Lucius and I have joined forces to take stock of Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo’s smartphone game that for both of us has become an unexpected obsession. Both of us are long-time Fire Emblem fans and have written about this game before (here and here), but our detailed look back starts with the earliest announcements and days of anticipation and goes up to the present. We also look to the future, with some thoughts about where things may go from here. So strap on your armor or grab your tome or healing staff, cue the Fire Emblem theme music, and join us for a closer look at the dangerously addictive Fire Emblem Heroes.
Professor GreilMercs: Nintendo had announced Fire Emblem on mobile devices way back in spring of 2016, leaving fans to speculate for months over what form it would take. One obvious route would have been to just create a digital version of the trading card game (which, by the way, is called Fire Emblem Cipher and is a lot of fun), but fortunately developer Intelligent Systems had much more in store. The game was finally revealed via a Nintendo Direct devoted to the series early this year, and my initial reaction was of cautious optimism. While I was super psyched to see the return of my favorite characters from the series, the small size of the maps seemed limiting. I was also disappointed in the lack of support conversations, which in the main games is where two characters interact, and it’s a mechanic that serves to really bring the characters and the world of the games to life.
Lucius P. Merriweather: Yeah, I wasn’t too sure of it at that first announcement, either. The small maps seemed like a “dumbing down” of the main game, and I was worried the whole thing might just be some throwaway gimmick with a greedy gacha money-making system tagged onto it. The lack of support conversations also seemed like a big loss; in the last couple of games, the fighting almost took a back seat to the ongoing soap opera of the characters’ lives, and those conversations have really become a mainstay of the series.
However, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got to play the game for myself…
Release and initial reactions
PGM: I enjoyed the game on its initial release, and quickly blitzed through the story mode. The character artwork and voice acting and the touchscreen interface are all great. I pulled two quite good 5* characters (the highest ranking) who saw me through a lot of my first months with the game, as I was hoarding orbs (the currency for pulling new characters) until my favorite characters were released (basically anyone from Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn). In terms of character selection, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of the characters are drawn from the most popular games, namely the first game in the series, Shadow Dragon (remade as Mystery of the Emblem), and Awakening and Fates, the two most recent games (barring the just-released Shadows of Valentia). Incidentally, in terms of character selection and such, Nintendo is taking the same approach with the upcoming Fire Emblem Warriors by focusing on elements from those specific three games, which is somewhat disappointing for long-time fans of the series.
LPM: I was also a little disappointed at the relative lack of characters from earlier games, but it’s understandable given the sales figures for the later entries. Awakening sold upwards of 2 million copies, so the characters will be familiar to lots of people, whereas earlier entries like Sacred Stones sold well under half that amount. Still, I was well chuffed at bagging Sacred Stones stalwart Ephraim early on – and I’m holding out for an appearance from Ewan or Syrene. But in terms of fan service, they’ve done a good job of rolling out old favourites quite regularly, and there are still hundreds of characters they could release.
PGM: Regarding the gacha mechanics, they’ve actually ended up not bothering me too much, as the game gives you a steady stream of free orbs and you can stockpile them for an event featuring a character you really want. In this case I definitely don’t feel compelled to be a completist, and through conscientious hoarding and a fair amount of good luck I’ve able to get the characters I wanted most (in particular, those of my namesake, such as Ike and Soren). The game also does a good job of getting you started with building up your roster of characters by letting you battle and earn characters for free, via “Hero Battles”, a regular rotation of low-star regular characters where you can earn two of each of 12 characters for a total of 24, and “Grand Hero Battles”, which are timed events that feature unique characters, often villains from the main games.
LPM: I’m surprised at how generous they’ve been, to be honest. I was expecting constant paywalls, with progression linked to buying orbs and characters. But there are numerous ways to earn orbs, and I’ve amassed an army of more than 100 characters without having to spend a penny. I have quite a decent crew of five-star characters, too. That said, the limited time period for which special characters are available does mean the temptation is always there to spend a little cash. I picked up cute lil’ old Bunny Ears Lucina during the spring event, and I was sorely tempted to throw some money at the game just to complete the spring set before the event ended. I mean, who could resist Xander wielding a giant carrot?
PGM: Haha. Yeah, the special event characters are definitely tempting, but I’ve been doing a pretty good job of not getting too distracted by them. Although that sort of went out the window with the current summer swimsuit event, haha. 😉
PGM: As for the gameplay itself, it’s actually less dumbed down than I expected, as there’s a lot more emphasis on characters’ skills than in the main games and everything is quite well balanced in terms of characters’ stats, their weapons and movement abilities, and their assist, special, and passive skills. I wasn’t sure how my interest in the game would progress, although the developers did promise regular updates to include new characters and modes.
LPM: Yes, what really pleased me the most is that although the game is much simpler and quicker than the main games in the series, there’s still a lot of strategy – and at advanced levels there’s all the skill setting and stat watching you’d expect of a full-fat FE title.
New modes and features
PGM: During those first months my interest in the game continued pretty steadily, which was somewhat surprising. The almost daily release of new missions to tackle, the majority of which offer worthwhile rewards, is compelling and super addictive. The limited-time Grand Hero Battles include the game’s most challenging maps that generally require repeated attempts and have a puzzle-like element. They’ve continued to fine tune the Arena mode (which pits your team of 4 against another player’s, although theirs is controlled by the CPU) and roll out new story chapters, variations (such as maps that require you to survive for a certain number of turns or have tiles that boost your defense), and modes (such as the Voting Gauntlet, which has you choosing amongst eight specific characters and fighting on his/her team).
LPM: I love the Voting Gauntlet. I’m currently championing Elise in a war of the lady healers. Seeing the ridiculous number of points each team accrues is a reminder of just how many bloody people play this game, and it helps you to feel part of a larger community.
The Grand Hero Battles are fantastic, too. The harder ones are almost impossible to beat sometimes, and it can take days or even weeks for me to work out a strategy to beat them. High-class stuff.
PGM: One of the biggest changes was the introduction of Skill Inheritance, which was added only a month and a half after the game was released. Skill Inheritance allows you to sacrifice a hero in order to pass her/his abilities (e.g. weapon, assists, specials, or passive skills) onto another hero. At the time it seemed way too early to add this feature in, as it seemed like it would destroy the game’s balance and wipe out all the things that made the heroes unique as all characters would all converge to the same combination of skills. But in practice this hasn’t quite happened. The core gacha mechanic ensures that your roster of characters will be different from others’, and so your pool of skills to inherit from will be quite different. Skill Inheritance does a good job of both letting you customise a character that you really like to fit your play style, and letting you make good use of characters that you don’t really like or have multiple copies of.
The other big change was added only recently, which was a new event mode called Tempest Trials that ran for the past couple of weeks. This mode actually makes the game feel like a proper Fire Emblem game, in that you have to tackle a certain number of maps in a row (seven being the maximum). You’re also limited to a certain number of attempts (in the form of four-person teams you can use). The rewards were high, and the challenge was worthwhile. The mode forces you to focus on a range of characters rather than just using the same four over and over again. The only downside was that the mode required you to play it over and over again during the event period without any breaks in order to get the best rewards, which ended up being super repetitive and a real slog. Still, this mode adds great depth to the already engaging game, and all of these additions have done an amazing job of keeping me hooked on the game way past the point I had expected to be.
Enjoyment turning into obsession
LPM: I think the moment I realised FE Heroes was becoming an obsession was when I missed my bus because I was just too engrossed in the game. I growled in frustration as I looked up to see my bus sailing past – but I was also secretly relieved because it gave me more time to play Heroes while I waited for the next one.
My daily routine now includes opening the game just after 8am to see what missions and goodies are on offer. And every ‘screen break’ now features a quick session of FE Heroes – which does slightly negate the point of a screen break, I suppose.
PGM: My interest in the game has gone through several slight dips and peaks. I hoarded characters until I reached the limit you can have (200, although you can pay orbs to up that number), and then I got into merging characters (combining two of the same type of characters to raise their stats) and inheriting skills. Planning out characters to use and what skills to inherit is exactly the type of Fire Emblem geekery that I obsess over, and I’ve spent hours looking up characters’ stats. I have a huge file on my computer where I record the stats of the characters I have amongst other geeky info, and I’ve pretty much memorized the various tier lists for the game that I’ve been consulting daily religiously.
I’ve been amazed at the number of hours I’ve put into this game. The other day I somehow got sucked into playing the game for 6 hours. A couple of those hours were finishing up the special marathon Tempest Trials mode in the morning, a couple more hours on grinding characters for skills in the afternoon, and then a couple of hours at night trying (and failing) repeatedly to beat the “Infernal” mode of a Grand Hero Battle map. There were a couple of days last month where I was caught up on all the missions and I was, frankly, relieved that I didn’t have to play the game. Right now I’d probably have to play about an hour a day to keep up with the missions, which is a little higher than would be ideal, but is still doable.
LPM: I was worried the game might get too repetitive at first. Certainly, grinding characters through the Training Tower can get a little dull sometimes. But the sheer variety of missions and battle types they’ve added to the game has put all thoughts of repetition out of my mind. There’s an embarrassment of options here.
PGM: Developer Intelligent Systems has perfectly paced the game’s rollout of new features, and definitely kept me hooked even though I haven’t had to spend a dime. I find it hard to imagine how they can continue to keep adding new features and modes, but just as it is the game should be able to continue to keep my attention for a good while (although I’m still waiting for some of my other favorite characters to be added, whine, whine). Right now with the existing roster of characters each character has a fairly unique combination of movement type, weapon type, and spread of stats (although there are too many sword users, which is inevitable as nearly all the main characters from the main games are sword users). A lot of the newer characters have been given new unique skills that have still managed to keep things pretty balanced, but it’s hard to imagine how that can continue for another 100+ new characters.
LPM: It’s been fascinating to see how the game has evolved and has continued to keep evolving. At first, characters like Hector and Takumi seemed far too overpowered, but nowadays it’s a struggle to get far with them, as more and more options and heroes have been introduced. Keeping on top of the meta game is a full time job, and it’s only going to get more complex and involved as more characters get introduced.
PGM: Intelligent Systems is one of my favorite developers, and contrary to my initial expectations the game is actually so much fun and addictive that I’ve added it to my list of Favorite Games of All Time. I’m skeptical that the game can continue to keep my attention for another year, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what Intelligent Systems has up their sleeves.
LPM: Me too. Oh my god, summer swimsuit Tiki has some sort of melon hammer! Right, time to farm some orbs…