Fire Emblem Heroes is a free-to-play turn-based strategy role-playing game. While the series is known for large sprawling maps featuring dozens of troops & lengthy campaigns, Heroes has been slimmed down into more bite sized pieces to accommodate shorter play sessions; as such, all battles are 4 vs 3-5 and take place on 6 by 8 grids.
The art and music in this game are thoroughly enjoyable. The soundtrack features remixes of series staples and the chibi combat animations are cute. But the absolutely gorgeous character illustrations are the real draw.
The story was honestly throwaway, as it was just a bunch of wonky excuses to get Fire Emblem characters from different times and places together in order to fight it out. And while this is okay, there definitely was potential to have some serious discussions about the ramifications of ripping people from their respective dimensions. And this was addressed in the wrong way: by saying,”They are happy to do this (be our war slaves) for us.”
While I initially worried that small maps and roster sizes would not allow for much variety, I was surprised after playing the game’s roughly 50 maps. The smaller map size also means unit movement range has been reduced from an average of 5-6 to 2, which creates some weird issues. Since armored units can only move 1 space, they quickly fall behind other units and really struggle to maneuver into position; in fact, you have to maneuver all other units around them. And they never feel well balanced. Either they are sitting ducks that can be easily killed by mages/overwhelmed by numbers that they can’t escape, or they are stalwart gods that nothing can get past. There’s little in between. On the other end of the spectrum, horseback mages have a collective range of 5, meaning they can cover an insane amount of the map.
Fire Emblem has always made damage calculation refreshingly simple. Generally, you could know roughly what amount of damage you were going to do by subtracting enemy defense from your attack. This isn’t always true in Heroes. For instance, the weapon triangle– swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords– now largely determines victory. Not only did this feel cheap because great units could be completely vulnerable to crushing one hit kills just because of typing advantage, but it also made it hard to predict damage. With only 4 units you did not always have enough manpower to shift around in order to ensure you were not at a disadvantage. And unlike other games in the series, you can’t carry multiple types of weapons to offset the chance of being placed at a disadvantage in the weapon triangle. I understand a large part of Heroes’ strategy is making sure you are not placed at a disadvantage, but I prefer typing having this large of an advantage only in my Pokemon games. Please.
Also, something that is never explained to the player is that healers only do half the damage they are supposed to. In fact, it is not really clear why exactly healers are nerfed in this manner. Lastly, certain abilities’ damage seems to vary randomly despite the fact that I know how much damage it is supposed to do. Because of all of this, there were times I was certain I should be able to kill an enemy only to have damage be drastically different than I thought it would be; resulting in death. It’s easy to say “git gud”, but a strategy game must be predictable– aka the player must have enough information to properly make decisions that reliably result in the same outcome. I should not be within striking range before I figure out just how completely ineffectual my weapon is.
Perhaps the biggest game design problem is the fact that you can not see the map/opponents before battle; consequently, you can not move units around amongst the predesignated starting positions. Several maps caused HUGE problems because of this.
The game does display what type of weaponry they have pre-battle — ax, lance, sword, bow, healer, the color of the dragon, or the color of magic– but that was rarely sufficient information. Melee fighters could be infantry (nothing special), armored (high physical defense), flying (high magical resistance; can fly over all terrain; weak to bows), or horseback (long range). Taking a mage into a battle full of flying units often rendered that mage worthless; meanwhile, archers are really useful against flying units, but not very much so against armored units. But you wouldn’t have any way of knowing until you started the mission.
When you aren’t getting screwed over by one or more of the above problems, the game is really fun. It is easy to look at the broad changes imposed– and the problems listed above– and think that all of the strategies are gone, but that’s far from the truth. Since characters only have one weapon type, you can’t fudge your way around the weapon triangle by just switching to the most convenient weapon. Each enemy is more lethal since the army sizes are so small and the battles are so short. Rules, like cavalry not being able to move over forest tiles, added an interesting wrinkle to a lot of maps. Smaller movement ranges made close quarters encounters more lethal, as it was harder to run away and block an enemy’s pursuit with another unit. And since each unit has their own unique skills and abilities, they all feel like unique little snowflakes that you could use to craft a masterful party.
The Business Model
The business model very quickly feels dirty. And there are two main reasons for this. The first is stamina, which is used to play missions. You have 50 stamina and get 1 back for every 5 minutes (that takes about 4 hours to regenerate completely). While stamina is not a big problem early on, as many early missions cost less than 5 stamina, later missions cost upward of 20 stamina. Once you run out of stamina you can use a stamina potion– which you get irregularly– or an orb– the game’s main currency– to get it all back instantly; or you can wait 4 hours. So all those above problems that cause you to fail missions because you weren’t allowed to plan, end up feeling like they are trying to make you buy orbs to lessen the burden even though I am pretty sure they were just trying to streamline the game; perhaps too much. Make no mistake: stamina makes every part of this game worse. If I could just purchase the game for $10-15 without stamina burdening me, I would.
The second problem stems from orbs, which are primarily used for getting new characters. Since each character is unique, you really want to get a lot of different characters to play around with different team combinations. But orbs are limited and duplicates are plentiful.
The game also requires a lot of grinding. Progress slows down so much at higher levels– thanks to missions costing more to play and characters taking more kills to level up– that it is almost impossible to play; ruining the meta. On top of that, each character has a rank (1-5), which locks away skills. To get a character’s rank up, you must grind them to level 20, then use badges and feathers to rank them up, resetting your level and stats in the process. While you must grind for badges, obtaining feathers is so much harder that badges fly under the radar (pun definitely intended). The only reliable way to earn feathers is through arena mode, which seems to unlock ~1,500 per week. Keep in mind that getting a character from being 3 stars to 4 requires 2,000 feathers. Getting a character from 4 to 5 requires 20,000 feathers. I currently have 25 4 star characters waiting to be ranked up; so I need a measly 500,000 feathers. Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s hitting me pretty hard.
At the end of the day, I really love what Fire Emblem Heroes is… as a game. The free-to-play stuff is not the game, so much as the business model and it seeps over into the progression systems to a point that the metagame is almost unplayable and upgrading characters, which I find incredibly fun, just becomes impossible thanks to the giant barrier that is feathers. The game also doesn’t really help itself out any by lacking adequate features to prepare for combat, which places you into situations where you are more likely to die, which then makes the voracious free-to-play elements even MORE prominent. All of that being said, the game is damned fun to start out with and the free to play elements really don’t get in the way all that much until you are ~10 hours into the game. So by all means, check it out.