Nintendo's Fire Emblem Heroes looks sharp, but will it survive the freemium transition?

A cult favorite role-player is Nintendo's next iOS release—with big changes in tow.

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Credit: Nintendo

We’re pretty big fans of Super Mario Run, but a lot of iPhone and iPad players have grumbled about the premium pricing structure. Well, they’ll have a chance to see how Nintendo approaches a free-to-play gaming model pretty soon, as Fire Emblem Heroes was officially revealed on Wednesday—and it’s coming out in just two weeks, on February 2.

Fire Emblem doesn’t have the same kind of mainstream cachet as Mario, of course, but the franchise is utterly beloved by a pretty strong core fan base. The tactical role-playing series debuted in 1990 on the Famicom (the Japanese NES), and while we didn’t see an entry in the States until 2003, the series has spawned a few acclaimed entries since. In fact, Heroes was one of four different upcoming Fire Emblem games detailed in yesterday’s live stream event, alongside releases for the new Switch console and the Nintendo 3DS.

Although it’s a fairly complex experience on Nintendo’s own platforms, Fire Emblem Heroes looks like it could work well on iOS. The slower pace of turn-based combat could let players enjoy battles in fits and starts, while some modifications to the formula ought to help in the transition. Still, there’s reason to be concerned that this typically-premium experience could be too compromised by the new free-to-play twists. Here’s what to expect. 

It’s streamlined, but still strategic

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All the action fits on one screen now, but the combat still seems pretty strategic.

Bringing Fire Emblem to mobile devices might seem surprising, as the series is known for being pretty hardcore. Players engage in dramatic, turn-based battles across large battlefields, commanding a squadron of heroes against an opposing army—and if you play with the classic rules enabled, a fallen ally stays dead after the battle ends. However, less-punitive settings allow players to skirt that grim fate, and I’d imagine that Heroes will also let you decide just how brutal you want the experience to be.

Nintendo showed quite a bit of gameplay in yesterday’s stream, and based on what’s been shown, Fire Emblem Heroes doesn’t seem dramatically dumbed down. It looks similar to Final Fantasy: Record Keeper in overall approach, weaving in an array of classic heroes from past entries. However, based on what we’ve seen so far, it seems like you have a lot more control over the actual battles, since Fire Emblem thrives on strategic decisions.

That said, there are changes. Each map is now relegated to an 8x6 grid of squares, which means while there are still varying layouts and terrain types, the entire battlefield fits on one screen. That ought to keep battles a bit tidier and quicker too, but otherwise, the combat should stick pretty close to what’s been seen in past entries. I’d imagine the scale of the experience will be much slimmer, though, and that probably extends to the narrative and campaign structure.

It’s loaded with fan service

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Fire Emblem’s bold heroes attack with a flourish of fantastic artwork across the screen.

Remember what I just wrote about past heroes? Yeah, that’s sure to bring in the hardcore fans who might otherwise consider a free-to-play spinoff to be an unconscionable bastardization. You’ll be able to unlock dozens of these heroes and recruit them to your cause, with familiar names like Marth, Roy, Ike, Corrin, and Navare in the mix.

Don’t know any of those heroes? Haven’t played a Fire Emblem game before? No worries. Nintendo says that Fire Emblem Heroes has an original story of warring kingdoms as its anchor, and those bonus characters are sure to be just as helpful in battle even if you can’t tell them apart from the outset. Nintendo undoubtedly knows that Fire Emblem Heroes will reach more people than have ever touched the franchise on other platforms, if only due to its lack of upfront cost, so I suspect that existing fandom is purely optional to enjoy this game.

And it’ll have several play modes, as well: a Training Tower for gaining crucial experience and rewards for your heroes, special seasonal events along the way, and an Arena Duel mode that gives you more experience the longer you can survive through successive battles. It sounds like there should be plenty to play, although they’re probably all just very slight variations on the same grid-based team battles.

There’s a strong freemium component

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Heroes upon heroes! How many orbs will you be tempted to buy to get your perfect lineup?

We don’t know yet whether Fire Emblem Heroes will have elements like timers, paywalls, or in-game ads, but Nintendo made it very clear that its most appealing hook—those unlockable warriors from past games—could cost you an arm and a leg. 

Heroes can be unlocked using orbs, and while orbs will be handed out here and there through regular gameplay, you’ll also be able to buy them with real cash. We even saw the price points in Nintendo’s video walkthrough: a three-pack of orbs sold for $2 in the example, ranging all the way up to a pack of 140 orbs for $75. The latter is almost twice the price of the next full-fledged Fire Emblem game coming to Nintendo 3DS, which will probably be perfectly balanced and lack any kind of in-game purchase opportunities.

Balance is my biggest concern with Fire Emblem Heroes. Free-to-play games are intentionally designed in a way that tries and generate more and more money from players, while all past Fire Emblem games have had a single price tag for a complete and well-balanced experience. Is there a way to make that shift in a subtle enough way to minimize the influence of real money, or are players just going to feel goaded into pulling out their wallets? 

If it’s the latter, then I imagine a lot of the serious fans will check out early and return to the Nintendo 3DS games—there’s a new one coming in May, after all. But if it’s possible to play for free and still gradually unearth great rewards, not mention get a fulfilling tactical combat experience, then maybe Fire Emblem Heroes can thrive in this unfamiliar environment.

In any case, it may be mobile-centric players who benefit the most: they’re already used to an array of freemium annoyances, and now they’ll get a hearty, Nintendo-quality role-playing experience for the very first time. While I remain slightly skeptical that Fire Emblem Heroes can maintain its classic edge amidst free-to-play dilutions, what Nintendo has shown so far seems appealing, making this another promising-looking mobile debut from the gaming giant.

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