Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

It's almost unimaginable that, less than 5 years ago, Fire Emblem was, for all intents and purposes, a niche series almost on the rocks-whilst beloved in its native Japan, it struggled to make it abroad until the mid-2000s, and even then remained a rarity on the shelves in the English-speaking world. Then came the critically acclaimed, blockbuster-scale Awakening, followed by the solid but un-adventurous Fates, both for the Nintendo 3DS, the franchise exploded in popularity, moving from niche strategy JRPG to Nintendo's fantasy mainstay. Now, on the coat-tails of Pikachu  and Mario's adventures off the consoles and onto that new market leader of gaming, the smartphones, in the form of the spectacularly popular Pokémon Go, and the entertaining but overpriced Mario Run, comes this pocket-sized version of the franchise, in easy, (and extremely cute) bite-sized installments. But can this phone-based, quick-fire game equal its more complex console based brothers, or is this another case of an oversimplified adaption for shorter attention spans?

Key to a phone game is simplicity, and ease of playing-and here, Fire Emblem Heroes does what other Nintendo smartphone games have failed to do so far-give us an (admittedly bitesized) Fire Emblem game Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run may have been decent games but the shift between the phone game and the console or handheld game was too big-Fire Emblem Heroes perfectly downsizes the hex-based, turn-based formula, giving you a band of four warriors (rather than the usual small army of the average Fire Emblem game) to pit against the computer, or other player's four units. Here Intelligent Systems-the very same team that create every Fire Emblem (and the now sadly defunct sister "Wars") game- have outdone themselves-in all respects, Fire Emblem Heroes feels (and looks) like a Fire Emblem game. Battles are fought either at close range or at hand-to-hand, with the familiar "sword beats axe beats lance beats sword" triangle being bolstered by red, green, and blue magic, (red beats green beats blue beats red, by the way). So far, so typical Fire Emblem.
 The game also has daily missions (in two difficulty settings) to compete in, the completion of which gifts you that mission's main character, arena mode, in which you fight others teams of four from around the world and can befriend fellow players, and a training mode which pits you against the computer in an effort to level your characters up and gain crystals which can be used either to further level characters up or to teach them new moves.

Where Heroes makes full use of its phone based, and free-to-play nature is in how you recruit units. In the typical games, units either join you naturally over the space of the game, as you rally your forces, or can be recruited from enemy or neutral forces. For Heroes, you recruit them entirely at random, paying five orbs-the game's main currency-to recruit a single unit, entirely at random and from across the huge cast of characters from Fire Emblem's present and past. This system in itself is surprisingly addictive; the possiblity of reuniting and taking to the battlefield with a much loved hero (or in the case of the characters from Awakening and Fates, your former husband or wife) has led some to breathtaking spending sprees on extra orbs-a lot of the time, as with all games of chance, you're left blinking at your new acquisition, muttering "and who the bloody hell are you?" For my part, I've managed to recruit two of my favourites-the ghoulish if well-meaning Henry from Awakening and Roy, that much loved also-ran of Smash Bros fame, from Binding Blade, but am still in search of franchise figurehead, Lucina, originally from Awakening (one day...). 

Surprisingly for a game largely sold upon its portability and the unique recruitment model, Heroes has a solid, if barebones story, which not only explains the concept behind this collision of Fire Emblem worlds, but indeed the recruitment method. Your character is dropped into a war between the devious Emblian Empire, commanded by glumly determined Princess Veronica, whose nation has the power to open and close portals to other dimensions (and thus other Fire Emblem games) and the righteous kingdom of Askr, whose prince and princess Alfonse and Sharena only have the power to open the portals and who act as your main allies. It soon turns out via some exposition from fan favourite Anna, that your character, the Summoner, has the power to produce heroes from seemingly nowhere via a gunlike artifact known as the Breidablik.

You and the kingdom of Askr set out to defeat the Emblian Empire, free the worlds of Fire Emblem from their influence and return the balance to its rightful place. As with the series in general, the difficulty curve is gradual, but the last few maps are suitably challenging, and, if you do complete the relatively short story mode, there are both hard and lunatic modes for those truly in need of a challenge. As with Fire Emblem in general, the writing is solid, occasionally a little overwrought but generally of a high quality-fortunately, after the debacle of Fates, there seems to be a tighter control on script.

 Where the game, however, differs greatly, is in its visual style-as with, for example the popular sword boy-collect-em-all, Touken Ranbu, there is no one unified style of character design, but several, depending on the artist responsible for designing the Heroes version of that character. This crosses the gamut from highly exaggerated, and almost western-comic book style used for Fates' heroic Arthur, to a seinein look for Blazing Blade's Hector, and from wispy line to bold and polychromatic. Not only does this grant each character a (somewhat) unique visual style but it helps some of the less interesting designs stand out from the crowd they would otherwise blend into, but it allows a sense of a large, but still very diverse group-it's certainly remarkable that so many characters are relatively easily identifiable from each other; by far the best work is focused around the dozen or so main characters, including the quartet of newly designed character (Alfonse, Sharena, Veronica and the mysterious masked man who makes a few appearances), but also key franchise favourites such as Chrom, Robin, Lucina, Marx and so on.

Heroes adds to this artwork by using one of four images for your fighting hero in combat-a rest image, generally used when the character is introduced or summoned, but which also acts as a character portrait on the field, a combat animation, a combat critical animation, for when your hero uses their special, after four successive rounds of combat (either attacking or being attacked), usually accompanied by a cheesey, character appropriate quote and an "injured" image. These can differ, much as in the case of Touken Ranbu and girls-as-ships (or is it ships-as-girls?) game Kantai Collection,  from a few cuts and bruises, and a few damaged bits of clothing to being half clothed-curiously, this doesn't seem to have a particular balance by gender, and as many boys as girls seem to be subject to some rather fanservicey damage.

As for the rest of the audio visual package, both the voice work and music are, as ever for a Nintendo product, of very high quality-the voice casts for the previous two 3DS games have returned, alongside those who have been previously voiced in, for example, Smash Bros-for a good number of characters, however, this is the first time they have been voiced. Uniformly, although most characters do not get more than a few lines of dialogue, all stock "ready for combat"-type lines, the voice work is good, even on returning or even very minor characters. The music is of good, if largely previously used quality-"Together We Ride" is used heavily, particularly during summoning new heroes-the only particularly notable addition being a somewhat amusing "sung" version of the Fire Emblem theme.

As an app, Heroes is generally of very high quality, especially compared to the often buggy Pokemon Go, a game that both guzzles battery (to the point that single-handledly, it seems to have caused a renaissance in portable power-packs) and remains worryingly glitchy, temperamental and often freezes or boots the player out. Heroes has crashed on me exactly once, at which point the game promptly resumed from the very point it had crashed, and is neither data-heavy nor battery intensive-having played it on a hour long bus journey nigh constantly, it barely used more than a few hundred KB and less than 5% of my phone's battery.

As with Pokémon Go, there is little impetus to spend money-whilst there are some extreme examples (the by now already legendary story of a man dropping $1000+ on the game in search of Hector, a lord from Fire Emblem The Blazing Blade, only to not receive the character through many hundreds of hero-summons is one), the game more than supports you, with two daily orbs and a third per day at weekends, whilst each completed mission gains you another orb, whilst the more recent, if infrequent "Launch Celebration" maps gift you 3 orbs on completion. In short, most of the time, the game is more than generous with its hero-summoning spoils. 

Other items that can be bought with real-world currency simply do not exist-much like Go, where only coins can be bought, orbs can also be swapped for health, including useful "revive all" items and stamina (the gauge which determines how many battles you can fight before having to take a break, refills for which the game also gives you, and duelling swords, necessary to challenge other players in the arena (which the game also gives you for completing challenges or logging in every day as a bonus. Thus, compared to so many of these free to play, pay to win apps, Heroes neither forces not really attempts to make you part with any real-world money-for one real reason: it (at least partly) wants to make you like Fire Emblem's style of gameplay, and its characters enough to buy one or more of the games. 

So, how does Fire Emblem Heroes hold up when compared to the series' handheld or console-based outings? Really damn well. Whilst some of the more advanced features (bonds between units and the ability for units to support each other) are missing and the battles are more small skirmishes than the full pitched battles of the main series, the game is otherwise a perfect, miniaturized version of Fire Emblem, with the game engine transferred perfectly to the iPhone and Android. Is it a replacement? Absolutly not, but that was never the intention-this appears to be both gateway for new fans, perhaps tiring of the slow and overly buggy Pokemon Go, or simply looking for a new game to play-certainly the game is very beginner friendly, even on harder difficulty modes-but it also seems to be a micro sized, and surprisingly addictive bit of fan-service-with a roster crossing over from the game's late 1980s origins to the present day, there's a chance to reconnect with heroes we've only played as on grubby badly translated roms or games with tiny print-runs. Much as Pokemon Go is, Fire Emblem Heroes is both introduction and re-introduction to a series, and a love letter to a franchise. It may be short, it may not be an overly hard game, but it sure is a well made and beautifully crafted one, especially for a franchise only now reaching mass appeal.


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