I Finally Caved – First Impressions of Fire Emblem Heroes

When I was growing up, I was always a little behind the times when it came to cell phones. Most of my classmates wanted their own phones way before I ever did. When I got one, I rarely used it, and because phones were never a priority for me I always got the cheapest thing that I could find. This meant that I could rarely use them for any of the more useful features that had rolled out in recent years. So when Fire Emblem Heroes was first announced, it wasn’t on my radar for one simple reason: I didn’t have a cell phone that could run it. Add to that the game’s gacha system and I was content to stick to console entries in the series.

If you’re here and for whatever reason not familiar with the term gacha, it refers to a game structure in which you spend resources to randomly pull characters from a pool. Characters have different ratings that inherently make some more powerful or valuable, and those on the weaker side still have distinct art and abilities that theoretically make them worthwhile. If you’ve got a kid who loves surprise toys, you already understand the core concept. This will also likely sound familiar to anyone who plays titles with loot boxes. Boiled down to its essential function, gacha mechanics give you the promise of a chance at something you want; try enough times and maybe at some point you’ll be lucky enough to get it.

This structure is often attached to a monetization strategy that encourages you to pay real money for the in-game resources that are spent to draw from the character pull. Theoretically in these styles of games, there is a way to “earn” what you want by continuously engaging with the game’s ecosystem, but you can skip the line and spend five bucks on twenty pulls to really bring up your chances of getting exactly what you want. Make no mistake: gacha, like loot boxes or surprise toys, is a form of gambling. It’s an intentionally exploitative model that is psychologically engineered to separate players from their money, and the success of these games is built on the backs of whales who cannot resist the urge to pay for pulls.

Unless there is a sale happening, 25 orbs costs you $13 USD. So five random pulls with a 3% chance of a 5-star character per pull costs you $13.

I say all of this for a couple of reasons. One, I think it is important to be critical of the media we engage with. My enjoyment of Smash Bros, for example, is not going to stop me from supporting the QA tester who was recently severed from their job at Nintendo for discussing unionization. You can love a thing and still recognize the way that it or the people who made it have harmful qualities. Two, when I’m discussing Fire Emblem Heroes, I think it is important to consider the entire experience from the lens of this game wants your money. Unlike a console experience, you’re not buying your ticket to get into Heroes. You can get to Heroes for free, but along the way there are tons of stands designed to catch your eye or provide inconveniences that money can help you to circumvent. If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, I personally recommend as a starting point the Game Studies Study Buddies episode on the book Addiction by Design. It’s a great discussion of how game design hacks the brain to encourage spending.

So what finally broke my resolve and convinced me to try the game? The big influence was Fire Emblem Engage, the recently announced next entry in the mainline series. We don’t know a lot about Fire Emblem Engage at the time of writing, but what we do now all seems to point at a powerful influence from the success of Fire Emblem Heroes. Both in conversations with friends and in analyses I have read or watched, my lack of familiarity with Heroes has put me on the back foot in terms of recognizing mechanical components that Engage has borrowed from the mobile game. For better or worse, from the legacy characters to the way the weapon triangle functions to the skill system it seems like there’s a decent chance that playing Heroes will prepare me for what’s next come January. Just as my curiosity about Three Hopes drove me to play the first Fire Emblem Warriors, now my interest in Engage has pushed me to Heroes.

The basic premise of Fire Emblem Heroes is a familiar one if you’ve played Awakening. All the histories and worlds of Fire Emblem are connected, and the heroes who live in them can be magically bound to servitude and used for scheming and conquest. The princess of Emblia (I think?) is using heroes to try and conquer the kingdom of Askr. You have been summoned to Askr because only you can wield the legendary relic which will allow you to bring heroes to your side and fight fire with fire. By using the power of various heroes from across the series, you can withstand the invasion and protect the kingdom of Askr from the Emblians.

The game’s villain, at least for the first arc. She makes nice little boys like Marth try to murder you.

Starting Heroes threatens to be an overwhelming experience. The game is six books deep into its story, with each book representing a different arc and with six stories worth of new activities that are essentially available to you all at once. Event battles, a coliseum, tons of story content, plus being able to summon and upgrade heroes gives you a whole lot to register all at once. Thankfully, Heroes simplifies onboarding with a system called the Hero’s Path. These are tasks or quests which give you rewards for completing certain goals, and at the early ranks these goals are basically just trying out features or making story progress. Following the path helps build up your starting resources and slowly teaches you about the game, so it’s a great way to get things rolling. I’m just starting rank 5, which means that most of what I have done up to this point has been focused on completing early story content, pulling and upgrading heroes, and trying out the training modes.

When joining the game for the first time, Heroes absolutely unloads free stuff on you to get you engaged and familiarize you with the system. I got free pulls for basically every event that is currently taking place, including two pulls where I got to hand pick a five star character to add to my ranks. Star ratings indicate the relative power of a character as well as their rarity – generally you have about a 3% chance to get a five-star hero. The story automatically gives you some four-star heroes to get rolling with even without all the special event pulls, and you can earn five-star heroes by following the Hero’s Path. Just in a couple of hours I’ve gotten five: two free picks, one earned from the path, and two that I drew at slightly increased odds as part of ongoing events. Most of my other heroes are four-stars, though I do have a handful of three-stars as well.

One thing I will say in the game’s favor, the quality of the presentation is bonkers. There are over 800 heroes or hero variants in the game and each one features three to four gorgeously rendered poses. The variants are in some cases themed skins based on a holiday or a particular story arc, but there are also distinct versions of characters where they are paired together as a single unit or childhood versions of their adult incarnations or alternate identities as they appear in the series canon (such as Lucina and Lucina-as-Marth being distinct heroes). The name of the artist and voice actor is displayed on the character’s profile, and many of the characters are played by their original VA or by notable personalities with experience in other games. A lot of the game’s dialogue is not voiced but critical quotes and other battles lines are voiced, as well as small interactions when clicking on characters on their profile. During combat, the battle sprites are active and the spell animations in particular are quite bombastic. I have a Marianne whose magic is a giant manifestation of Demonic Beast Maurice that’s more dynamic than basically any spell I’ve seen in Three Houses. In terms of looks and sounds, Fire Emblem Heroes kills it.

Perfect, I was needing a new lock screen.

Once you’re done getting all the free stuff the game throws at you as a beginner, you have to start spending resources for pulls. There are two types of pulls. The main type use a resource called orbs, which you get by completing certain quests or by clearing story missions for the first time on each difficulty. To pull with orbs, you choose an event to pull from based on which heroes you want to have higher odds for getting and then make anywhere from one to five pulls. Doing more pulls at once discounts the final cost – five pulls for 20 orbs versus only getting four pulls for 20 if you pulled from four different events. When you dive into an event you’re given a random set of colored crystals to choose which you want to pull from. There are four colors: red, blue, green, and colorless. Red, blue, and green are connected to the weapon triangle, while colorless characters do not benefit from nor are penalized for the triangle. When you break a crystal, you find out what character you get who matches that crystal’s type.

The other method of pulling involves Hero Grails, a rarer resource than orbs that allows you to select a specific character rather than getting someone at random. However, the set of characters that you can get from spending Grails is limited, and they can only be four-star characters. So you’re trading the opportunity for a more powerful unit for a guarantee of getting a specific character. Some of the characters who appear here are special variants – I for example got some kind of ninja costume Shamir who wields a shuriken-shaped axe instead of her normal bow and arrow. Grails are harder to get and you spend more of them at once, so ultimately the game is going to push you towards the random pulls – after all, that’s where the money’s at.

Once you’ve pulled your heroes, the next step is to use them in battle. There are lots of types of battles available in the game but for the purposes of this article, I’ll only be focusing on story content. When you select a story battle, you’ll get a brief dialogue scene and then be thrown into a bite-sized Fire Emblem map with only a handful of units. Your team will be made up of four characters while the enemy force may be as small as three or as big as six, with the possibility of reinforcements also being present on certain maps. Before you choose a battle you can see what type of weapons the enemies will have and make decisions about which of your characters to use accordingly. Rather than choosing from all your units every time you are about to battle, you instead keep a set of up to 20 teams and simply choose which team to bring to a particular match. When the match starts, your units are automatically placed, but you can swap their positions up until the point you make your first move.

Tutorial battles like this one help you learn the game’s basic concepts, and they give rewards for clearing them for the first time.

If you’ve ever played Fire Emblem, the game mechanics will feel pretty familiar. Characters can move one to three spaces based on their class and your team all take their turns first, then the enemy gets their phase, and then a new round starts. Control-wise, you simply use the phone’s touch interface to select and drag units from their current position to a new one. Dragging an allied unit onto an enemy initiates combat against them. Characters have simplified versions of Fire Emblem stats: health, damage, speed, defense, resistance, as well as a new stat called SP. SP stands for skill points, and you spend them between battles to upgrade a character’s weapons or give them new skills to use in battle. Unsurprisingly, five-star characters have better stats and access to more powerful skills; you can feel the difference in potency on the battlefield, and it is not subtle.

That said, the game is not balanced to five-star characters but to four-star. The special heroes break the game and allow you to steamroll levels. Playing as the more common heroes actually puts you in situations where you’ll have to think about strategy. On one of my teams, for example, I have Matthew, who is a thief character from the first Fire Emblem to release in the west. Matthew uses daggers, a colorless hidden weapon that focuses less on damage and more on inflicting status problems like lowered stats. I can’t just toss Matthew to a horde of enemies and expect him to last, but what he can do is wear down an opponent and open up an opportunity for another hero to get the kill. By spending SP on his Poison Strike ability, he now not only lowers stats but deals armor-piercing damage after combat resolves to help chip down enemies even further. I actually have to think tactically – you know, the thing Fire Emblem is about – when playing as Matthew and other characters of a similar skill level. Conversely, when my five-star Chrom is on the field, he is simply a win button against any odds that aren’t super overleveled compared to me.

So far, I am cautiously enjoying Fire Emblem Heroes. The opening of games like this is notoriously generous to new players in order to rope them into the ecosystem; once you’re hooked, the inconveniences start rolling in and boy wouldn’t it be nice if you could just pay a few dollars for the game to feel how it felt when you first started? I don’t think I can honestly review Heroes until I’m deeper in, and there are a ton of mechanics I haven’t even started to engage with. The game’s art is gorgeous and it is cool to see such a lovingly-crafted celebration of a series that means so much to me. The mechanics are most interesting when you intentionally play with the characters the system is balanced to rather than trying to break it with your cool, super rare pulls. Only time will tell if that balance holds true deeper into the game’s story.

One thought on “I Finally Caved – First Impressions of Fire Emblem Heroes

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  1. Fire Emblem Heroes is my guilty pleasure. 🙂 It’s the only mobile game I’ve stuck with, and I find it to be the most generous of the gacha games I’ve played over the years. I agree that the 5 stars can really steamroll the game, though I do find some good, challenging fights at higher levels on occasion. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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