First Impressions: Fire Emblem Heroes

Let's get this out of the way. I've never played any Fire Emblem games. I also did exactly no research into the franchise before downloading Fire Emblem Heroes on my iOS and Android devices to try it out. So I went into this game with exactly as much knowledge of what the heck was going on as about 95% of you folks. Since downloading I've played it for several hour-long stretches and in smaller 10 and 15 minute chunks across a few days, to the tune of a dozen hours total, on four different devices, and I feel like I have some authority when I say the following.

If you enjoy mobile games at all, you will enjoy this one quite a lot.

Fire Emblem is a turn-based tactical strategy RPG that Nintendo has made for years. It's been in the US since 2003, but in that time I've never so much as been exposed to it. From what I understand it's pretty fun, but I can't say that for myself, so uh... just pretend I didn't say it.
If you enjoy mobile games at all, you will enjoy this one quite a lot.

Now I don't make a secret of the fact that I love a good real-time strategy game, and in many ways I consider turn-based strategy akin to a glorified board game. But there are exceptions to this. While something like Civilization compares unfavorably (in my head) to physical games, some turn-based games like Heroes of Might and Magic and, I hear, Fire Emblem, mix in elements of RPGs for some added player choice. If you were paying attention to my review of Rise of the Tomb Raider, you'll know that I'm a sucker for mixing RPG elements into other game genres.

With that background, I want you to consider the scenario. Nintendo is bringing a tactical turn-based RPG that's beloved by millions for its focus on strategy to smartphone screens for the stated purpose of enticing people into the bigger and better games that run on their platforms. Add to that the fact that the game is freemium, and you would be forgiven for having a few misgivings.

Fortunately I can report that they're mostly misplaced. The gameplay is solid and rewarding, the experience is polished to a sheen, and the in-app purchases are pretty benign. It's probably the best freemium game I've played since Temple Run 2.

The Gameplay Actually Rocks

The biggest issue I've run into with anything that claims to be a strategy game on mobile is that, for the most part, they totally aren't. They're either completely based on chance or completely based on who has fed more money into the bill-shredder they call a "phone." But Fire Emblem Heroes includes something that I really appreciate, and that's a single-player story mode. In this mode, you play against increasingly difficult A.I. characters that are absolutely capable of beating you. But when you lose, it's because you made a tactical error, not because the computer-dice weren't rolling your way at the time.

When you win, you win, and when you lose, you feel like an idiot.
Before starting a match against the A.I. you can see exactly what category and difficulty of units you'll be up against. That allows you to select the appropriate team of your own heroes, or step back and prepare a team specifically for that match. Then when you jump in, you can see all of their units, and when you tell one of your heroes to attack, you see exactly how that battle is going to go down across the top of the screen before you actually commit to anything. Everything is told to you, so that when you win, you win, and when you lose, you feel like an idiot.

Then there are the RPG elements, that allow you to level your heroes, assign them unique skills, and structure them together into teams whose makeup best mirrors your play style. The gameplay is far more nuanced than anything I've seen on a phone before, but at the same time you can do everything with one finger. Simple and satisfying, a combo rarely reproduced in mobile games.

This Is An Actual Nintendo Game

I suppose this shouldn't have come as a surprise to me considering Nintendo's long and storied history with handheld game platforms, but holy crap guys, Nintendo is really good at making handheld games. Both Fire Emblem Heroes and Super Mario Run were more polished at release, version 1.0.0, than most mobile games are after five years of support. The art style of Fire Emblem Heroes is a superb mix of small, very GameBoy-esque sprites with highly detailed character artwork.

Both Fire Emblem Heroes and Super Mario Run were more polished at release, version 1.0.0, than most mobile games are after five years of support.
I can confirm that it looks good on a 4-inch screen, great on a 5/5.5-inch screen, and superb on a 7-inch screen (though that's no longer playable with one hand). You can play it on large tablets as well, and the detailed artwork looked great on my iPad, but that screen ratio was not what the game was designed for, and the sprites lost some of their sharpness on a 9.7-inch screen. I'm also skeptical that the game would be playable on a 3.5-inch screen, though to be fair, I haven't tested it. Most phones with a screen that size won't actually run it anyway. At least not the ones in my house.

Another great feature I wasn't expecting was the syncing. As with Super Mario Run, you can link Fire Emblem Heroes to a Nintendo account. This allows the game data to sync not only between devices in the same ecosystem but also between platforms. I have this game installed on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, an iPad Air 2, an LG G-Vista, and an iPhone 7 Plus. I can pick up any of those devices and play right from where I left off, and that is just fantastic.

The flip side of that coin is that the game does require a data connection to play. For the most part, from what I can tell of my usage so far, it's usually a tiny heartbeat connection to Nintendo's servers, though occasionally it'll send a megabyte or so of game data into the cloud for syncing purposes. Since the game is free-to-play, Nintendo can't say this is an anti-piracy measure, but there it is. It's a minor annoyance to me, but an annoyance all the same.

This Is Freemium Done Right

I hate downloading a game for free but then feeling like I have to pay money to have fun. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than willing to pay for a game to enjoy it. But when I have to pay every fifteen minutes for a mediocre game that I'll still never enjoy because other people are willing to spend more than me? Yeah, that's no good. It's worse when progression absolutely grinds to a halt and I'm pestered with every game interaction to fork over some more sweet, sweet cash. Games that do that typically don't last more than an hour or so on my phone.

The game doesn't hound you for money, and it lets you progress pretty readily without spending a dime.
Fire Emblem Heroes, however, is still around. The main currency you'll deal with are orbs, and early on at least the game is pretty generous with them. These allow you to summon new heroes, which allows you to better customize your team, which allows you to win more matches, which will give you more orbs. I'm sure the return on investment for the orbs drops eventually, but you'll have hours of fun playing before that happens.

The game doesn't hound you for money, and it lets you progress pretty readily without spending a dime. If you do pay for orbs, they'll be pretty expensive, but considering that Fire Emblem Heroes had the third most lucrative opening day in the history of the iOS App Store, it's working out. Nintendo has announced their intention to continue releasing games for mobile phones, with no definite end in sight. If Fire Emblem Heroes is the kind of thing we're going to be able to expect from them, well...

Bring it on, Nintendo. Bring it on.