For a very abridged version of a very deep series, Fire Emblem Heroes is initially engaging in that it has hooks for two different kinds of players: for fans, the hope of randomly unlocking a favorite character, and for newcomers to the series, an accessible and fun introduction to its turn-based battle tactics. But it also doesn’t do much beyond that, and if you’re somewhere in between those two archetypes, it doesn’t give a compelling reason for you to stick with it.
Playing Fire Emblem Heroes consists mainly of engaging in battles to earn Orbs and then using those Orbs to unlock characters from previous Fire Emblem games at random. There are several currencies to manage and a layered leveling system, but that’s the basic feedback loop. Win a battle, collect an Orb, and hope for a good character (or your favorite) to unlock; if you don’t get what you want, keep trying. What’s missing is why.
Heroes adapts the series’ tactical gameplay for mobile by lowering the difficulty enough to increase the pace of battle. Fire Emblem is known for turn-based strategy on a battlefield, punishing perma-death, and RPG-style character and story development. Heroes features simplified combat without perma-death, and it has a minimal story that isn’t at all interesting without previous Fire Emblem knowledge.
I breezed through the first few chapters with no problems aside from having a weak party initially, and it was a good warm-up after a long break from Fire Emblem. Battles themselves play really well on touchscreen thanks to intuitive controls, and dropping in for a few minutes while on a break makes sense and is definitely an entertaining way to spend some downtime. As the challenges get harder, executing the right strategy can take some serious trial and error, and finding a solution to a tricky map or tough enemies is satisfying.
Trying to unlock new characters, however, is more of a drag. If you have a bad party due to unlucky character drafts, pulling new, stronger allies is the best way to get the upper hand in high-difficulty battles. In the beginning, you can use reward items from completing challenges to quickly level up whoever you want to use. But if you hit a bit of bad RNG, that can mean a lot of grinding--and there are diminishing returns on how fun a battle can be when you’re only doing it to avoid paying real money for Orbs so you can keep getting more characters.
Of course, it’s like that on purpose, since that’s often how free-to-play games turn a profit. But if you’re not terribly invested in unlocking Tharja or Camilla or Marth, then the only reason to keep playing is for the battles. Before I’d put together a strong team, I started to lose interest in playing; but once I pulled good characters, I had a hard time putting my phone down. It’s very tempting to keep playing thanks to Heroes’ quick grind-reward loop, and when I wasn’t spending Orbs on characters, I was using them to fill my Stamina--a separate currency you need in order to battle which refills over time in typical mobile game fashion.
While I never felt forced to buy Orbs, I did end up spending money on them once I started battling for extended periods of time. Playing for more than a few battles in a row meant needing (and buying) more Orbs--and that’s when I decided I would much rather just play Awakening instead, where there’s more of a challenge and my favorite characters are more fleshed out.
When the incentive to keep playing is to be able to keep playing, it’s easy to burn out on Fire Emblem Heroes. Aside from obtaining your favorite characters--if you even care about that--Fire Emblem Heroes becomes less and less rewarding as time goes on. Grinding can only be fun for so long before chasing rare allies becomes a chore, and in that sense it caters to two ends of a wide spectrum while offering little incentive for anyone in between.