I Think I Found "The One": Why I'm Still Playing Fire Emblem Heroes

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I’m the kind of person who goes through “phases” with my gaming habits. Sometimes I will obsessively play a game for a few months, only to suddenly lose interest in it and never touch it again. There are some games or genres that I do this with on a cycle; sometimes I will just be on another World of Warcraft kick, and other times I will play nothing but Pokemon games. There are long stretches of time where I find myself playing almost nothing at all. That’s just kind of how I operate.

A game so good at taking people's money that Japan actually wrote and passed a law just to make the cash-grab games it inspired less exploitative. I'm not even kidding.
A game so good at taking people's money that Japan actually wrote and passed a law just to make the cash-grab games it inspired less exploitative. I'm not even kidding.

I have been obsessed with a few free-to-play games over the last few years, but almost all of them have only held my attention for a month or two at most. I think I consistently played Tales of Link the longest, funneling more time and money into it than I’m willing to admit over the two or three months it hung out on my phone’s list of apps. I eventually got fed up with its incredibly manipulative monetization scheme, and put it on the back-burner. It was only on that back-burner for a few days when I realized that the game gave me no incentive to keep playing if I wasn’t going to spend literal hours every day with it. It also took up nearly two gigs of storage space on my device, so deleting it wasn’t a difficult decision, even after all the time I had already sunk into it.

I actually still keep up with Puzzle & Dragons a little bit, though I would not call my weekly five-minute check in “playing” it. I am definitely not playing it actively, at least. Still, since it doesn’t require a huge time investment from me, I’ve felt okay about keeping it in my life. The game mechanics, while enjoyable, don’t really motivate me to play it for long stretches. Unfortunately, they’re also just slightly too involved for me to play it in short bursts; the stages I’m meant to complete given my current progress in the game require a lot of actual thought to get through, and there’s very little left for me to do that is mindless or only lightly engaging.

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I was kind of fed up with mobile gaming in general for a while, but about half a year ago, a new game came along that hit a sweet spot for me. Fire Emblem Heroes is my favorite mobile game, free to play or otherwise. Take the second half that proclamation with a grain of salt, since I’ve honestly only played a handful of paid-for mobile games, but Fire Emblem Heroes (FEH) is still excellent. It's a game that is very satisfying mechanically. It plays like a video game-ass video game, but still doesn’t require a huge time or intellectual investment unless I want it to. Sure, there are things I miss out on if I don’t put in some extra time here and there, but I never feel like I’m being punished for spending a few days away. Tales of Link makes you feel bad for being inactive, like you’re screwing yourself over by not spending hours and hours grinding for some special item or character while it’s available. I’m singling that game out a lot, but nearly every free-to-play game I’ve ever played relies heavily on making you feel like you’re missing out.

Thankfully, if I don’t feel like playing FEH on a given day, it’s no big deal. I might miss out on a few rewards, but never anything game-changing, and the game frequently revives old events for the sake of newer players anyway. I don’t get locked out of content or fall behind the meta the way I do in other free mobile games. If I feel like dropping in for a few minutes, there are multiple modes in the game that are conducive to that playstyle. If I feel like playing something for hours and being made to actually think and strategize, FEH has that, too. It may appear to be a stripped-down version of Fire Emblem at first glance, but the developers built the game with those restrictions in mind — the limitations are what make it work. When you’re cornered during a fight, surviving under the constraints of the oppressively limited movement range might seem impossible. More often than not, though, there is a way, and thinking your way out of those seemingly hopeless situations feels fantastic. Every battle in FEH is a puzzle to be solved, and solving the more challenging ones is incredibly satisfying.

*Actual enthusiasm about summoning may vary - see terms and conditions for details.
*Actual enthusiasm about summoning may vary - see terms and conditions for details.

I adore this game, but if you’ve read through my older posts, there’s a very obvious elephant in the room right now. Fire Emblem Heroes uses the same predatory system of microtransactions that Tales of Link and Puzzle of Dragons do: the gacha system. For those unfamiliar, a gacha is basically a slot machine where instead of winning money, you win digital collectibles that typically have significant gameplay applications. In FEH, the gacha is what supplies you with the namesake heroes who you control during combat; a collection of beloved characters originating from various main series Fire Emblem games. I’ve obviously been pretty critical of gacha games in the past — openly condemning what I feel to be one of the most exploitative and anti-consumer practices in video games today (maybe in less damning words.) Unfortunately, Fire Emblem Heroes hasn’t done anything to change my mind. Gachas are manipulative, and they aggressively take advantage of the most dedicated members of a fanbase. The kind of fan who cosplays as or collects memorabilia depicting their favorite character — there is no reliable way for them to represent that love in a gacha game, even if they do spend money. They’re the player who is most willing to pay for what they want, but gacha games don’t let you pay for what you want. The system is bad. There are a few things Fire Emblem Heroes does to lessen the blow a little, but it’s not enough to excuse the use of this awful, predatory practice. It is enough to make it feel a little better to play than games like Tales of Link, at least, though that is a pretty low bar.

For one thing, weaker, more common heroes can all be upgraded into stronger, rarer versions of themselves that are hard to actually get out of the gacha. There isn’t a single hero in the game that can’t be promoted to a “5 star”, the designation given to the rarest and most powerful units. This process takes a pretty major time investment, but it is an option, which I appreciate. They also give you a little bit of agency when it comes to exactly what kind of character you’re going to get, even if you can’t choose specifically which one. If you need an axe-wielding unit, you can spend your currency in such a way that (almost) every roll you make in the gacha will only give you axe-users. This method usually results in a lower quantity of heroes gained than spending indiscriminately would, but it’s still more choice than a lot of other gacha games offer. I should also mention that the game gives out a lot of free currency on a fairly regular basis, which isn’t exactly uncommon in these games, but it’s still a positive. Better than that, though, is that they recently gave out a powerful rare unit for free, and even went so far as to let players choose which one they wanted. Granted, you had to choose from a very short list, but it was a short list consisting of some of the most beloved characters in the series. The free hero was a nice gesture, but the actual reason it excites me is because it potentially sets a precedent that will make the game more enjoyable in the future. I’ll reiterate though, it’s still a shitty system, and I don’t want to give FEH a free pass. At the end of the day, it’s still a gacha, and those always make me feel really bad, but… when I think about my time with other mobile games, I remember that Tales of Link made me feel hopeless.

Not representative of actual friendship.
Not representative of actual friendship.

I don’t want to sweep this issue under the rug, but I find myself able to look past it to some extent thanks to some of the truly good things the game does. One of the reasons my opinion of FEH is generally positive — in spite of the gacha — is because the developers have been adding significant amounts of content to it since release. It was admittedly a little thin when it first came out, but any player starting now will struggle to run out of things to do. The team appears to actively listens to players’ complaints, and actually makes changes to address those issues. FEH’s limited stamina bar (in case you were worried it didn’t have one) was oppressive upon release, but they have since doubled its size, and made a number of gameplay modes cost very little stamina to play. They also give out stamina-refilling items pretty liberally, and I’ve personally found this not to be an issue anymore. The one thing that I feel is really missing from the game at this point is any real interaction with other players. There is no actual player versus player combat in the game. You can go up against other players’ teams, controlled by AI, but that’s not really what you want. Even if it was, you can only play against randomly matched players, and can’t take on your friends’ teams, ever. The friends list in the game is borderline useless at the moment. It serves almost literally no purpose whatsoever, and that’s a huge bummer.

I’m definitely waiting on a major multiplayer update for the future, even though I have no idea if it’s ever going to come. I have hope, though, because they have completely overhauled major aspects of the game’s original design before. A few months after release, the game implemented the “skill inheritance” system. This allowed you to give any hero you wanted the skills of another hero you owned by merging them into the first one. Now look, some form of "unit merging" is fairly common to gacha games, but I have never seen the mechanic implemented like this before. You see, skills are what define the units in Fire Emblem Heroes; a hero with one skillset will have completely different strengths and weaknesses from a hero with a different set of skills, even if they have the same exact stats. Whereas other gacha games use unit merging as little more than a way to level things up, the system added into FEH changes the way the game is played on a fundamental level. In fact, it was such a drastic change that some of the hardcore players were up in arms over it at first. Fortunately, the developers have managed it well and the game avoided feeling broken by the changes. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of FEH, now.

You see, thanks to that update, all of the heroes are incredibly customizable. You can make heroes with very specific applications that will only help in certain types of battles, or you can try to make the best jack-of-all-trades unit you can. You can add skills to compensate for a unit’s weaknesses, like making a glass cannon able to actually take a hit, or you can min-max everything, instead making that same glass cannon even more fragile but hit even harder. There are endless possibilities for units in this game, and you can apply those possibilities to any unit you want. A hero you have an attachment to because of their role in another game may initially come with skills that make them useless in battle. Now you can change that, and fight with whatever heroes you want, no matter what poor skillset they may come prepackaged with.

I can’t ignore the problems with the game, but I also can’t pretend that I don’t love it anyway. Fire Emblem Heroes is successful both as a mobile game and as a Fire Emblem game. It can be played in short, non-committed bursts, but also provides extremely difficult challenges that take time and mental energy to overcome. It is constantly being added to, and major, game-changing updates are not out of the question, either. That’s really exciting! Additionally, the endless customization options available to me make the game hard to put down, since I always have some cool new idea for a character build I want to try out. Fire Emblem Heroes has grabbed me in a way that no mobile game has done before, and it has done so without making me feel bad about liking it, the way so many free-to-play games do. If this is just another one of my gaming phases, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. I think there’s a chance that this game will actually last, existing outside the constant ups and downs of my usual gaming habits. It has its hooks in me really deep, and I’m honestly comfortable with them staying there.

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