Cash, random chance almost ruin Nintendo’s first smartphone Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem Heroes sees Nintendo entering new game-design territory. Sure, Nintendo has previously toyed with free-to-play games on both 3DS and iOS, and it has experimented with radically altering beloved series to fit on a phone in Super Mario Run (unlike Mario, Fire Emblem is launching simultaneously on both iOS and Android). This time around, though, Nintendo is diving head-first into the “gacha” mold, wrapping its turn-based strategy/RPG series around randomized, pay-per-pull hero collection.
The results are odd, but Nintendo may have an obnoxious hit on its hands. Fire Emblem‘s core gameplay is free to try here, and it’s still eminently satisfying on the phone—so long as you know what to expect regarding exactly when Nintendo will (and won’t) nag you to pay up, that is.
Turn-based tactics meet microtransactions
Fire Emblem, from Nintendo-owned developer Intelligent Systems, has enjoyed less popularity in the West than in Japan, where the series received major releases on pretty much every Nintendo system. Other regions didn’t start receiving translated Fire Emblem games until the Game Boy Advance era. As such, the series has racked up countless major and minor characters over the decades. Heroes embraces this situation with an era- and world-hopping fantastical plot. You, smartphone player, are an overseer who can summon the series’ heroes. You’re asked to do this because some evil person is doing the same thing, only they’re summoning evil versions of the good guys.
This premise helps the developers skip the usual Fire Emblem design of a traditional, map-trotting RPG in which you recruit heroes. Instead, you hop from battle to battle via a menu system, though there’s still a “quest” path of increasingly tougher fights, alongside other battle types (which I’ll get to).
Fire Emblem‘s turn-based tactics battles are managed from a top-down perspective. Players get to move and issue orders to all of their units together (think Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics) before letting their foe do the same. Managing exactly when and how you step toward your opponent is key, since stepping too far will likely invite your foe to dart in to take the first strike. Characters’ position on a color wheel reflects how strong or weak they are against the opposition: red is strong against green; green crushes blue; blue does well against red. (“Clear”-colored characters aren’t part of this system and are therefore sometimes weaker, but they offer special abilities, like healing or longer-ranged attacks.)
At the game’s start, players are given a few “low-level” characters that they can use for fights immediately, along with a bunch of orbs. Want more heroes? You can unlock them in various ways, but the unlockable ones aren’t typically as good as the ones you summon using orbs. Your first few orbs are free, and you can slowly earn more (one for every quest battle you complete) in the game. You can also pay up, with the normal rate being about 66 cents per orb (with discounts when you spend more money in one fell swoop).
Thus, we enter the gacha zone. Gacha games, which have been popular on Japanese smartphone shops, revolve around new characters being unlocked with spent currency in a toy-slot-machine style. Spend five of your orbs, and five randomly colored gems will appear. Pick one, and you’ll get a random hero in the color you tapped. Spend more orbs to keep picking from the gems on the screen at a slight discount.
This system involves a lot of randomness, and you won’t always get the color(s) of gem you want in any one pull. But if you like the five colored gems that appear and want heroes in all of them, and you have enough orbs to spend, then spend more to save more!
Spawned heroes also come with “star” ratings that indicate how powerful the characters will become as they level up in normal play. You’ll be lucky to get a four-star hero and damned lucky to generate a five-star fighter. (There are also ways to dump unwanted heroes and combine duplicates, and, yes, you’ll get dupes.) Edit: I forgot to add a very, very important change to the Fire Emblem formula here: no perma-death. In normal games, when characters die, they’re gone forever, with new, weaker characters ready to fill the gaps. Nintendo was thankfully not so devilish to apply that formula to a free-to-play game.
Great battles, awful meters
If Heroes sounds a little obnoxious, that’s because it is. Before you spend a penny on the game, you have the alternate option of deleting and re-rolling your initial army. I did this once and then wound up rolling a nice cast of four-star heroes. At this point, I linked my “My Nintendo” account credentials, which gave me bonus orbs and hooked me into more in-game reward possibilities. Then I began the game in earnest.
That’s when I realized: I didn’t need to roll new characters to get through a large chunk of the game. The earliest levels, all in “normal” difficulty, are easy even for wimpy armies. I found myself enjoying quick-burst Fire Emblem battle opportunities on the go almost immediately. There are some annoyances, like having to hop through menus to customize armies before every fight or dealing with the small 8×6 grids of the maps (other Fire Emblem games have had much larger playfields).
Ultimately, though, I found myself having an actual game to play here, with much more strategic depth and decision-making than many of the aimless tap-and-collect-a-thons found in other free-to-play smartphone games. Do I choose a healer this fight? Would a flying spearwielder be good? Which characters should I send to which sides of the map?
Once I burnt through some of the easier mission maps, I became acquainted with other modes and options, which opened the doors to even more tactical challenge. “Arena Duels” pit you against randomly generated armies based on other real players (though this isn’t a multiplayer mode in the slightest). Duels earn you items used to power your characters up, while “Special Maps” are time-limited battles that net you new characters if you win them.
FEH‘s biggest offense is its reliance on a “stamina” timer which drains after every battle you play. You can wait for it to recharge or spend resources to fill it back up. At first, the game grants plenty of “stamina potions” (I got a bunch as a “daily log-in bonus”). But if your potions run low, you can expect to cough up orbs (aka money). A similar system limits access to the Arena Duels mode, with an even more obnoxious “three battles per day” meter. (This can also be refilled, either with expendable items or with orbs).
Personally, I know I’d pay Nintendo quite a bit up front for the option to kill the timer entirely, as I can in many other mobile games. Buying into a random chance at new characters is one thing. Paying to avoid waiting to play more is another. Can we say goodbye to the Farmville era of game design forever and ever? Please?
A plateau on the horizon
Quibbles aside, I enjoyed my first day with Heroes. Still, I can see the plateau of “you’ll need waymore powerful heroes” on the horizon. Later-game play appears to revolve around collecting and managing items in order to level up and maximize the heroes you have or summoning new ones to fill the cracks of particularly tough challenge levels. The game seems designed to hook players into the starting fun without much friction so that they become invested enough to spend more and keep playing (and paying) through the tough stuff.
If Nintendo gets around to unlocking a true multiplayer mode or opening the game up to battles larger than on 8×6 grids, I could see myself sticking around. For now, I’m glad there’s enough good gameplay to occupy me for at least a day without spending a single dime. The entire presentation—slick battle animations, beautiful full-screen character art, polished music, a full suite of appropriately cheery Fire Emblem voice actors, simple tap-to-battle controls—helped me enjoy what I’ve quested through thus far.
That said, when I’m already hemming and hawing over whether I should spend orbs to unlock a single decent danged green warrior, I realize that perhaps gacha has gotten me. Be warned.