For a long time, the Fire Emblem series was one of Nintendo's best kept hidden treasures. At first the reason was simply that the series was exclusive to the Japanese audience. With the Gameboy Advance release Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken (in the West simply known as Fire Emblem), Western players were introduced to the series as well. Still, the tactical role-playing games remained something for the more interested players, which almost brought about the end of the series.
This is far from the case today. The 3DS game Fire Emblem: Awakening became a success both commercially and among longtime followers. The game that could have been the last ended up becoming the series' comeback that brought it out in the spotlight for a far bigger audience. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS have several Fire Emblem characters in its roster. Last year we received Fire Emblem Fates, a title that practically equated to three separate games. And to top it all off we'll see no less than three new Fire Emblem games within the next year: The remake Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is due this May, the spin off Fire Emblem Warriors will release this autumn, and a Switch game is due sometime in 2018.
The games vary when it comes to quality, presentation and technical finesse, but the core elements of every single Fire Emblem game have always been turn-based combat, a multitude of classes and units, and most of all soldiers and units with clearly defined personalities and identity. This is what actually makes you care whether they live or die, since most Fire Emblem games have featured the merciless permadeath system. If a member of your group dies, he or she is gone for the rest of the game. All these features serve as a promising and entertaining basis for Fire Emblem Heroes, the new Nintendo mobile game. Unfortunately, what we are served is a rather boiled-down version of Fire Emblem for Android and iOS.
Fire Emblem Heroes is free-to-play, which can be both a good and a bad thing. The good part is that the threshold for trying out the game is considerably lower. The bad part is that there is no such thing as a free lunch here is this world, and a game free of charge is bound to come with consequences. In this case, the game follows the now (unfortunately) classic model, which means that the game itself is free but comes with elements that will cost you real-life money and you actually end up buying through deviously crafted design choices.
The first impression is not bad, however. You assume the role of a strategist from another world whose job it is to assist the characters Anna, Alfonse and Sharena from the kingdom of Askr in their struggle against the empire Emblia. Both realms possess the ability to travel to other worlds, and the Emblian empire uses this ability to enslave heroes from several Fire Emblem worlds through mind-controlling magical contracts. By besting these heroes in combat you free them from enslavement, and weaken the Embliam empire's power.
All of this comes wrapped in a beautifully designed package, although the glossy anime features can become somewhat exaggerated in some cases, especially compared to the characters' original designs. The combat on the other hand is quite pretty, not to mention that everything runs smoothly with loading times close to non-existent. Today's smart phones have a lot of processing power, which is put to good use here. What little music there is is also worth mentioning, even though most of the game's best sounds are remixed versions of tunes from previous games in the series.
It's also quite satisfying how well smart phone screens match the Fire Emblem gameplay. As is tradition, the game gives you a view of the battlefield, in this case a 8x6 grid. Everything is easily controlled by simple strokes with your finger, and one can only imagine how it would be if Nintendo made a full game with the same graphical presentation, short loading times and simple mechanics as these.
The combat system follows the classic Fire Emblem formula: the Weapon Triangle. Swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. The triangle is colour coded at the bottom right at all times, and a similar triangular system applies for magical attacks as well. The combat is turn-based, and your units will level up through experience gained on the battlefield. If you've ever played a Fire Emblem game before, you'll be familiar with how things work.
But as soon as the first impression ends, it doesn't take long before the game's weaknesses start to show. Coming as a shock to no-one, most of these weaknesses can be traced back to the mobile platform and free-to-play business model.
One of the core elements of the Fire Emblem games has always been how many of the characters start out as your enemies, but end up as your allies through negotiation and conversation with your heroes on the battlefield. To find out which character you need to use to persuade this enemy and how to do it has always been an exciting feature in the series. This is absent is Fire Emblem Heroes. Even heroes freed from mind-controlled enslavement will give you nothing more than a simple "Thank you" and be on their way. So how do you recruit new characters then? By investing pearls (the game's currency) in a portal that generates random heroes for you. Herein lies Nintendos's income for this game, as pearls take a lot of time and effort to earn, which means that the temptation to buy pearls for real money to recruit the heroes you actually want will be too great for some.
Not only is the classic recruitment method removed from this game, but all banter between your heroes is gone as well. Considering how the characters' unique personalities is what many of us fondly remember about Fire Emblem games, the end result cannot avoid feeling like an anaemic entry in the series. Awakening and Fates, the two last games in the series, have been particularly good on the social and romantic elements (not to mention being genuinely funny in these areas now and then), and a Fire Emblem game without these features is simply not the same.
What Fire Emblem Heroes wants you to focus on is combat. Not a negative necessarily, but the problem is that the game doesn't take long before it becomes too easy and repetitive. Each battle consists of four heroes on each side. No option for changing your units' placements on the battlefield is given before battle, and their available weapons depend on their skill level, which in turn depends on how many points they have earned previously. The different classes from the original games matter little in battle, and this again causes a lack of strategic depth. Several of the features in the newer games, such as two characters teaming up on the battlefield, are also absent.
The game features a training tower and an arena in addition to the story maps, but these are no different structurally than the story maps and so provide no added variation. Mostly these serve as testing grounds for you new heroes, where you can earn more points and upgrade their skills. It helps, but it's not enough.
For players who've never heard of the Fire Emblem series, Fire Emblem Heroes may serve as an easy and accessible strategy game on their mobile phones. For long-time fans, however, the chances are high that they will think this a game stripped of most of the features that characterise and separate the series from its competitors. Best case scenario, it will give you some entertainment for a few minutes at the time. Worst case scenario, this feels like nothing more than a glorified gacha simulator (see Urban Dictionary if you're unfamiliar with the term). Fire Emblem can do a lot better than that.