February 09

Fire Emblem Heroes

Nintendo’s second mobile game (and third mobile title) is now out on the app store and this time it’s visiting more familiar territory as the classic Japanese RPG model meets head-on with Nintendo subsidiary Intelligent Systems’s classic Fire Emblem console series. And the result is a very slick and enjoyable experience with some really fun and rewarding combat mechanics.

As of writing, the game is rank 10th in terms of revenue generated per day in the USA. A very solid start, although not quite hitting the same dizzying heights that Super Mario Run did upon it’s much anticipated launch.

An Introduction to Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem has actually been around since 1990 as a Japanese only title on the Famicom (or NES in the West). In 2003, the game Super Smash Bros. featured two characters from the series called Marth and Roy and their popularity in the game persuaded Nintendo to start releasing the titles in the West too.

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The original Fire Emblem box art from the 1990 Famicom game.

Starting with 2003’s Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade for the Gameboy Advance, Fire Emblem introduced a slick and very well designed turn-based RPG experience to Nintendo hardware. Though each series varies and changes, the core formula is always a turn-based RPG consisting of a number of missions. As the player you earn and collect heroes who you use in battle and improve over time. However, the player has to carefully manage their roster as losing a character in battle means the character is lost permanently (a feature which unsurprisingly does not make it across to mobile).

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One of the Game Cube versions of the game, where the series has moved to 3D and started to ramp up it’s complexity.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the Fire Emblem series with just words, but essentially the core gameplay offers a wide variety of tactics and strategy to the player. There is a lot of gameplay mastery in that you can build a team to execute on a specific strategy that you create for yourself, whilst also providing a vast myriad of other potential tactics and strategies you can use. Ultimately this results in games that aren’t necessarily mainstream, but that have a very core and loyal audience that are deeply engaged with new games.

Fire Emblem would not be considered a “tier 1” Nintendo IP such as Mario, Zelda or Pokemon but definitely has a big following and a Fire Emblem game usually arrives for every device that Nintendo release after about 12-24 months. Thus it’s with great interest to see how Intelligent Systems have gone about creating a mobile experience.

Core Loops

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The Core Loops of Fire Emblem Heroes and many other JRPG’s.

This game uses a very familiar loop structure that can be be found in one of many Japanese RPG games such as Brave Frontier, Final Fantasy Exvius, Summoner’s War, et all. Essentially the game has a twin currency system where the player can battle PvE or PvP. Battling in either mode levels up their Heroes which allows them to continue to invest and upgrade them. Players can accelerate the process by playing the Gacha to get rarer and more powerful characters, but can make their way through the game without spending but taking a lot longer to do so.

Compared to rival games, the biggest difference with Fire Emblem Heroes is that the core gameplay is a lot more nuanced and enjoyable and less grindy. As a result there is no real base building progression system which has crept into titles such as Summoner’s War and Brave Frontier, but instead there is a good deal of depth in character customisation with skills and party composition playing a large part in mastering the game.

As a result I am going to spend most of the article talking about the core gameplay of the title, as this is where it really shines. It’s a different approach to most mobile RPG’s and probably reflective of it’s console heritage. From a personal perspective I would say that the game feels less grindy than some of it’s rivals because the core gameplay is more enjoyable. There is no option to auto-battle (at least not that I can find), but there are options to skip animations to speed up proceedings.

I’m a big fan of other mobile RPG’s, specifically Puzzle and Dragons and Brave Frontier. It’s very early to make a call on Fire Emblem Heroes, but so far I am really enjoying the game and am curious and excited to see what new game modes are added next.

PvE and Heroes

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At it’s heart, the game uses a very straight forward model for it’s PvE mode. Players are given a selection of missions to play through, each ramping up in terms of difficult and stamina costs over time. If the player completes a chapter they can also unlock the same battle on hard and then lunatic difficulty settings for extra replayability value and to help them accumulate XP for new characters they will acquire over time.

Players earn Orbs fairly generously in this game, with pretty much every mission giving an orb instead of requiring a whole chapter to be completed like most other JRPG’s. This likely decreases ARPPU potential but likely fits more into Nintendo’s overall brand and is also likely to improve retention.

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Just as it’s name would suggest, Fire Emblem really is all about it’s heroes. There are around 60 at launch with more promised over the next few months. Heroes come in multiple colours and types which greatly impacts the core gameplay. Each mission can be min/maxed by carefully thinking about the enemies you will encounter compared to the Heroes you own. To truly master the game, over time you will want a well rounded roster with powerful heroes of multiple types. This means a lot of going back over old missions and the training tower to build up the level of your Heroes.

Combat Mechanics

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Combat in Fire Emblem Heroes feels very familiar to it’s console counterparts but well suited with good optimisations made for mobile. Battles take place on a 6*9 grid which is considerably smaller than on console. The game could have used multiple screens for larger battlefields, but it seems obvious that the game was designed to be playable in one hand and for short sessions, with battles resolving faster than the console equivalent.

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Combat in the game has many nuances and there is a ton of depth in tactics and strategy available. Some characters have assist abilities that allow you to buff other party members to make them even more powerful, but are weak as a result. Some characters have deadly ranged attacks but die horribly if someone gets close. Some characters are good at debuffing the enemy meaning you can weaken them before attacking them with your own. These are just some of the top level gameplay decisions you make but give an idea of where the game leads.

I particularly enjoy the depth of combinations you can come up with your Heroes and their skills. For example, i have a character called Tiki that heals adjacent party members when she attacks, but is generally quite slow moving. However, using one of my Knight characters that I won, I can use the knights “shove” skill to push Tiki further into the battlefield. Supported by two powerful flying characters, i can use Tiki to heal and support my flyers whilst keeping her safe. The game is full of combinations and team synergies like this and makes the game really addictive. I often find myself thinking about combinations of Heroes that I own and how they would interact with each other, which creates a powerful call back mechanism to make me return.

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Most characters also have a special move which is activated automatically when their trigger is ready. This means that you often have to plan a couple of turns ahead in advance to maximize the potential of your party as wasting your special on an attack that would have killed anyway could mean losing a battle you would otherwise have won. Some specials also have abilities like area of effect or healing nearby units, so core gameplay keeps you on your toes!

Hero Progression

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Though the game has a story mode, the story isn’t the most riveting and essentially is just a facade to lure you into the satisfying gameplay. Actual progression comes from the investment you make in your characters over time. Stats increase to begin with, but over time your character can learn new skills which you can equip to your characters to change the way they can be used in battle.

An interesting nuance which has made it over from the console series is that characters primarily gain XP by dealing damage and / or pulling off the finishing blow on an enemy. This means that when you want to invest in new characters that you have acquired, you have to plan the battle such that your powerful units don’t completely kill off enemies, but do leave them weak enough for your lower level heroes to commit the last blow. Additionally Heroes don’t gain any XP at all if they die, so you need to formulate this into your plan too. Characters gain levels during battle, something that is quite unique but adds a lot to the enjoy-ability of battles when you play them.

It’s also possible to acquire items called Crystals and Shards from quests and the training tower to invest into characters to level them up at a faster rate. These are basically XP potions, with a colour specific shard required for each colour character, and a universal shard also being available which can be used on anyone. These items are only available on certain days in the training tower, so it means that in the mid and elder game, you need to pay attention to the weekly game cycle.

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After a while, players face more obstacles when trying to improve their characters. Whereas Crystals are used for characters below level 20, Shards are needed once they pas that point. Additionally to truly maximise a character, you may want to unlock their potential of merge heroes. These systems make up for the lack of a traditional fusion system and are not the most intuitive. However, they serve a purpose and effectively determine the elder game for most players – grinding the Arena and  training tower to gain the rare resources you need to improve your characters to their highest capability.

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Gacha

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Gacha is the lifeblood of any RPG based game, with developers making large numbers of 2D assets that can be created fairly quickly but that are in high demand by players. Fire Emblem actually introduces a fairly unique system to it’s game as players get a discount on their summons by summoning up to five heroes at once. The player also has some ability to influence their rolls by being able to choose from either Legendary or Devoted heroes (these determine their type) and by getting a preview of what colour they will earn. If you really want Marth who is a red Hero, then if you go to summon and see that there is no red available, you only have to make one roll and know that it’s not possible to get him in that specific summoning period.

Interestingly this means that as a player, your goal is usually to play until you get 20 orbs, so that you can go crazy at the Gacha to summon new heroes. This helps create daily and weekly goals and makes the game feel quite fair. Of course it’s painful to see someone roll three 5-star heroes in half the number of rolls you make, but that’s literally the luck of the draw and how Gacha games inherently work. It does also men though that players are not incentivised to buy orbs if they are getting less than 20, so it will be interesting to see if this increased ARPPU or conversion on the 20 orb bundle.

At this point I must also call out the AWESOME Gacha sequence the game offers. Some characters play a movie when you get them, and this is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in a Gacha in any game. The level of polish and quality throughout the title is of an extremely high standard and even though this game is 2D, I would argue it’s a clear example of a “Triple-A” game in much the way that Clash Royale is.

PvP / Arena Duels

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The game currently has a mode called Arena, which is the nearest thing the game has currently to PvP. It should be noted that Nintendo have announced more PvP modes are coming, but this is what we have for now. Players battle against ghosts of other players using an Arena currency called Duelling Swords. Players only get 3 of these per day, but can spend one orb to replenish them. This system is almost identical to ones used in many games such as Brave Frontier so is about as proven as they come.

There isn’t a global leaderboard, but players do earn arena points which tie into rewards they will get at the end of each season based on how any points they acquire. Rewards are of the highest desirability being Hero Feathers, so Arena is a must for elder game players. Bonuses are awarded for win streaks and for using specific characters, which makes the game interesting. At higher tiers especially, it poses an interesting question as players are likely to use the heroes that offer additional points, but means you can beat them in the meta game by picking units that counter the ones giving bonuses. This isn’t an innovation per se, but given the brilliance on the Fire Emblem gameplay, means that this mode can become moreish to the hardcore players out there.

Home Hub

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Many RPG games these days have a progression based element of a town or base that the player can invest in over time. Fire Emblem has something similar, although the amount of progression it offers is very little. Players have a Castle where some of their heroes stand and where they can interact with them (a nod to the more sophisticated stories of the console games). Players can also upgrade the appearance of their Castle to get permanent XP boosts to all of their characters. This is a no-brainer purchase and recommended for everyone, though it’s fairly well hidden away. This means that the hub for the game is well presented and fun, and not just a boring menu, like some other games. The hub is also used to interact with friends from your friends list.

Friends and Social

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If there is one area that Fire Emblem is weak in, it’s definitely in it’s lack of social. In fact, this could be said of all of Nintendo’s games so far. I have a feeling this is because Nintendo are scared to add a chat system to their games given their brand but it’s equally possible that it’s just an oversight.

I’ve commented on this in my Super Mario Run deconstruct, but the mechanism used to add friends in all of Nintendo’s mobile products is exceptionally weak. It has a high friction barrier because it requires a code and not allowing an easy way such as using Facebook or Game Center as pretty much every other game these day does.

Once you are connected you can greet friends to receive Hero Feathers, but interactions are very limited after that. unlike almost every other JRPG, there is no “borrow a friend’s Hero” mechanic which seems like it would be really well suited to this game. There is no way to send messages to each other and the only “free” invite you get is when you play someone in Arena. This could be an area which the developer is looking to expand upon in the future, but currently with no guilds service, no way to chat and no reason to want to chat (such as trading items or working together to achieve a goal), it’s a definite weakness in an otherwise great game.

Live Ops

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It’s encouraging to see that in launch week the game is getting heavy support with new events, game features and challenges being added at a regular intervals. Many JRPG’s have already paved the way for successful roadmaps for event cadence and new features so Fire Emblem doesn’t need to innovate in this area. However, given the charm of the game, i am expecting to see some twists and originality in what comes next, so look forwards to seeing what comes next.

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UPDATE (13/2/17)

I’ve now played the game solidly for over a week, and have grinded a number of characters up to level 35 and beyond. I’m still really enjoying my time with the game, but there are a number of issues i can find at this point in time that may be areas of concern in the not so distant future.

The game is short of content. I finished all of the story missions in about 5 days, and although there are Hard and Lunatic difficulties available the game, I feel like the finishing line is way closer than a good service game should be. This is easily rectifiable with more content and game modes, but I think the developer needs to get a move on with it because mid core is a competitive place and players will happily move to the next game of the week if you don’t give them a reason to stay. If the developers could add a good synchronous PvP mode to this game, it would be insanely addictive as the core gameplay is fantastic and if anything my experience of it has improved over time rather than diminished and would give the game evergreen gameplay, so I am hoping the hidden game mode is something related to multiplayer.

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The current PvP Arena is beign dominated by characters with deadly Counter Attacks such as Takumi and Hector.

Some characters are too strong in PvP. A 5 star archer called Takumi is wrecking havoc in PvP right now. Though it is possible to beat him, some teams run multiple Takumi’s which are almost impossible to beat. Whilst there was always going to be some characters that end up at the top of the pile, he seems possibly a bit too good as he does massive damage, hits from long range, has no colour weakness AND has the deadly counter attack meaning that even if you get up close and ambush him, you still die. This means you either need to get him yourself (I don’t have him) or spend to get him and it’s not very fun to play against. I hope they nerf the character somewhat, but given the tough rules on Gacha in Japan, have a feeling this won’t be rectified.

 

There are some annoyances. No game is perfect and Fire Emblem Heroes has it’s share of minor gripes. My biggest problem is two-fold. One I can’t deploy my team into battle in the way I want to (this was not the case on console), which means that often my tactics are ruined by the random placement as healers and dancers are placed in front of tankier characters. This is exacerbated by not being able to see the map you are going to fight on (especially true in PvP and Training Tower), which makes it extremely frustrating when the map screws you by having a Cavalry character start among the trees or similar. Luckily this doesn’t happen too often, but it is annoying when it does!

All these issues are solvable, and I hope the developers manage to fix these small niggles.

Wrap-Up and Final Thoughts

Fire Emblem is probably the “safest” game Nintendo could have made in terms of generating solid revenues. It’s a proven game model with an IP which can have a long tail through live ops. It won’t win any awards for daring innovation or uniqueness. However, overall I have been very impressed with Fire Emblem. It’s a high quality product that is genuinely fun to play. Even if you stripped the progression systems away, the core gameplay is fun and involving and there is plenty of design space left for the game to grow into over time.

For the western market, the game is still rather complicated. Though the game has high production values, there is poor UX in places, as it’s not clear how a lot of the game features function, and often it’s unclear how battle works. Sometimes when your characters do 0 damage, you are left scratching your head, and it took a group of us a few days to work out that special attacks weren’t random and that there was a logic behind it! These things increase the self-discovery when playing the game, but ultimately hurt the genre and title from really going broad on appeal. However, I suspect that’s not really the goal of the Fire Emblem series.

For myself personally, though it’s early days I think the game is great and am really going to enjoy ploughing a lot of time and inevitably money into it over the next few months.

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