When you think of Fire Emblem the first thing that pops into your head is probably strategy (or your waifu), but chance also plays a vital role in the FE formula. It single-handedly determines combat. Each attack has a percent chance to hit/miss, become a critical hit, or activate abilities like Luna or Sol. But there was a series of game design decisions made in Fire Emblem Heroes that removed chance. Now attacks always hit, critical hits don’t exist, and abilities are now activated after a set number of “combat” actions.
On the surface, this is not super amazing, but understanding why they did it– by examining the role that chance traditionally plays in Fire Emblem–, how that traditional approach would have worked in Heroes, and what these small changes affect are quite interesting from a game design standpoint.
First, what does chance accomplish? Well, humans enjoy chance. We even play games of pure chance, i.e. gambling. It makes things unpredictable in a way that our brains really enjoy. In fact, our brains release more endorphins when we are pleasantly surprised than when we are predictably rewarded. Think about how much more excited you are when to kill an enemy when you only had a 40% chance rather than a 90% certainty. In a way, chance makes the game more fun just by being there.
But how chance is implemented is very important, because in FE it is almost always conducive to more strategy. In FE the numbers are mostly visible. You understand your odds of hitting, criting, or proc-ing a skill. It’s all very transparent. That means that you are making calculated risks and running numbers based off of what you would like to happen. You have agency in most of these interactions; it feels fair. However, the game keeps the importance of these numbers low so that strategy takes precedence. You are never asked to depend on unlikely things happening for you to win (unless you worked yourself into a corner through bad strategizing). You will get unlucky sometimes, but you will also get lucky. And while it might not always work in your favor, it generally makes the game more fun.
There is one glaring flaw in all of this: the rare, elusive enemy critical hit. When an enemy is using a “killer” weapon, which drastically increases their critical hit chance, the player knows to be wary of them. They can plan around it. But most enemies have a remote chance of criting in most encounters– 2-5%– and this is the problem. Over the course of the game, this “remote chance” will eventually happen a few times and inadvertently taking triple the expected damage is going to get someone killed. And this feels extremely unfair for 2 reasons: 1) the chance is so low and omnipresent that if you were to never attack in a situation that a critical hit could kill you, then you would often not attack at all; 2) the punishment is almost always lethal, if not straight out fatal, which is quite severe when you are playing with permadeath on, as it often means you are going to restart the level. So you can’t reasonably plan for it and the punishment is too severe; it feels unfair. In my opinion, this has been a design flaw in Fire Emblem for a really long time.
You might be asking,”Why take chance out of Fire Emblem Heroes?”. Well, the role chance plays in traditional FE games really works because of a larger scale. Larger maps filled with more units on both sides of the battle means that a missed attack here, or a crit there doesn’t really make a huge difference. Late in Awakening and Fates, you could be outnumbered 4:1 with there being 50 enemies to your 12. In Heroes, the greatest you can ever be outnumbered is 5:4. In normal FE, it may be useful to get a crit, but it is not overly impactful because there are 49 other enemies on the map. It is rarely a deciding factor on the map. In Heroes, getting a crit would mean you probably killed 20-33% of their starting forces. Getting lucky could easily ensure victory. Heroes is on such a small scale that balancing the role of chance for any singular interaction would almost be impossible because each move carries so much weight.
The problem is the enemy crit all over again: they are impossible to plan for and they carry too much weight when they happen. Balancing crits would be extremely difficult on such a small scale. Making them less likely to occur would only mean that they would break the balance of your game less often. Weakening crits only serve to lessen the punishment without fixing the fact that you can not adequately plan for its occurrence. Even if crits are only x1.5 you would still be at an unfair advantage when they happened. On this scale, the same can be said for attack accuracy. So they removed them from the game, solving the problem before any of us experienced it.
I think the new skill system exhibits the benefits. Now there is more potential to strategize using abilities because you know when an ability will activate. It’s not perfect, however, as skills will often be activated at inopportune times. For instance, most attack skills activate whenever your character attacks next, meaning that they might use their ability on the wrong enemy during a counterattack. And while there is potential for more strategy by planning when units will attack, the game doesn’t support that level of granularity. You are more concerned about weapon triangle matchups and position on the battlefield. The activation method causes abilities to lack utility. That being said, tweaking this could give units greater utility, which lends itself to giving players more strategies in future entries.
Interestingly, these changes move Heroes closer to a game of pure strategy. What’s that you might be asking? Well, think of chess. You’re not going to get lucky, you’re just going to outsmart your opponent. There’s no chance at all. It is a battle of wits.
There are a few things that throw a wrench in that. First, unit statistics are determined by RNG, which affects the competency of your units (whereas in chess all pieces always do the exact same thing). Victory can be won or lost, not by the quality of strategy, but rather by the power of units. Secondly, is that you can not adequately prepare for battle (which is something I go into greater detail about in my review). The game is balanced such that you are largely blind going into a map while enemy units have been placed in such a way as to be challenging.
Pure strategy can also be more mentally taxing. Making a mistake has a long term effect which is harder to cover up since you can’t get lucky. Over the course of a dozen turns, where you make hundreds of decisions this can become really stressful. There becomes no room for leniency. If you were to remove statistical variance between units, then you would feel that in Heroes. But Heroes’ scale makes it more conducive to intense, short form strategy battles… against dumb A.I.
And I love that no one seems to be talking about this. We all implicitly know chance is gone. It takes 5 seconds to realize attacks always hit and a couple minutes to realize that there are no crits. Yet we don’t think of the absence of chance as the game having lost part of its identity because we more strongly associate strategy with the series– and for good reason, because it is about a 65/25/10 split (strategy/ chance/ romance simulator).
But I find this interesting because we have collectively agreed that this feels like Fire Emblem on a smaller scale by the fact that none of us have called it out as being drastically different. This is despite sometimes drastically different mechanics. I think this can be explained with the MDA framework. Despite differing Mechanics, many of the same strategic Dynamics from the core games are present, and this results in similar Aesthetics. This is probably assisted by the fact that we expect much less from mobile games and came in with the understanding that the game would be on a smaller scale, both physically and mechanically. Moreover, the games have been evolving at such a fast rate through recent entries that the identity of the series is fluid enough that varying interpretations have validity, something that might not have been true 5 years ago.