2.24.2017

Review: Fire Emblem Heroes

How Nintendo Got Free to Play Right


Fire Emblem: Heroes is a mobile version of Nintendo’s fairly popular series of tactical RPGs. Earlier iterations were Japan exclusive, but western curiosity after Roy and Marth’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. Melee convinced Nintendo to try bringing it overseas in 2003. Good reviews and fair sales helped keep the games coming stateside, with the most recent entries (Fire Emblem: Conquest and Birthright for the 3DS) selling over 300,000 combined copies in their first week.

The game is played on 8x6 grids, with up to four units on both sides. Units are typically characters from past Fire Emblem games, with a few Heroes original characters and generic units added. New units are won through the game’s “gatcha” style system using the in-game orbs. Heroes have rarities from one to five stars, with certain heroes only available above certain rarities. You can win heroes you already have, but extras can be merged for stat boosts or traded for feathers (more on these later). Thankfully, Heroes drops the perma-death the series is known for, so you won’t have to spend all over again after a bad move.


By spending orbs, the player can summon up to five heroes at a time with a discount for summoning multiple heroes in one go. Summoning five heroes requires 20 orbs, and for those willing to spend money on the game, a bundle of 23 orbs will cost $12.99. This seems a little expensive, considering the roughly 3.5% chance of receiving a five-star hero. Add to that certain limited-time “banner heroes” and you have a game that could get expensive real quick.

Playing through the story mode gave me enough orbs for a good number of heroes, and more orbs can be won through daily login bonuses and in-game missions. Although I had won two five-star heroes during my time with the game, I managed to finish most of the story without relying on them. Each story mission can be played in one of three difficulties, each giving an orb for that map.

"The story mode is sparse, with nine chapters of five battles each. Heroes’ scenes are not voiced, but they are short, avoiding the walls of text Fire Emblem is known for."

New heroes can also be won from rotating event battles, but you can only win event heroes twice (on two separate map difficulties). The story mode is sparse, with nine chapters of five battles each. Heroes’ scenes are not voiced, but they are short, avoiding the walls of text Fire Emblem is known for. The story is your standard mobile fare, with a summoner (the player) being brought in to help protect a kingdom by summoning heroes from other worlds. Not terribly complicated or involved, but this is a mobile game. 

The game’s familiar stamina system keeps people from beating the game in one go, and I actually felt the stamina regenerated fairly quickly compared to other games. The maximum 50 stamina typically took a bit over four hours to refill, and was usually plenty to let me play for a half hour or so on low-level maps. Stamina is used for most battles, so it is important to spend it wisely. Stamina potions and other items can be won from quests or given as login bonuses, and I built up a fair number of them during my playtime.


Heroes brings back the swords, axes and spears (or simply, red, green and blue) weapon triangle, shown above. The red, green, blue relationship also holds true for the game’s magic, and for weapons versus magic, with a fire magic (red) unit having an advantage against an axe (green) unit. 

An advantage doesn’t guarantee a win, but it does make a huge difference. (I often found my strongest attacking units doing zero damage against a bad matchup.) There are also grey colored units, which use knives or staves, but don’t have any weapon advantages or disadvantages. Each unit also has its own abilities, including combinations of attack skills, heal skills, support skills, passive skills and/or map skills.

The second in-game currency, feathers, are used to upgrade a unit’s rarity, granting new skills, increasing their base stats, and resetting the unit to level one. Sadly, earning enough feathers to upgrade a unit from four to five stars is, at this time, ridiculous. Players can’t buy feathers, but they can be won from arena mode, completing missions, or as daily gifts from friends. Feathers are an unofficial paywall, and I decided it was much cheaper time-wise to stockpile orbs and pull new heroes than upgrade a single hero to five stars. 

“Feathers are an unofficial paywall, and I decided it was much cheaper time-wise to stockpile orbs and pull new heroes than upgrade a single hero to five stars. ”

Upgrading a hero requires that the hero reach at least level 20 first, a sizable time and stamina investment. Additionally, the entire level up process needs to be done once for each star the unit needs to reach five, with a rising feather cost for each star. Bringing a unit from one star to four can be done for a few thousand feathers, but the jump to five stars is an outrageous 20,000 feathers.

I mentioned the arena mode, but Heroes doesn’t have true PvP. Instead, it pits you against other players’ teams controlled by the game’s AI. By spending dueling swords in arena mode, I was given the choice of “Beginner”, “Intermediate” and “Advanced” opponents to fight against. The top 100,000 players are placed on your typical rankings board, but three dueling swords each day for my under level 40 team left me unranked 

Surprisingly, I hardly felt a pay-to-win aspect. By paying attention to positioning, I found myself beating even advanced opponents regularly, although difficulty being described based on average stats sometimes meant getting wiped out by a single overleveled unit. This averaging mechanic also plays a part in keeping new players from being matched up against someone who payed for a premium team.


The game looks great. Battle animations are smooth, and the game sounds like Fire Emblem. Heroes’ battle sounds and background music brought me back to playing Path of Radiance on the Gamecube, and make me want to pick up one of the 3DS titles. Each hero also has a few portraits, some of which are used used in battles and can be viewed in the unit’s stats screen.

Along with the removal of permadeath, Heroes removes a few of the other more frustrating points from the games. Physical and magic attack stats have become just attack, although defense and resistance remain separate. Critical hits have been removed for a more consistent (and less hacksy) experience. Special moves have been put on individual timers which deplete on attacks involving the unit, instead of being entirely luck based. If the game says you’ll do ten damage, you’ll do ten damage.

Naturally, I started playing the game during Nintendo’s launch event. I received quite a few free items and bonus orbs because of it, but I still think the game will be playable without spending any money once the event ends. 

Nintendo has even extended the launch event indefinitely due to player feedback, keeping stamina costs for training maps halved (which is a huge deal, training high-level units is expensive). Additionally, the app-release bonus period has been extended until March 14, giving players two free orbs each day instead of one.

“Fire Emblem: Heroes is a game that I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone curious about the series.”

Fire Emblem: Heroes is a game that I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone curious about the series. The game already has a devoted following with daily discussions on Reddit, and there are plenty of guides and tips for beginners available. The game has a pretty low barrier to entry compared to similar games, and Nintendo looks like it will support the game through events for a long time. It’s out now for iOS and Android, so anyone interested can go try it.