A brand new Fire Emblem on your phone? With Fire Emblem Heroes it’s more likely than you’d think. Nintendo’s recent venture into the world of mobile gaming has been a rocky start at best. Miitomo, while a fun time waster, lacked any sort of depth (or really an actual game for that matter), and Super Mario Run, while being a perfectly tuned Super Mario game for mobile devices, irked people with its relatively steep price and meager amount of content. The Big N (do people still call it that? Probably not, but how about we entertain my personal fantasy that I’m writing for an early 2000s GamePro) is returning to the App Store of your choice, and this time with a franchise that has only recently gained a worldwide fan base (in thanks to the excellent Awakening and Fates on the 3DS), Fire Emblem. Does Nintendo’s landmark turn-based strategy game make the transition onto your iPhone (or Android-equipped device)? Come with me, young hero, and I will spin you a tale of anime swordsmen and single screen, turn-based adventure.
Fire Emblem games, if you’ve never played one, are something like a game of chess mixed with an RPG wrapped up in a visual novel. Story cut-scenes proceed the actual battle, fleshing out your characters and motivations. Then conflict occurs and you are thrust into the meat of the game, the turn-based battles. You move all of your units according to their movement rules (some can move farther, some have trouble on certain terrain, some can fly over rivers or mountains) and attack your opponent’s units according to each character’s attack abilities (archers need space between themselves and their targets, magic users can attack close up OR far away, etc.) and you do this all while balancing the RPG-style growth of each characters stats and maintaining their equipment. It sounds complicated, but therein lies the genius of any Fire Emblem game’s design. It presents this information in extremely intuitive ways that keeps the series approachable yet complex, without bogging everything down into a slog. Movement distance is indicated in clear blue squares, attack in red. All of your enemies attack range can be shown in red across the entire map at the push of a button to assist in keeping your units out of danger. This delicate perfect balance of complexity and approachability is what makes Fire Emblem, as a whole, work. All this is wrapped up in a (usually) compelling story full of unique characters with interesting and entertaining, albeit pretty trope-y, personalities.
That’s the basics of how Fire Emblem works, but of course Nintendo isn’t going to undercut the sales of Fire Emblem games and Nintendo game systems by giving you the whole experience on your cell phone– that and Fire Emblem battles tend to be involving drawn out affairs. Nintendo pruned some features here and there and shrunk the map size down (to one screen) and limited the number of units in a battle (to four per team). These new limitations seem like they would be, well, limiting, but it actually transforms the game into something much more suitable for bite-size mobile game play. Each level, with it’s brief bit of intro and outro story, just take about 3 to 5 minutes to complete making it something perfect to play while you’re in line for something or waiting for the bus or whatever. The different unit’s movement distance is also significantly lower than it would be in the traditional games in order to jive with the game’s single screen maps. The maps, too, despite their smaller size are still packed with interesting variations like rivers with various bridges, lava, and buildings with walls that crumble when attacked. The smaller maps were what I initially thought was going to be the game’s biggest limitation, but it actually serves to make the game that much more digestible.
Other traditional Fire Emblem features that have gone missing are items and the series’ signature character permadeath. The items are substituted by a skill system, where skill points earned as characters level up can be cashed in for skills that can act as both stat upgrades and special moves. It’s not quite as interesting as customizing your character’s different weapons and inventory (and keeps characters from being able to use more than one type of weapon) and it makes having a healer on your team even more important, as there are no health restoring vulneraries to be had. The permadeath, though, is gone for good reason– this game has you collect your party of heroes by spending “orbs” which are obtained by playing through story levels and of course by spending real cold hard cash via in-app transactions. Yes this is, in fact, where they get you.
If you’ve ever played a gacha style game before, where you spend money to unlock a random character, you know what to expect in Fire Emblem Heroes. The game takes place in a parallel dimension where summoners (that’s you) can call in the heroes from other worlds (i.e. other Fire Emblem games) to battle for them– hence the spending of orbs to unlock your team members. This doesn’t sound bad initially, the game gives you a handful of starter orbs and doles one out after every successful mission (the first time anyway), but the chance of getting the best, coveted 5 star heroes is terribly slim. In all the time I’ve played the game and all the orbs I’ve spent, I’ve not seen a single character above 4 stars. Factoring in the game’s penchant for giving you doubles (sometimes within the same pull), it starts to feel like quite the uphill battle to get anything good. It also doesn’t help that the pricing scale to buy orbs with real money is all kinds of too expensive. The lowest tier of in-app purchases is $2.99, and that doesn’t even give you enough orbs to get 1 character. To actually get anything you have to spend $5.99, which nets you two. It’s just this side of too expensive. Give me a .99 in-app purchase for one character, that seems much more reasonable (and would make it a much more palatable impulse buy).
Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t going to replace your mainline Fire Emblem games, but it’s a great way to enjoy the same style of gameplay in quick, easily digestible bursts. It’s also a great place for newcomers to get a gist of the basics of Fire Emblem and find out if it’s something that’s up their alley (which is probably Nintendo’s whole reasoning behind the game). It’s in no way perfect, of course, with its uneven micro-transactions, a heavy emphasis on level grinding (which I find sort of enjoyable in this sort of bite sized experience, but your mileage may vary) and a plot that is highly forgettable, but the pros outweigh the cons and Fire Emblem Heroes ends up being Nintendo’s best mobile offering yet, handily blowing both Miitomo and Super Mario Run right out of the water.