS version and have been playing it since launch day. Now that we’re almost a month into the game’s existence, I wanted to share some thoughts on FE: Heroes and my experience with the game.

Story

Like most Fire Emblem games, Heroes gives you a story about how you’re trying to save the world you’re in from bad guys. Granted, in almost all of the previous FE games, you’re trying to save the world from an evil dragon, but we didn’t need an evil dragon for this to feel like a Fire Emblem game. Instead of a dragon, you’re tasked with saving the summoning gate from the evil Princess Veronica.

To be clear, you’re tasked with saving the summoning gate — the place in the game where you can buy your units — from a bad guy trying to stop you from being able to summon.

On one hand, I get the point. Veronica wants to stop you from summoning great heroes who could defeat her. Her motives make sense. Meanwhile, you want to defeat her so that…uh…you can summon more units to defeat her again? I mean, your ulterior goal is to save Alphonse and Sharena’s kingdom (Askr) from Veronica, but the ultimate objective is to save the summoning gate. Which could cause you spend money. Is Nintendo trying to teach you that fiscal responsibility is bad[1]?

That all aside, the plot seems very thin, both at time of release as well as now. While the paralogues get you into the history of Fire Emblem games a bit, the main story is extremely linear. On top of that, the dialogue pre-chapter is very slow. Your only options for the dialogue are to wait it out or to skip it entirely. I found myself skipping it entirely from chapter 3 onward, then going back and finding it online to read it myself.

Also, why is it that the most badass original character introduced in Heroes (Veronica) isn’t a playable character?

Gameplay

The primary game play focus of Heroes is similar to the grid-style, turn-based combat featured in most Fire Emblem games. You’re limited to 4 units per map, which feels perfect on most maps. You’re generally tasked with facing 3-5 units in story mode, so it’s rare you’ll feel crowded by anything other than terrain. Though the permadeath feature that most early Fire Emblem games are known for isn’t present in Heroes[2], there are quirks in the game that force you to be creative with your game play style in other ways. As an example, if a unit dies mid-battle, you lose all XP and stat growth that you’ve gained throughout the battle. This prevents players from charging headlong into battle with no regard for strategy, particularly on Lunatic difficulty in the story mode, as well as in the PvP arena.

Story mode itself seems like it’s going to be an in-depth experience at first glance. You have 9 chapters with 4-5 parts each, as well as three different difficulty levels you can play each part on. The rounds go relatively quickly though, meaning you can blow through your limited player energy in 10-15 minutes, particularly on higher difficulties. Though stamina potions are plentiful, this only makes the story mode feel shorter.

Arena mode is painfully disappointing. Similar to the story mode, arena allows you to compete in a 4 vs. 4 battle, though your opponent is another player. The battles themselves are generally harder than story mode, adding a challenge to the player experience. That said, arena mode is majorly flawed thanks to the bonus points you can receive for using certain units in the arena. If you’re able to use one of the 6-10 bonus point units for that arena “season”[3], you’re all but guaranteed to receive the maximum prizes possible that season. If you can’t use one of those units, you’re relegated to 60-70% payout in a best case scenario.

Other side modes like the training stratum and special quests are merely for materials or unit farming. Nothing really to write home about, though it’s pretty standard fare for mobile RPG games.

Summoning and Leveling

As mentioned earlier, to get new units for your teams, you must summon via a gacha-style summoning gate. Fortunately, the in-game currency (called orbs) are pretty common to get, even when ignoring the app release bonuses currently ongoing. I’ve summoned or acquired[4] somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 units to this point, with 5 of those units being top rarity units. Considering I’ve been free-to-play the entire time, summoning new units is not an issue.

Nor is there an issue with the actual leveling of units, at least once you recognize that if a unit dies mid-level, you lose all their XP and stats obtained that level. It took me 3-4 days to realize that was happening, so be aware of that mechanic. Unit experience seems to scale at a comfortable level from level 1 to level 40 regardless of the unit’s rarity, so that’s a positive as well.

The major gripe I have here is with the promotion functionality of Heroes, which is referred to in-game as Unlock Potential. For units of a very low rarity (1 or 2 stars), the resources required to level the rarity of a unit up are pretty minimal. However, once you try to level a 3 star or 4 star unit up, the acquisition of one of the two items (hero feathers) needed to raise the rarity of a unit is unsustainable. The only way to obtain large amounts (read: more than 10 at a time) of hero feathers at this time is through weekly arena rewards. The best case scenario for arena rewards is 7,100 feathers in a week, though that would mean you would have to be the top player in the entire game. A more realistic value is that you finish unranked among all players, but still get full rewards for the other milestones. If you do that, you get 2,100 feathers in a week…or just over 10% of the amount you’ll need to raise a 4 star unit’s rarity to 5 stars. You’re either stuck grinding for literal weeks on end or hoping you get good luck at the summon gate.

Replay Value

For free-to-play players like myself, games like Fire Emblem: Heroes need good replay value, otherwise grinding for resources is pointless. The replay value so far isn’t good. That in and of itself is concerning, as I’ve found myself getting bored with the game less than a month after its release. Though Nintendo has done a good job of releasing new content since launch[5], the amount of effort and/or luck needed to get a top-tier team is disheartening. I got lucky in one of my very early unit pulls and managed to get two units that seem to be meta-defining in the arena at this stage of the game (Takumi and Cordelia). Had I not had that luck, I think I would have lost interest before now.

Furthermore, unless you intentionally handicap yourself by using lower level units, most of the story mode is simple. I finished Normal mode in less than a day, Hard mode in about a day and a half, and Lunatic in three days. The only reason any of those modes took as long as they did was the energy limitations — even Lunatic mode would be easy when compared to other Fire Emblem games.

Final Thoughts

I had pretty low expectations for Fire Emblem: Heroes prior to its launch. Despite all of its flaws — and there are quite a few — Heroes has exceeded my expectations pretty comfortably. The game is enjoyable in small bursts and it makes me nostalgic for previous editions of the Fire Emblem series. With that said, I’ve taken multiple day breaks from the game twice already in the first month. There’s just not enough content to make a casual gamer, especially one that isn’t familiar with Fire Emblem canon, care about the game.

If you’re a Fire Emblem fan, Heroes is probably worth playing through for the nostalgia. It’s a good time waster in small bursts, and its familiar game style will be easy to pick up on if you’ve played previous games in the series. That said, unless Nintendo comes out with more content, more difficult content, or both, I don’t see Fire Emblem: Heroes being a long-term success.

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