Freemium trash: Fire Emblem Heroes

Something like three years ago, I spent a little time delving into the waters of freemium apps in a small series I called “one hour impressions.” The series of experiences that followed filled me so much soul-crushing cynicism that I was able to write off the entire model as something best avoided, and yet my short impressions failed to truly capture just how predatory and disgusting such games can be. Then, a bit of serendipity: a new Fire Emblem game descended from the heavens onto mobile devices, dipping into the freemium model and deciding to show even less restraint when it comes to poor writing and fan service than even the Fates games employed. I’d seen it claimed that the game could be played without in-app purchases, which piqued my curiosity, so I dived into the game with an open mind to get a feel for just how far one can get without paying for anything. Now that I’ve finished (or at least come as close to finishing as one can get when the game itself is unfinished), though, I can’t pass up such a beautiful opportunity to highlight the many things wrong with both modern Fire Emblem and the freemium model. Rest assured that both are in ample supply here.

Let’s start with the writing

You know, I had faith that Fates’ horrible writing was due to them having outsourced the story to some hack anime writer. Whoever it was that was responsible for earlier games has clearly since departed, though, because there’s nothing of worth to be found in Fire Emblem Heroes. The game is divided into 9 chapters with 5 maps each, and each can be summarized as “the evil people got [hero from previous English-translated game] working for them because of magic, so go beat them senseless to break the spell.” That’s not a joke; you actually do break the little mind control contract or whatever by beating them. Amazingly, that’s probably the least stupid part of the entire setup. The game’s premise is that you—the guy or girl with the phone, wallet, and (Nintendo hopes) impulse-control issues and weakness for cheap flattery—get transported to some stupid world full of portals to other worlds thanks to a ritual Anna performs. Naturally, you the player are made the tactician of her little group, a kingdom that can open portals to the worlds from other games. Your allies will masturbate your ego around every corner long before you’ve faced so much as an inkling of challenge, and it takes mere minutes for this to escalate into what I imagine a very lonely and anime-obsessed individual thought were normal human interactions when they wrote them, but that more often come across as stalkerish, skin-crawlingly sycophantic hero worship.

So far, so Fates, but it gets worse: you’re quickly told that the “good” kingdom you’re fighting for can only open the portals, with the “bad” kingdom being the only ones who can close them. Because reasons. Anyway, they’re evil, so they’re not actually closing them anymore, instead invading them and making the characters from previous games their slaves or something. Oh, but that’s not all! Midway through what could only generously be considered a story, you also find out that the clingy, forgettable royals used to have a friend named Zachasomething who went missing one day. There also happens to be a mysterious masked figure who shows up occasionally in the enemy army. I sure wonder if there’s a connection there? It’s hard to tell because of how amazingly subtle the game is about it. And in case you’re the type of person who thinks this is actually remotely acceptable storytelling and need everything spelled out for you, that was sarcasm; Zachawhatever is brought up out of nowhere after certain maps, and the mysterious masked character whose name is simply three question marks goes out of his way to tell you that he’s not really affiliated with either army and that they should stop looking for Zachamackazoowacka. How do the two know each other, though? So mysterious! Anything could happen in the future!

Of course, despite the game hammering you over the head with all this during the rare moments of dialogue (you eventually only get dialogue in the first and last stages of a chapter), there’s no way to be sure that they’re the same person because the game doesn’t actually have an ending. You beat the evil royal in a minor skirmish, at which point she runs off to cause more trouble. Then you have no more levels to play. There’s no resolution to anything, and while I appreciated that the game finally shut up, it’s misleading to claim that a game can be finished without microtransactions when it doesn’t actually have anything resembling an ending or conclusion. It doesn’t even have an arc. Things happen, you stop them, and then more things happen that you have to stop. You don’t actually accomplish anything in this game. You might as well be the housekeeper tidying up after the baddies start wrecking things. The entire experience is soulless and artificial. They’ll no doubt string this non-mystery along for as long as they can milk cash out of gullible players, continually expanding the story, but it’ll never approach anything resembling good writing, and I highly doubt they’ll bother to finish the story once it stops making them money. I miss when Fire Emblem games had decent stories and characters, even if they all revolved around the same premise of a bunch of princes and princesses beating up evil sorcerers/dragons/gods.

Pay-to-win

Surely the fact that I finished every level on every difficulty and reached the level cap for two characters indicates that it can be played without delving into microtransactions, though, right? Think again—this game can only be played without them right now because they’ve made numerous things free or reduced their stamina cost to celebrate the game’s release. You have numerous different currency types here: sword things for arena duels against other players’ teams, orbs (which do basically everything), various gems and crests and feathers that can theoretically be used to upgrade characters, and stamina. Stamina is the big one because actually playing maps requires a certain amount of it, and it’s capped at 50. No raising it any higher than that. The claims about the stamina costs being friendly come from people early in the game where the levels cost 1-4 stamina points per attempt, but by the time you reach the non-ending, each level is costing 11-13 stamina per attempt. Of course, this is on normal difficulty. I was curious about whether there was hidden content that required playing through on the harder difficulties, so I did just that, and it was terrible. Stamina costs are several times higher on harder difficulties to the point where the last level (13 stamina on normal difficulty) requires 23 stamina per attempt on the highest difficulty. That’s almost half of your maximum stamina, and keep in mind that losing all of your characters and having to do it again will cost you another 23 stamina. The only reason I didn’t go crazy over this is because they hand you 10 stamina-refilling potions immediately upon starting. That’s a limited-time launch celebration offer before they flip the pay-to-win switch into the “on” position to make playing through Heroes an even more painful and irritating experience, though.

In fairness, the stamina isn’t the worst part of it because that can be circumvented by waiting for it to refill over time. The real problem is the fact that you only have a chance with five-star heroes. You use orbs to summon heroes to use in your army, and the ones you get are not only random, but their competency is randomized as well. Heroes range from one to five stars, and five-star characters will have great stat gains as they level up while those with fewer stars see much more modest and useless gains. Four-star characters are certainly usable in conjunction with five-star ones, though I found that they were typically lacking in one or two areas that made them glass cannons or weak tanks. They’re designed this way; if you get a bad level up on a map and then lose that map, you’ll get the same level up result every time you get enough experience to cross that threshold again. The more difficult enemies at the end on the harder difficulties could one-shot my four-star characters (and even my five-star ones occasionally), though, so you need the best stat gains during level ups possible. Granted, the game claims you can upgrade your characters to a higher star value, but this is prohibitively expensive; consider the fact that I played all the levels on all of the difficulties, did a ton of training levels to grind up the levels of a secondary team after my first one kept getting wiped out on a later map, and still didn’t have enough resources to raise the star value of a single character. The only way playing harder difficulties and playing against other users are remotely feasible, then, is if you make sure to start off with at least two five-star heroes. Certainly no one below four stars, and even that’s rarely enough. Certain levels on lunatic difficulty might necessitate creating an entirely different team with a different focus just to get through, especially if you get unlucky and your five-star characters don’t come with helpful enough skills.

Maximize results by using 20 orbs

The more heroes you summon in one session (up to five), the fewer orbs you use summoning them. You get orbs for clearing levels a first time, including on harder difficulties, but orbs are also used to expand the maximum number of heroes you can have (useless), improve your castle to increase the amount of experience earned, restore stamina once your stamina potions run out, and restore your dueling swords when you run out of the items required to play against other users’ teams (which is the only way to acquire a remotely acceptable number of feathers needed for upgrading to a higher star rank, but even this is far too slow). If you run out of something, you pay for it with an orb, so it’s no surprise that orbs are where the microtransactions get you. Right now the pay-to-win switch hasn’t been flipped, but it won’t be long until equipping new skills—which is basically required if you want to actually damage enemies—costs stamina. The stamina cost of grinding in the training levels will also be raised to double what it is right now (which is already too high for how little you get out of it). The free stamina potions won’t be handed to players starting out, nor will the free “app release” orbs. Even with those freebies, I was only able to summon four times, and that’s summoning all five heroes at once to reduce the costs. Really, getting to the end of the game was only possible because I lucked out and got enough five-star heroes early on. Once the switch is flipped, you’re going to have to pay for the same privilege. It’s disgusting how they did this, setting things up to be playable without microtransactions so that word of mouth suggests that it’s possible, only to make things much more difficult for those who will pick up the game later on based on those accounts.

There’s no Fire Emblem here

For the vast majority of the game, the weapon triangle is useless. There’s no permadeath. The story is an embarrassing afterthought. The movement of most characters is 2-3 squares (and levels are set up with choke points that reduce that even further), so there’s zero strategy that goes into positioning or movement. In a nutshell, Fire Emblem Heroes is about getting lucky summoning five-star heroes, then smashing them into the enemy until you win. It’s only on the hardest difficulties that you need to think about the weapon triangle, and even then, there are points where having a weapon advantage still isn’t enough for you to do a single point of damage to an enemy. I constantly threw my flying units at archers, knowing that anything a few levels below me was a non-threat. The leveling in general is a mess, with units three or four levels above you being ungodly tanks and units three or four below you being made of tissue paper. Units always hit, so as in Fates, dodge-tanking is a thing of the past (I don’t know why the developers seem to hate it so much, but they clearly do). The only things here that remotely resemble Fire Emblem are the layout and characters, but they’re really only cheap fan service for those who got into the series with Awakening and Fates and don’t care about what came before. This is Waifu Emblem: The Game, a long-running joke finally given life and turned into a disgusting Frankenstein’s monster embracing its ugliness as though it were beauty. Big portraits of the characters show up during battle, and if their health is low, the portrait will show them with their clothes all tattered. Once you level a character up to the maximum of 40, they’ll bombard you with text out of nowhere that comes across as vaguely flirtatious. This isn’t a big deal since the characters in recent games were designed to be clingy and obsessive like that, but imagine the uncomfortable disconnect when my level 40 Minerva (from very much not-modern Fire Emblem), who often recounts when she had to kill her brother, suddenly came on to me for being such a wonderful tactician.

This is an anime escort service

Seriously. Once they flip the pay-to-win switch, you’ll be pushed into paying to be complimented by various Fire Emblem characters. That’s the entire point of the game. There’s nothing resembling Fire Emblem outside of the aesthetics. You really just get lucky (or pay) to get strong characters, then smash them against enemies until a creepy royal comes on to you the player in a cynical Nintendo-themed bid to part you with your money. Artificial difficulty spikes abound, and there’s no fun to be had in any of this unless you’re so desperately starved for attention that paying to be complimented by an imaginary video game character is within the realm of possibility for you, at which point you need to go outside ASAP. Meet people. Start dating. Stop supporting the wholesale destruction of a series that was once so well-defined that the Wii entry didn’t even shoehorn in motion controls because they didn’t make sense. Now Fire Emblem has devolved into freemium trash, and everyone responsible for this abortion needs to take a long look into the mirror and ask themselves if it was worth it.

These are sad times for Fire Emblem. Some may praise the waifu elements and increasingly prevalent lack of permadeath as features that caused the series to finally hit it big (I’d argue actual marketing played more of a role, but whatever), but if it sheds everything that once defined it, can it really be said that Fire Emblem was saved? From where I’m standing, it looks deader than ever. I can’t help but imagine the people who enjoy the direction Fire Emblem has taken of late think Pet Sematary is an inspirational story chronicling the miracle of life after death.

Oh, and the game is online-only. Normally that’d cause me to ignore it by default, but I used to love Fire Emblem more than any other series (just use the search function to see how much) and feel weirdly obligated to go down with the ship.

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