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Fire Emblem Heroes is Nintendo’s first solid foray into free-to-play

by Ron Duwell | February 3, 2017February 3, 2017 12:30 pm PDT

Warning, we now live in a bizarro universe where Fire Emblem could potentially more successful than Mario. If the niche appeal of Nintendo’s classic strategy franchise can expand to above the 78 million downloads Super Mario Run saw, then bravo to everyone involved for bringing this franchise back from the brink.

This is just an initial impressions run. I have to sink more than an empty morning into Fire Emblem Heroes to get a more solid opinion on how I really feel about it. Casually, after the first few chapters and some grinding sessions in, I can see myself adding this to my smartphone gaming repertoire.

As you might expect, you are getting “Fire Emblem light” with this download. There are no honest comparisons that can be made to the main entries of the franchise. That is, this early in my playthrough at least. Battles have been whittled down to mere four-on-four skirmishes; the standard battles were eight to ten of your best warriors battle against endless waves of trash mobs. Terrain, walls, and Fire Emblems classic sword-spear-axe systems all make a return, but this is what you get when you boil it down to its most simplistic form.

Four warriors pacing down. Last man standing wins. Some of the maps I’ve run into have special victory or game over conditions, but not many. Just, clear the map!

The story is typical of these kinds of mobile games. It feels more like a tribute where the original characters can leap into the universes of the main games and interact with its characters. A dark empire has forged evil contracts with the warriors from other games, and only your band of heroes can break that contract and bring balance back to the world. It’s silly, but like the earlier Fire Emblem games, it does a good job of having its characters talk to you, the player, and not a customized avatar.

This was always a problem of mine with Awakening and Fates. Other Fire Emblem games have always treated you as a tactician who watches from afar, and they speak directly to you, making you feel more involved. Awakening and Fates had those characters speak to an avatar you create, and your connection to the game feels like its done through a third person perspective rather than an intimate one.

The point is, this free-to-play mobile game nails that feeling better than the most recent 3DS games. Take that as you will.

The three default original characters the game provides you with are forgettable, but naturally, the real guide here is to dig up your favorites from older games. Maybe I just got lucky, but my first draw landed me Lyn, my absolute favorite Fire Emblem character from all the way back in The Blazing Blade. Following that, I got Florina, a Pegasus knight from the same game who I always used, and Nino, a fun mage from The Sacred Stones. Three characters I was genuinely looking for… boom boom boom, right off the bat.

I’m also glad that Lyn is severely overpowered, but I expect that will change as I unlock stronger characters as the game moves on.

Fire Emblem Heroes succeeds dramatically with the character art. Lyn, Roy, and all of the classic characters look fabulous in their latest incarnations, even if Nintendo went a little overboard with the “dissolving clothes” when female characters get cut. I always thought Fire Emblem was above that.

However, the in-battle animation art is not something I can throw my weight behind. It looks like those Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy characters with the hollow eyes, soft edges, and smatterings of interchangeable body parts. These goofy recreations of characters definitely get the job done and are really cute, but we’re combating with a series that has some of the best and smoothest sprite animation in the history of video gaming.

Naturally, something like this costs a lot of money from a professional animator.

But Fire Emblem Heroes, again, is like a light version of the real thing.

And yes, the fights are locked with permanent “Casual Mode” on, meaning that the weight of losing your characters never looms over your head. For those who don’t know, classic Fire Emblem games feature permadeath, and when a character you like, or any character for that matter goes down, it means they are gone for good. You can restart the fight, or continue on and mourn the loss of your comrade.

Naturally, Fire Emblem Heroes does away with this because it’s aiming for a wider audience. Instead, character death will ensure that they don’t receive any experience from the battle. Big loss there… Some will praise the decision to strip this permadeath, others will not. I am a fan of leaving it on in the main games because it makes victory so much sweeter, but I do agree that it doesn’t fit the formula here.

This is a game about collecting characters and, more importantly, playing forever with no end in sight. You can’t restart matches like you can in the main games without losing energy, and I suppose Nintendo doesn’t want people to accidentally lose their special favorites after countless hours (and possibly dollars) of training. That would be a back-breaker for this game.

Yes, this game runs off of an energy system, and the deeper you progress into the game, the more expensive missions become. I’m used to this system by now after two years of Terra Battle, but those who sneer at the idea might not be happy with Nintendo’s implementation of it. I find it to be fair so far, and once alternative methods of getting energy opens up, the game will be able to be played into longer doses.

It’s just going to take you a long time to “catch ’em all” if that’s your goal.

It does have microtransactions, which already means it’s guaranteed to make more money than Super Mario Run, and I might see myself sinking a bit of money into it here and there down the line if the battles become genuinely more challenging. However, it’s not going to be a replacement for Terra Battle, which is a much more complicated game, nor is this game’s success Nintendo’s only goal.

As always, the company wants you to think of “real” Nintendo games when you play its mobile ones, and while I’m playing Fire Emblem Heroes, all I can think about is downloading Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade on the Switch’s Virtual Console and playing through that as well.

Job well done, Nintendo.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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