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The State Of The Order: Fire Emblem Heroes At Three

by Donald Theriault - February 4, 2020, 6:00 am PST
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It took 35 months for us to get a second form of Anna. Does that tell you anything?

Sunday was the third anniversary of Fire Emblem Heroes, which according to estimates has been Nintendo’s most profitable mobile effort by about several orders of magnitude. Looking at where the game started compared to what it is today, it’s almost unrecognizable. And though Heroes has worked well to get people to start, recent announcements could have a heavy negative effect on the game’s retention of longtime players.

For The New Players

If you’re intrigued by Fire Emblem things—possibly after playing Three Houses—Heroes does a good job of introducing new players to its myriad of systems. Last fall, the “Heroes’ Path” quests took players through processes like winning battles for free units, inheriting skills, and trying the various competitive modes. The rewards for the Path include powerful free units: there’s five free max-potential units for clearing it all in addition to summoning orbs. The game’s story mode offers four additional powerful units in addition to granting nearly a thousand summoning orbs based on the difficulty of the maps, and two powerful fan-voted units can also be picked up for free. Clearing 95% of the orb-granting content in the game is easy with the free units.

New players will have two areas of difficulty, however: getting their favorite units if they’re older and doing full skill sets. The former issue is caused by a change to the summoning pools last April, which saw 5-star exclusive units from the first year of the game removed from New and Special (seasonal) Hero banners. This includes fan favorite characters (in their best known forms) like Lucina, Lyn, and Ephraim. Although these units are available in multiple other forms, these particular forms are mostly available at limited times or require an alternate currency to access in the case of “Marth” (the masked version from Awakening that's totally not Lucina). The other issue new players will have is that although orbs are easy to get early on, other important currencies (like items used for promoting lower rarity units to 5 stars or getting skills that can be equipped on any unit) are much more challenging to collect. Mostly, feather income comes from performance in competitive mode, which a new player is going to have difficulty with.

The Veteran Experience

There is a famous interview from the first year of Heroes where the game’s director from Nintendo indicated they were concerned about “power creep,” roughly defined as a requirement for the newest Heroes in order to succeed. Two and a half years later, there’s been mixed results from this “concern:” certain types of units have received major love—sword users and armored units seem to get new, powerful toys monthly. Other unit types aren’t so lucky: about the only cavalry unit who hasn’t been made redundant from the first year is the mage Reinhardt, because the skills he needs to be powerful are somewhat easier to get.

"Who are you?" "I'm you after three years of powercreep."

There are three different groups of PvP modes, and all of them require multiple copies of units to score high and get higher rewards. The “Coliseum” mode uses a scoring system that focuses on one set of units with the encouragement to pull 11 copies of them and other high base stat units, and then them together. The Arena Assault mode uses the same scoring system, but requires as many as 24 backup units. Aether Raids, added late in 2018, rely on a second set of units and are mostly only tolerable because two of the speciality units for them are given free (with the possibility of a third next month). The most heinous example of score chasing is the new Mjolnir’s Strike, which combines Arena scoring with a focus on “Mythic” Heroes who only show up on one banner a month, and it requires merges as well. Add in its seemingly random appearances and the fact that its main combat lasts for a day, and Mjolnir’s Strike is the most frustrating mode yet. The PvE modes can still be cleared with free units, though it can take a while to pull off.

The anniversary “Feh Channel'' presentation unveiled a new subscription service called the Feh Pass. The additions have upset a loud portion of the fanbase, whether it’s due to the cost (US$9.49/month) or the fact that useful quality of life features are stuck behind it. Want a harem (the ability to “Summoner Support” three units for stat boosts at once instead of one)? You have to get the pass. Want to give your units a significant statistical boost AND a new outfit? Pay up. At least units will be available for purchase afterwards, provided you have the pass. The most egregious options held by the pass, however, are the rewind ability similar to “Mila’s Turnwheel” or “Divine Pulse” from the last two mainline games, or the ability to set continuous autobattle until you run out of stamina or complete a particular quest. The pass isn’t live as of press time, but it remains to be seen if it will reverse a revenue slump for the game or if Intelligent Systems will take the feedback to heart.

This is what we mean by a revenue slump. (Image courtesy Twitter user @tomefaired)

The Representation Of Fire Emblem

In recent months, Heroes has done a great job of bringing in more characters from pre-3DS Fire Emblem games following a heavy focus on the 3DS games (particularly Fates). Though Fates has the most units in the game, if you count special forms, there hasn’t been a group of Fates-only units added in nearly a year. Recent months have seen banners for every game not released outside Japan, as well as Shadows of Valentia who last had their own banner in 2017. Currently, the games with the longest absence from new heroes are Blazing Sword/”Fire Emblem,” and that had multiple units added via seasonal banners. There was even a swerve last month when units from Tokyo Mirage Sessions were added, the first time Heroes recognized a spinoff game.

What might be the most surprising is the relative lack of Three Houses units to this point. Only Shadows of Valentia has launched since Heroes, and they added nearly 20 units for the game in three months: since Three Houses’s July launch, only 13 units from the game have been added, counting the one seasonal form. It seems this will change shortly as a 3H banner was teased at the end of the last Feh Channel, and even in the oddest scenario there is a guaranteed Three Houses banner due thanks to the annual “Choose Your Legends” poll putting four 3H characters (the three house leaders and Lysithea) as the winning units. It’s not likely that they were waiting for the results of the poll to put the units in; generally, banners take about six months to produce, but we can likely expect an avalanche of 3H units in the upcoming months.

A lot of focus in the story maps centers on the original Heroes characters, especially after the second “book.” The writing for them is highly variable, but it’s amazing that one of the highest ranked females in the last Choose Your Legends was a recently unveiled character who happens to be a fairy who grants lewd dreams… suddenly, that ranking makes more sense. The Fire Emblem characters themselves don’t get much shine in the story, but their interactions in the Forging Bonds events timed to each New Heroes banner do a good job of explaining their motivations and providing fun with crossovers (CHOP, the group of burly axe users, is always a riot when they appear.) For a mobile game intended to be played in brief chunks, it’s about what I would want out of a story.

The third anniversary of Fire Emblem Heroes sees the game in a precarious position. The Feh Pass may serve to reverse a trend of lower revenue, or it might drive people away who would normally spend. But in its current state, there’s enough content built up to keep players merrily strategizing: the question is, will they stick around without sunk costs.

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