"Fire Emblem Heroes succeeds by relying on tried and tested formulas, but it's held back by the money-hungry nature of its underlying mechanics."
Fire Emblem Heroes is one Nintendo's first attempts to bring a flagship series to mobile devices. After a lacklustre start with Miitomo followed by a much more positive result with Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes is arguably a more involved and risky undertaking for Nintendo to bank on. Fire Emblem Heroes succeeds by relying on tried and tested formulas, but it's held back by the money-hungry nature of its underlying mechanics.
Think of Fire Emblem Heroes as Fire Emblem-lite. Just like in Conquest, Awakening, Path of Radiance, Sacred Stones and all the others, the gameplay focuses on fielding a team of units on a grid-based battlefield and taking turns to defeat your enemies. Different units wield different weapons that are strong or weak against others in a rock-paper-scissors arrangement with a few extra complexities (flying units are weak against archers, for example) thrown in for good measure. So where do the 'lite' aspects fit it? Fire Emblem Heroes only allows you to field a team of up to four units on a battlefield, maps are quite small, and defeating all enemies is always the only way to resolve a map. Fortunately, each of these is a positive for a mobile title as it allows you to pick-up and play Heroes for a short period. I often whipped out my phone for a quick map or two since each battle usually only takes two or three minutes.
Unsurprisingly, not all the mobile features are quite as positive. There's a wide range of characters, almost all familiar faces of heroes from previous Fire Emblem games, to recruit, but you can't pick them up in story mode. Instead, you can use Orbs (a premium in-game currency) to summon new heroes to your side. Heroes are ranked by their power from one to five stars and, of course, higher-starred characters are far more rare to come by — a 3% drop rate at the time this review was written. A number of Orbs are given out as you clear story-mode maps, but you need five to summon a single unit. You can also purchase Orbs with real money, but they're insanely expensive; just ten Orbs will set you back $9.99 — that's $5 for a single, potentially a lame three-star, character! And due to the randomness of drops, you could easily spend $100 and never see a five-star unit.
Some units can be upgraded to higher star tiers, though these too require a special Feather currency. Feathers are earned through a PvP arena rather than with real money, but even if you have one of the best teams, you can only earn a couple of thousand feathers per arena season and you need 20,000 to upgrade a four-star unit to a five-star. Regardless of their star tier, units will continue to increase in strength as they defeat foes, earn experience and level up. There's no permanent death as in other FE games, but units lose any experience they earned from the battle they were defeated in. Units can also learn new abilities by spending AP, which is earned by taking actions and defeating enemies. Characters have a wide variety of abilities that include upgrading their attack damage, which allows them to do area damage or increase their healing power. You can swap active abilities in and out, so there's a good amount of customisation to build your perfect team.
While I wouldn't recommend playing Heroes for its story, Nintendo does try to shoehorn one in. Two kingdoms are at war and both are capable of summoning heroes from other Fire Emblem games. That's... well, that's the whole story. There are a few mysterious plot elements that will likely be resolved as more content is added later, but for now the story is just an excuse to play through the nine chapters with five maps each. As long as your units are at an appropriate level, most of the maps require little strategy and can be brute-forced through if your units are powerful. There are higher levels of difficulty to unlock where opponents have higher levels, but the AI remains relatively dumb. They require an increasing amount of Stamina too — a resource that replenishes over real time. You can never increase your maximum stamina, so you're likely to only get a few late-game maps in at a time before you're out. You can replenish it with a potion, but these are finite.
Outside of the story, as mentioned earlier, you can take part in PvP battles. In the arena, you fight other players' teams that are controlled by AI. You can select different levels of difficulty that reward you with more points if you win. Your aim is to win up to seven battles in a row and get a new personal high score, as there are different levels of rewards depending on your highest score during the season. I found this a refreshing way to approach mobile PvP and enjoyed trying to beat my score, even if I was limited to three battles a day (though you can use limited Duelling Crests to battle more). There is also the Training Tower, which is primarily for grinding units to level them up or earning badges to promote units to higher star tiers.
The bright colours and delightfully drawn character art is a highlight of Heroes. Though animation is limited and the whole game is 2D, I enjoyed watching the sprites battle it out and then the full character art pop-up during a special attack. Unlike many mobile games, units unfortunately do not change appearance when upgraded to a higher star tier, however. The soundtrack is serviceable, but it's a joy to hear all the classic Fire Emblem sound effects, and the limited voice acting was a surprise treat.
All in all, Fire Emblem Heroes is a fun, stylish and accessible mobile experience that should be enjoyable for fans and newbies alike. It's easily possible to play through most of the content without spending a cent, but if you're after a particular favourite character or want to optimise your team then expect to spend huge amounts of real money. I spent two solid weeks playing the game an hour or so each day, all without spending any real currency, and enjoyed most of my time. Heroes can become grind-heavy once you beat the story missions, but there should be more content to come soon.