For its first branded mobile game, Nintendo went with the most obvious choice: Super Mario Run, a smartly streamlined take on the classic formula—and thankfully one with a single price tag. Nintendo’s next smartphone and tablet game is quite different in nearly every respect, however, as it’s based on a less prominent franchise, offers a more complex and story-driven experience, and embraces the platform’s tendency for free-to-play gaming.
It’s Fire Emblem Heroes, and it’s available now on both iOS and Android. The Fire Emblem series has thrived on Nintendo’s own platforms for more than 25 years now, and is best known for its brilliantly captivating and seriously challenging quests on portable systems—like last year’s acclaimed Fire Emblem Fates for Nintendo 3DS. We didn’t even get a Fire Emblem game in the States until 2003, but since that time, the tactical role-playing franchise has found a place in the hearts of millions of Nintendo fans.
But how does a brainy and full-bodied strategic warfare game hold up on mobile with streamlined gameplay and controls, not to mention balancing for a free-to-play approach? Here’s our early take based on the initial hours of the game.
It’s Fire Emblem lite
Fire Emblem’s turn-based design already makes sense for mobile, as you maneuver your heroes around the grid-covered battlefield, attack or assist, and try to survive the next wave of opposing actions. However, Heroes makes some noteworthy tweaks to the design to keep things even more manageable on smartphones. The most obvious of those comes with the size of the grid, as each battlefield is limited to the bounds of your screen, and you’ll control only four soldiers at a time. That keeps the skirmishes small, which likewise keeps them quick.
The touch controls likewise help to keep battles short and snappy, as there’s no complex maneuvering or fumbled menu navigation to worry about. When you tap and hold a unit, you’ll see blue squares (your movement range) and red squares (the farthest you can attack after moving)—and what’s handy is that you can just drag and drop your units to any illuminated square and watch the action unfold. Enough of the combat is automated to save hassle without taking strategy and choice out of the matter.
In large part, Fire Emblem seems to follow the mold of Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, another mobile mash-up of several different console role-playing games—and developer DeNA had a hand in both entries, as well. In my Freemium Field Test piece on Record Keeper, I wondered aloud if people really played Final Fantasy for the rote combat and nothing else; I certainly don’t. Fire Emblem Heroes likewise makes combat its primary focus, but not only is the combat a bit richer, but there’s also more surrounding it here than in Final Fantasy: Record Keeper.
Here, the main draw are the story missions, which introduce new characters and mix in old ones from the older console entries. You don’t really need any familiarity with them: new and old heroes are intertwined and all given beautiful character art and voice acting. Each new chapter introduces a different world in the Fire Emblem universe and new threats to face, which in turn unlocks more and more missions that can be played and replayed, as well as access to other play modes.
Fire Emblem Heroes seems designed to best reward those players who will replay missions time and again, especially on higher difficulty settings, as you’ll earn additional items and currency, as well as the all-powerful orbs that let you unlock more and more heroes. You’ll have to grind out these benefits through potentially monotonous stretches of combat… or you can pump in some money to speed up the process. In other words, it’s a freemium game.
Yep, it’s totally freemium
Surprise! Nintendo’s unfortunately maligned move to charge players a premium price for a premium game appears to be a one-time deal with Super Mario Run, as Fire Emblem Heroes uses a very typical free-to-play model through and through. For series fans, the most appealing part of the game will surely be unlocking access to classic heroes from past entries, and doing so requires a stash of orbs.
Orbs are handed out pretty frequently early on, to be fair: you’ll get a nice stack of 15 when you start playing, another one each time you finish a story mission, and others granted daily during this initial launch period. You’ll need five orbs to summon a new hero, but the selection is random, as are the hero’s attributes—there’s no guarantee that you’ll yield Marth or Lucina, or any of your other favorites. And if you don’t know these heroes, then you still might be bummed if you get a weaker hero, or one that is very similar to your other units.
Nintendo does cut you some slack on pricing if you want to buy in bulk, as you can snag multiple heroes on the same draw and spend fewer orbs with successive yields. Still, if you’re chasing certain heroes, the real money cost for orbs is simply staggering: it ranges from $2 for 3 orbs up to $75 for 140 orbs, which means summoning a random hero would cost around $3 apiece if you’re not buying the super-pricey value bundles.
Fire Emblem Heroes has a couple other limiting systems in play, as well, although they aren’t too punitive. For example, there’s a stamina meter that can restrict how much you play, but it gives you 50 stamina points, which refresh at a rate of five minutes apiece… and early story missions only use up a couple of points. Some of the special missions take up a lot more points (like the Virion: Elite Archer map on Hard, which uses 10 points per try), but it’s definitely possible to play for a good hour or two here without draining your stamina.
Similarly, you’re given just three daily Dueling Swords, which are used as payment to take part in player-vs-player battles against A.I. versions of real-life opponents. If you tap out of those before the day’s up, you can spend an orb to refill your stock. All told, it seems like you can get a lot of daily play from Fire Emblem Heroes without spending a dime, although extensive play or a desire for more and more heroes could tempt your wallet into action.
Should you play it?
While I worried whether Nintendo could keep the spirit of the franchise intact while undergoing such a severe free-to-play transformation, I’m pretty impressed by Fire Emblem Heroes right off the bat. The tactical combat isn’t as expansive, complex, or varied as in the 3DS games, but it’s also not dulled to the point of being vapid or utterly devoid of strategy. It’s fun, and it plays really well on a smartphone screen.
Heroes is also super attractive, thanks to a mix of cartoonish units and more realistic, hand-drawn artwork, and the whole thing feels like a very premium production. Embracing a freemium model does sully the design a bit, as you can no longer claim that the game is balanced solely for skill; the influence of money might not ruin the fun, but it surely compromises the approach to some extent.
Still, Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t really meant as a replacement for or successor to the main Fire Emblem games. Nintendo said early on that its mobile games would be designed to grab smartphone players and try and coax them into becoming Nintendo console players, and Fire Emblem Heroes has enough of the series’ strategic gameplay and fantasy storytelling to offer a streamlined taste of what to expect. With a new Nintendo 3DS game out this May and a Nintendo Switch entry expected next year, there’s plenty of opportunity to “upgrade” to a full experience on one of Nintendo’s own devices.
But Fire Emblem Heroes doesn’t solely exist as a gateway experience, and as a game itself, Heroes does a good job of appealing to both types of players. Hardcore series fans can poke away at the tougher battles and gradually unlock more and more familiar characters, while newcomers get a slick and streamlined combat game that’s easy to learn, heavy on personality and polish, and seemingly loaded with content. Its freemium techniques are familiar, so if you can tolerate light limitations and in-app purchase prompts, you can probably get a lot of fun out of Nintendo’s latest.