After the lack-lustre showing from Nintendo on the mobile market to date (that is in terms of gameplay quality rather than sales), success the gaming giant has seen fit to bring another of their big IPs to the scene in an effort to continue their relentless assault on gamers wallets.
We’ll be frank. ‘Pokemon Go’ was both the biggest success of 2016 and the single most under-whelming excuse for a game in a market based almost entirely on streamlining or simplifying standard game concepts. Hopes were not high for the announced Fire Emblem title until Nintendo released a Fire Emblem Direct (marketing video) that showed off some of the games systems in action. Unsurprisingly, this title leans on the freemium play scheme, but there’s some polish on display here that promises big things.
Graphically, every single character included from the rich history of the Fire Emblem series has received new artwork based on their original designs from one of three artists to keep the visual standard consistent throughout this new title. Character sprites are chibi-styled, cartoony versions that use HD illustrations in place of sprites to great effect and are placed on similarly drawn backgrounds. The whole thing has a very gentle aesthetic that can seem at odds with the violent nature of the conflicts it portrays but comes together to present an excellent package. Menus are smooth, well animated and perfectly suited for single-finger or thumb tapping and every character has at least 3-4 high quality illustrations to show them in varying states in addition to their sprite.
In terms of sound design, Fire Emblem Heroes is a master-class in effective use of a score and soundtrack. The opening theme is strong, bold and uses sampled orchestral instruments with voices to produce an effectively epic tone. Within the game itself, music is more simple by comparison, but tracks are likable, loop well and make for a pleasant player experience. Sound effects are of a high standard, and voice samples (of which there are multiple for each character) are used frequently, translated into English. The variety of samples and small details in the sound design make for a rewarding experience.
Plot is a simple, and well used concept for a free to play game on the mobile market, but executed well. You play the role of a tactician who is drawn into a conflict between two factions when a desperate axe-wielding knight uses an ancient artefact to summon a saviour. Taking ownership of it from her, you show a talent for summoning heroes from other worlds into this new one to fight your battles for you. Whilst the story is essentially about two royal families, one with the power to open portals to other worlds and the other to close them, the conflict itself is run between a shadowy party and an order of knights tasked with defending these worlds. The concept that previous Fire Emblem games’ heroes are bonded into service magically also works well, allowing heroic characters to be your opponents to the point there are freed in the plot, and providing a convincing reason they’d all serve you.
Gameplay is a stylised version of the Fire Emblem basics, streamlined for mobile play. Battles take place on an 8×8 grid, handily keeping all of the action on a single screen, whilst prema-death for units has been completely removed. Free to play mechanics such as an energy bar to moderate play (which recharges slowly over time), tokens for use in a PvP arena and random pulls from an expanding pool of heroes when summoning also make an appearance. Of these the most obvious is the premium currency, which is at first quite abundant but later becomes harder to grind. The game posts monthly tasks you can fulfil in order to earn more and gives just one for clearing a new story battle, but does alleviate the cost (5 per character) by reducing prices by 1 for each subsequent pull from the random pool. Heroes come in a variety of star levels ranging from 1 to 5 and whilst they can be power-levelled through to their max rating through hard work, anything below 3 stars is very weak in terms of potential and a lot of hard work to turn into a viable unit. Each character levels to at least 20 and can then be pushed up a rank, but jewels collected as rewards can be spent to fast-track levelling, with feathers spent in addition to special tokens to upgrade. If this sounds like a lot of currencies it is, but the game handles many in the background so as not to overwhelm players and to keep the experience streamlined. Skills can also be learned using points earned through battle, and equipping these makes a big difference to how that unit functions. All characters fall into typical sword, lance, axe, bow or spell casting classes, with mounts and flying mounts layered on top to add greater depth. Each has a strength and weakness that you will need to learn in order to avoid being flattened by an enemy substantially lower in levels than yourself. Special attacks trigger sparingly but are signposted so you can make the most of them. It’s largely typical Tactical RPG fodder in terms of battles, with movement and attack ranges clearly marked and characters controlled with a finger. Scenarios include forests that restrict movement, rivers with bridges, mountain regions, ruins and castle interiors at the present time, and each showcase the usefulness of having a diverse party. Additional play modes to the main campaign include a training tower with ever-increasingly difficult stages, player vs player matches against AI controlled player parties and a special events area where daily events are released. Teasingly, an as-yet unmarked section implies there is more to come, with the possibility of a high-risk, high-reward area that features the series’ infamous death mechanics seeming likely.
Overall this is an attractive package that showcases freemium games at their best and adds a typically Nintendo layer of gloss to the product. It still remains to be seen what additional content will be added to the game, with the story currently maxing out at 9 chapters and a prelude, and how the in-game currency balances once the initial ‘opening events’ conclude. Still, there’s a lot to love about this game and for the low price of free you’d be a fool not to snatch it up immediately. It looks like Nintendo finally managed to balance success with quality on mobile.