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Fire Emblem Heroes review: deftly striking a balance between free and fun

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Like Super Mario Run before it, Fire Emblem Heroes is trying to be two very different things at the same time. On one side, it’s a major new release from Nintendo, in this case the latest entry in a long-running and greatly respected turn-based strategy series from renowned studio Intelligent Systems. With a dedicated fanbase, it has a lot to live up to. On the other side, it’s a free-to-play mobile title, a game designed in part to get players to fork out cash to play longer or unlock new characters.

These two disparate halves should seemingly lead to a game that feels at odds with itself. But for the most part, Heroes deftly balances the two, resulting in a streamlined strategy game that mostly resembles Fire Emblem, but in a way that feels at home on your phone.

The core of Heroes, as with every other Fire Emblem game, is its turn-based battles. You take turns moving units with your opponent on a 2D board, sort of like in chess; the goal is to wipe out the other side before they do the same to you. There are multiple types of soldiers to utilize — axe-wielding knights, ranged archers, mages with healing spells — and different maps that require distinct strategies. The biggest difference between combat in Heroes and other Fire Emblem games is the sense of scale. Skirmishes are much smaller here with each map is designed to fit entirely on your phone’s screen. Your team of soldiers is limited to four, comparatively small to the dozen-strong armies of its predecessors.

This setup strikes a nice compromise: meaty enough to require some strategizing, but quick enough to play on the go. Heroes also makes great use of the touchscreen, with smooth and intuitive controls that let you move and attack with a single motion. For a complex series like Fire Emblem, it’s impressive how at home Heroes feels on a one-handed device.

The game includes a variety of modes. Heroes features a standard single-player campaign — with a disappointingly thin narrative — as well as limited-time special maps and asynchronous battles where you can put your team up against another player’s. You can also play through each story mission in multiple different difficulty levels, which can get especially tricky the further you progress. One of my favorite modes is the training ground, where you can level up new characters and vet the strength of new teams.

Building out a variety of teams with different tactical specialties is satisfying, and while there are moments where it feels too easy, later chapters provide a welcome incline in difficulty. There were plenty of tense moments where I managed to scrape through a fight with one badly beaten soldier.

The biggest change to Fire Emblem as a whole is Heroes’ free-to-play compromises. First, there’s the near-ubiquitous energy system in place. Popularized by games like Candy Crush and FarmVille, the mechanic limits how much you can play at a given time. Essentially, each battle you fight saps some of your energy, and once you run out you’ll either need to wait for it to refill (it takes about four hours to completely regenerate) or spend some premium currency.

That premium currency, called “orbs,” is the glue that holds the entire experience together. Orbs aren’t limited to unlocking play time, they also revive fallen soldiers in battle and unlock new characters to add to your team (see sidebar). Quite often you’ll need to spend an orb if you want to keep playing.

You can purchase them with real cash of course — in bundles of anywhere from 3 to 140 — but Heroes also rewards orbs. You’ll get an orb when you complete a story mission for the first time, for instance, as well as when you finish certain meta-quests, like beating the same level three times in a row. If you need to grind for orbs you can simply play through levels again on a higher difficulty level. I haven’t felt the need to purchase extra orbs yet, but I have found myself spending a lot of time pondering how to spend my orbs instead of playing the game.

Should I summon some new characters? Or should I hold on to the orbs in case I need an energy refill? Maybe I’ll need them to revive my team in a really tough battle? Choosing between spending time and spending money is never a fun internal debate. While the mechanic isn’t as tactless as in other games, it still detracts from the overall experience.

No, Heroes isn’t the same as a proper Fire Emblemyou’ll need to pick up a 3DS for that kind of experience. But it’s smart, deep, and polished in a way few mobile games are. It has the hallmarks of Nintendo’s design. It doesn’t abandon the mobile model, but in its best moments, it transcends it.

Fire Emblem Heroes is available now on iOS and Android.