Is Fire Emblem Heroes Secretly the Best Game in the Series?

I played Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn in the summer of 2008. It was my first Fire Emblem game, and despite it being a sequel I found myself swept up in its melodramatic story, its larger-than-life characters, its expansive fantasy world, and its strategic, exacting combat. I went on to play its predecessor, Path of Radiance, and then every single Fire Emblem game ever released in North America, plus one or two that weren’t. I’ve played a lot of Fire Emblem games, is what I’m saying. And so, it came as a bit of a shock when I recently found myself thinking that Fire Emblem Heroes might be the best game in the series.

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Memories of Death

I was playing Shadows of Valentia, the remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden. One of my characters had just died after five attacks landed on them in a row, each of which had a less than 50% chance to hit. I turned off the game in frustration, flashing back to the countless times similar things had happened during my playthroughs of other Fire Emblem titles: an enemy putting my units to sleep in Sacred Stones, one of my units landing a non-fatal critical hit against an enemy with Counter in Awakening, an enemy ninja triggering Lethality in Fates. The list of moments in which one of my characters died thanks to random chance was endless, and the one game that had none of those moments was Heroes. 

It feels blasphemous even to think about. After all, Heroes is a free-to-play mobile game released in 2017, and thus in many ways feels like a stripped down, lite version of the true FE experience. You control four units per battle instead of dozens, the storylines aren’t as broad or as involved, and there are no support conversations or class changes — there’s no way it could be better than the “real” Fire Emblem games, right? And yet Heroes shows up its console ancestors by fine-tuning the one area reviewers have long criticized Fire Emblem for not experimenting with: the combat. 

No Luck, All Skill

Fire Emblem has always had a degree of randomness in its gameplay, as its turn-based combat relies on calculating probabilities related to hit chance, critical hit chance, skill activation, and more. You’ll have a lower chance to hit faster characters, certain weapons have higher critical hit chances, certain skills have higher chances to activate than others, and around and around we go. Heroes is the only game to recognize that this element needed to be removed for the gameplay system to reach its full potential. 

There are no critical hits in Heroes, and it is impossible to miss an attack. Special attacks are on a timer, so it’s never a surprise when they trigger, and passive skills have clearly defined conditions that need to be met before they’ll activate. Characters’ stats always end at a fixed point. Gone are the bad level-ups preventing units from reaching their full potential. Aside from the AI making questionable decisions on behalf of your enemies, randomness is entirely absent.

And Heroes didn’t stop there. Virtually every aspect of the classic Fire Emblem structure is refined: the iconic rock-paper-scissors-esque weapon triangle is more pronounced, staff-wielding healers aren’t defenseless baby birds, Fog of War and status conditions have been eliminated, and I could so easily keep listing more mechanics that have been improved, each more esoteric than the last. What’s truly impressive is that the skills are more powerful, varied, and numerous than in main-line games. Skills that would be game-breaking in a normal FE game are now commonplace in Heroes, usually with two or three separate ones stacked on the same character. It works because every other unit has access to similarly powerful skills, so every unit feels strong and dynamic.

The combat in Heroes hasn’t been minimized or diluted: it’s been focused. Battles only take a few minutes, but they’re full of actual strategy, rather than half strategizing and half hoping the RNG falls in your favor. You don’t have to grind for experience to build your team, but you do have to put serious thought into which skills best complement your characters. The streamlined combat contains incredible depth, removing the most annoying staples and replacing them with considered, exacting strategy. In short, it is the best Fire Emblem game.

Or at least it would be, if it weren’t for one problem.

No Skill, All Luck

Heroes players have likely noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned one glaringly obvious part of the game: the summoning system. Fire Emblem Heroes is a gacha game, which means that players have to summon nearly all of the units they command using an in-game currency. Players don’t get to pick what units they summon, and the chance to pull the best heroes is quite low (6-8% for a five star unit). That part where I talked about the gameplay removing randomness is technically true, except that all of Heroes revolves around a game of chance with the odds stacked against the player.

Without the best heroes, players cannot hope to succeed at the higher difficulty levels, some of which are infernally difficult thanks to that exacting gameplay. Therefore, acquiring the summoning currency (known as Orbs) is the most important in-game activity. Orbs are available as rewards for a wide variety of quests, and can be accumulated without ever spending a cent. But that takes effort and patience, and so many committed players turn to buying Orbs with real money, which is hard to paint as anything but a scam: $75 will get you just 140 Orbs, enough to summon approximately 35 heroes with no guarantee any of them will be the ones you want. There are nearly 400 different heroes in the game altogether.

The endless search for Orbs turns game modes that could be fun in their own right into grinds, chores to be completed before receiving an allowance of Orbs. The need for Orbs is all-encompassing, and it saps the joy out of everything it touches. Every part of the game encourages players to summon more, spend more, to the point that it has been cited by a VICE article as contributing to the industry-wide gambling problem with loot boxes. The article quoted a player as saying the loot box/gacha structure had warped her “whole perception of the game into short periods of anxiety and stress where I had to spend money or play constantly.”

The Fatal Flaw

Heroes is constantly evolving, as new characters are introduced about every two weeks, bringing new skills into the wider pool — skills that frequently respond directly to others currently dominating the metagame. Over the last two years, new modes, mechanics, and currencies have been introduced, drastically shifting the way characters improve. The metagame has been disrupted and re-balanced on a regular basis for over two years. Lists of the best units published around the time of the game’s initial release are utterly useless now. 

This might sound like more praise of the gameplay, but it’s actually a function of its relentless drive to get players to spend money. Under the guise of caring about its competitive scene, new content has one purpose: keep you in the loop. Constant updates demand your constant attention, and as long as you’re summoning every shiny new banner, there’s a chance you’ll spend more money.

Heroes is free to play, but the way it incentivizes players to spend money to pull the best heroes can only be described as predatory. And it has been astoundingly successful: the game has grossed $20 million a month since its release, by far the most revenue of any Nintendo mobile game (for reference: nearly ten times as much as Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp). Heroes will thus never remove the gacha mechanic, and so it doesn’t matter how deep, how focused, how good the combat is: with the summoning system infecting every aspect of the experience, Heroes will never be as enjoyable as it could be.

So is Fire Emblem Heroes the best Fire Emblem game? No.

But it could have been. It could have been.