Fire Emblem Heroes: An Addictive, Economic Mess
“[Making mobile games] is absolutely not under consideration. If we did this, Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo.” –Satoru Iwata, 2011
This time 5 years ago, Nintendo was vehement in its stance of never wanting to make a mobile game. Today, however, is a different story: Nintendo has released Miitomo, Super Mario Run, and now Fire Emblem Heroes. Released earlier this month, Fire Emblem Heroes made more than $2.9 million within 24 hours of its release–giving it the third highest gross revenue for a mobile game on release (only behind Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run). With an average of ~$50,000 in daily income and ~8,000 daily installments, Fire Emblem Heroes seems to be doing pretty well for itself a month later, making more in a day than most mobile games make in a year. As incredible as these numbers must sound, however, they don’t necessarily speak on behalf of the quality of the game. Let us not forget, for instance, that despite being the best selling mobile game of all-time (currently), Pokemon Go is still constantly accused of being a buggy mess–and although it’s constantly being patched, new glitches always seem to come up in place of the ones that were just fixed. I’m not saying that these glitches make the app bad by default, just that–despite its overwhelming revenue–it’s far from perfect. Fire Emblem Heroes, of course, is the same way.
Let me start this review off by saying that I really enjoy this game: In the past few weeks I’ve been a Fire Emblem fiend. Nintendo really seems to try to be pushing making 2017 the year of Fire Emblem and they’re already off to a wonderful start through this game. Fire Emblem Heroes takes the bare bones mechanics of a typical Fire Emblem game and combines them with a heap of sweet, sweet fan service. Not the trashy kind of fan service we’re all used to in anime games, but fan service in showing us older characters that many of us haven’t seen in years–for some of us (especially considering that 6 Fire Emblem games were never officially released in English) at all.
“Fire Emblem Heroes takes the bare bones mechanics of a typical Fire Emblem game and combines them with a heap of sweet, sweet fan service.”
But nostalgia and love of a given character shouldn’t blind anyone from the faults in this game, of which there are plenty. Whether or not they’re so bad that they weigh the game down I’ll address shortly, but what I would like to make clear beforehand is that although this game is definitely designed so that non-fans of the Fire Emblem franchise can play it, too, it’s definitely pandered heavily toward fans of Fire Emblem. Although this isn’t necessarily a problem, it is something worth keeping in mind for now.
If you’ve ever played any Fire Emblem game then you know how to play Fire Emblem Heroes. And if you haven’t played a Fire Emblem game, then it’s a fairly simple–with a few in-depth aspects (though they’re hardly present in Heroes)–strategy RPG: Making teams, moving them across various fields, and using strategy to kill the enemy. Fire Emblem’s simple gameplay transfers very well on mobile: It’s easy to learn, hard to fully master.
Gameplay is where Heroes, like the rest of the Fire Emblem franchise, shines. The game offers many modes of combat (EX: Story mode, training, arena, etc.) to give the player a well-rounded experience and has a good variety of difficulty settings for all, giving players of all skill levels a way to have fun. Combined with the team building aspect, this can make for some quick, fun battles–which is perfect for the mobile platform.
The gameplay is very simple and straightforward–which for a mobile game, is ideal. Strategize, move your character(s), attack. Even though fans of Fire Emblem can jump into this game easily, it’s still designed so that non-fans–even of the strategy RPG genre–can still grasp it quickly and easily. Although it’s definitely a watered down version of the Fire Emblem gameplay (as it lacks classing up, a variety of attacks, etc.) it’s watered down in a way that’s ideal for a quick, yet enjoyable game: Something heavily emphasized in mobile games, making for an addictive experience.
Sound and Visuals
For a mobile game, Fire Emblem Heroes looks and sounds pretty sleek overall. It has an all-star voice acting cast (all of whom do an excellent job–despite the large cast, there’s not a bad actor in the group), a traditional “Fire Emblem-y” soundtrack, and the visuals are all solid. The only thing off putting about either of these things is the differing styles of art. Most of the characters are done in the very modern anime style seen in Awakening and Fates have, or something similar to it. Yet a lot of these styles have small nuances that make them look incredibly different when characters are put next to each other. More over, characters with radically different art styles like Arthur and Gunter look horrendously out of place. Although this alternate artwork isn’t bad (in fact, they’re all very well drawn) and, as an artist, I can sympathize that asking one single artist do do illustrations for the entire roster is a very tall order, I wish that they at least would’ve kept it more cohesive and avoided making some characters look like they’re in the wrong game entirely. Without knowing anything about the game, would you believe that these are all characters as the way they appear in the same game?
Story and Writing
Although I’ve not played the entire Fire Emblem series, I’ve still yet to play a Fire Emblem game with a notably interesting story–and Heroes is no exception. But due to the generally casual nature of mobile games (like Heroes) a super in-depth story isn’t necessary. The game gives you incentive to beat enemies and summon heroes and that’s it–but under these circumstances, that’s all it needs to do. Although it would’ve been nice to see something more clever than, “WOW we’re traveling across the different universes WOW look at all these characters from different worlds” (read: Kingdom Hearts) it gets the job done in this case. It’s not clever, but it doesn’t need to be clever. And given how needlessly complex the stories have been in some Fire Emblem games, having one that’s simply unoriginal is better than having one that’s trying too hard. On the story vs gameplay spectrum, Fire Emblem has always more heavily gravitated toward focusing on gameplay. Therefore–especially in a more casual setting like a mobile game–a clever or interesting story, while always a good touch, isn’t necessary. Fire Emblem Heroes neither falls nor succeeds in this department.
This is, without a doubt, where Heroes fails the most. Microtransactions are what keeps the mobile gaming market afloat: As such, as a game developer, it’s important that you make your audience want to buy them. Ideally, the microtransactions help the fun value of the game, but aren’t a necessity. When you emphasize the microtransactions too much, they make the game feel like a pay-to-win game, which your playerbase will catch on to fast and likely pander it for that reason as they grow increasingly sick of it. On the other hand, if you don’t emphasize them enough then nobody will buy them and your game won’t make a profit. It’s a very fine line. Sadly, however, Fire Emblem Heroes seems to lean heavily toward the free-to-play, pay-to-win model.
Scenario: You’re playing the story mode on Heroes. You’re horribly stuck, but you notice that one of your units of a different weapon class is doing much better than your other units in this map. You decide that you’ll add another 1 or 2 of that class to your team to help you win the chapter–but you notice that you don’t seem to have any other units of that class. So you decide to do a full summon (which is 20 orbs) with hopes that you’ll get a unit of that kind. But unfortunately, RNGesus didn’t smile on you today, and you don’t get one.
Since you’re stuck in the story mode and unable to progress, if you don’t have any more paralogues left or the occasional quest that offers an orb, then sadly, you’re screwed unless you’re patient enough to horde your sign in bonus of 2 orbs each day for 10 days and hope that next time you’ll get one. But odds are you’re not. So you decide to buy orbs. Knowing that a full summon costs 20 orbs, to pay for a full summon would cost you $13 each time. Or if you know that you’re going to want to do a few of them, the “best” deal you can get them at (in terms of cost per orb) is 140 orbs for $75. The catch is that you have to spend $75–something very few people would be willing or able to do. But even if you are willing and able to do that, there’s still no guarantee you’ll get what you need since the summons are all RNG-based. Most famously, there was a player who dumped $1000 into the game and still wasn’t able to summon Hector.
Bottom line: Orbs are imperative to the game, and obtaining them can be a slow process. You can easily go days–maybe even a week–without being able to summon anything, which could drastically affect the rate at which you play then game. Worse than the rate at which you get orbs, however, is the rate at which you get feathers: 20,000 of which are required to rank a hero up. At the most, you can get feathers in the arena–usually 1,000. More typical than that, however, are interactions with characters that usually get you about 5. Not 50, not 500, 5. I shouldn’t even have to explain how ridiculous that is. Surprisingly, there’s no way to purchase feathers. What you can purchase, however, is stamina potions which you’ll desperately need if you want to be able to grind for feathers long enough to get 20,000.
The stamina in and of itself is also a major exchange rate issue, as there’s no way to upgrade it and many parts of the game require upwards of 10 stamina to even attempt once–keep in mind that the stamina is capped at 50, and currently there’s no way to upgrade that. With the wait time to restore stamina being as long as it is if you want to restore a significant amount, it makes grinding for anything a major hassle.
It’s not surprising that the exchange rates in this game are so awful as I’m sure it’s done in part to make up for Super Mario Run. Unfortunately for Nintendo though, like they did in Super Mario Run, they’re making it incredibly obvious that they still don’t know how to price things fairly in a mobile game–both microtransactions and in-game-currency transactions.
With the in-game power these major factors, they slow the game down exponentially, making the game much more frustrating than it needs to be. Unless you get really lucky, this game makes it really difficult to be good at it as you progress–making purchases feel necessary. In other words, the free-to-play, pay-to-win model. The solution to this problem is simple: Either reduce the number orbs necessary for a summon, the number of feathers necessary for an upgrade, and the cost for stamina, or simply lower the prices of orbs, increase the number of feathers you win in arena/by talking with characters, and make it so that players can upgrade their stamina.
For years now Fire Emblem fans have wanted a crossover game to see their favorite characters fight alongside each other and create their dream teams: And, albeit watered down, this game delivers. You can play with a team of characters all from different Fire Emblem games if you want to. The Fantasy Fire Emblem team possibilities are insane. As the roster is now, there are representatives from every Fire Emblem game except for Path of Radiance, Radiant Down, Gaiden (soon to be known as Shadows of Valentia), and Thracia 776. Although that may seem like a lot of games–and certainly the surprising absence of Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn is felt–when you remember that’s only 4/14 games suddenly that doesn’t seem so bad, right?
The only notable problem to be seen in the characters present is the heavy focus in characters from Shadow Dragon & The Blade of Light, Awakening, and Fates. Although these are without a doubt the biggest 3 games it still feels cheap that they make up the overwhelming majority of the roster. To be more precise, they account for 72/108 playable characters in the game–that’s about 2/3 of the roster all from the same 3 games, leaving the other 7 games to divide that last third. Fates boasts the highest number of characters from it with 30 whereas the game outside of “The Big 3” with the most characters from it is Binding Blade with 19. The game with the fewest characters from it (without having none) is currently tied between Sacred Stones and Genealogy of the Holy War, which each have 2 . A big part of the fun of this game is seeing characters from the games you’ve beaten fight again–much moreso for the fans of the older games that haven’t had much love or attention. Although it’s understandable why there would be a focus in the newer Fire Emblem games, it still feels cheap that they account for a majority so overwhelming that it’s 2/3 of the roster.
Arguably a bigger problem than the heavy saturation of the roster is the absence of characters from Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn–particularly Ike who not only won the popularity poll held before this game by a landslide victory, but appeared twice in the top 5 due to being in both Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. In total, Ike had 51,555 votes–almost double the next most popular male character (Roy, 28,982) and a few more thousand than the most popular female vote (Lyn, 49,917) making him the most requested character for Heroes. There were 3 other Radiant Dawn/Path of Radiance characters who appeared in the poll results (Micaiah, Mia, and Nephenee). Although Nintendo is almost certainly holding them for an event–probably for whenever the game starts to lose speed and the daily users starts its inevitable plunge–they chose a very unfortunate group to hold. By holding the most requested character, Nintendo has effectively angered several fans and made them feel like their votes in the poll never mattered, which is awful PR.
Despite the roster’s shortcomings, it’s still very satisfying seeing them acknowledge some of the older games and characters that otherwise never got much attention. Many fans can finally build the dream teams from across franchises that they’ve always wanted to–that is, if their teams were almost exclusively characters from Shadow Dragon & The Blade of Light, Awakening, and Fates (which in light of their overwhelming popularity, isn’t a difficult request). Hopefully Nintendo and Intelligent Systems will continue, like in the most recent event (Family Ties) to release characters from older games to break up the heavy saturation in the current roster.
Where this Game Succeeds
Heroes’ strengths lie mostly in gameplay and fan service: This game is fun to play, point blank. If you enjoy strategy RPGs, regardless of whether or not you’re a Fire Emblem fan, you’ll enjoy Heroes. The gameplay is simple enough without feeling too easy, and yet still offers a good transition into difficulty as you progress–to the point where many chapters are notably difficult regardless of the difficulty setting you’re on. Even if you just want to jump into a higher difficulty the game will allow you to do that as well, no problem. Heroes accounts for players of all skill levels.
If you’re a fan of Fire Emblem–even if you’ve only played one title–it’s really satisfying when you get a character that you know of or want. This is even more true for fans of the older games who can finally see some of their favorite characters get some attention, love, and new art. It’s also a great gateway into getting newer Fire Emblem fans into older games in the series–something Nintendo will probably be emphasizing more when they add characters from the second Fire Emblem game to it since it’s being remade in May as Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia, but is being overshadowed by the fact that currently more than half the roster is from Awakening or Fates.
If you don’t care about the exchange rates–if you’re just playing this game to battle and get a team that you’re satisfied with early on–then this game is fantastic. The Fire Emblem battle system translates very well on mobile. Sure enough, this does feel like a Fire Emblem game. Although this is clearly catered toward people who are already fans of Fire Emblem, the slightly watered-down version of the Fire Emblem gameplay would also make for a good way of introducing potential new fans into the franchise–although I could imagine them also finding it frustrating not knowing who any of the characters are, that also might help them make a decision in which main series Fire Emblem series they’d want to start with if they like the gameplay enough to want to try the fleshed out version of it.
Where this Game Fails
When Super Mario Run hit the mobile market, the main object of criticism with it was its exchange rates: That game itself was fine, but that it was the nuances of being a mobile game that hurt it, most notably its exchange rates which ultimately hurt it not just critically, but financially as well. Unfortunately, these problems were even more apparent in Fire Emblem Heroes. Like most mobile games, this game is designed to encourage purchases, but it crosses the line from the purchases helping to the purchases being necessary in many aspects. It becomes free to play, pay to win unless you have really good RNG luck. Although it’s definitely possible to play this game without making a purchase, it’s also significantly more difficult–and therefore, significantly more frustrating. This problem could easily be remedied by either bringing down the prices of the microtransactions or bringing down the cost of feathers/orbs/stamina potions necessary to do things, but until those are done this remains a glaring problem.
Aside from the exchange rates, this game is horribly disorganized. UIs are unwieldy, notifications that the player has already read will always come up on startup, and explanations are either too lengthy or simply not present. From a technical standpoint, this game is a mess relying heavily on the Fire Emblem logo to look cleaner.
All in all, this feels like a demo for the Fire Emblem franchise. Although it’s not the complete experience and certainly lacking in some areas, it does give you a basic idea of what the franchise is in a nutshell. You can tell it’s not done, but the potential is plain to see. It’s just a matter of seeing whether or not Nintendo or Intelligent Systems will fully realize that potential. As the game is now, it’s decent–but it has the potential to be great, and with very little effort on Nintendo or Intelligent System’s part.
“[Heroes] feels like a demo for the Fire Emblem franchise. Although it’s not the complete experience and certainly lacking in some areas, it does give you a basic idea of what the franchise is in a nutshell.”
As they enter the mobile arena, Nintendo’s made it very clear that they still don’t know 100% what they’re doing. And although they are getting some things exactly right, they (unsurprisingly) seem to fail when it comes to handling the hallmarks of making a mobile game work like exchange rates, not relying too heavily on fan service, and organization. Yet by the same token, what they have done in Fire Emblem Heroes they’ve done well: They’ve chosen an ideal IP to bring to mobile (as it was already very portable), they’ve made it so that it’s not necessary to be a Fire Emblem fan to enjoy this game (even if it’s exponentially better if you are), and they’ve made a very easy-to-digest version of the Fire Emblem gameplay without making it too difficult. In fact, they’ve added difficulty settings to it to cater to players of all skill levels, making the game feel neither too easy, nor too challenging (unless of course it’s a matter of needing different units on your team, which I already addressed, falls into them needing to improve their exchange rates and therefore, making it less of a hassle to summon new heroes).
Fire Emblem Heroes is an enjoyable game, and as a fan of the Fire Emblem franchise (most notably some of the older games) I really like seeing a crossover game like this with several of Fire Emblem’s most well loved characters. (But of course, if it were up to me, Owain, Inigo, Lute, Lucius, and Artur would be in this game, too, but that’s neither here nor there.) On top of that, it has a very addictive quality to it thanks to the gameplay. Although a very watered down Fire Emblem game, it still feels very much like a Fire Emblem game, albeit riddled with exchange rate holes. If not for the exchange rates, this game could be wonderful. They are, however, so imperative that they weigh the game down with it.