Why The Hell Can’t I Stop Playing Fire Emblem Heroes?

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I play it in bed. I play it on the toilet. I play it in front of my computer. I play it between classes. I play it DURING classes. I cannot stop playing Fire Emblem Heroes. In fact, with the exception of a bit of Overwatch, as well as me starting the first couple hours of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (a game I will probably talk about more once I’m deeper into it), Fire Emblem Heroes is literally the only video game I’ve played in the last, god, month?

What Fire Emblem Heroes is is a mobile game, Nintendo’s third after Miitomo and Super Mario Run, and it is sort of a Fire Emblem-lite. You control squads of four units on very small (6 x 8, in fact) maps, with the simple goal of eliminating the entire enemy force, which only comprises between three and six units. Units have special abilities, and gain advantage and disadvantage over opponents thanks to a simple rock-paper-scissors style triangle (swords beat axes beat spears beat swords).

Probably the main draw of the game is the way one obtains heroes, as the title suggests. Usually, Fire Emblem games provide a drip feed of new characters through the story, occasionally letting you unlock some through clever gameplay. Heroes, meanwhile, offers up a gachapon-style unlock mechanism by which you spend orbs, the game’s main currency, in exchange for “opening up” new heroes. You get a batch of five colored orbs, indicated the contained hero’s place on the weapon triangle, and can spend money to open them up, with each consecutive orb in the batch being a little bit cheaper. Since this is a free mobile game, of course you can buy the orbs with real money (I haven’t).

The most obvious reason that I might be playing this game a lot is time-based. I’m super busy right now, with two senior projects needing completion, plenty of homework in my other classes, a job hunt, a part-time weekend job, and two tabletop groups to juggle. Playing a full-fledged AAA game right now is kind of a hard sell right now, when I could be using that time to do, well, productive things.

Fire Emblem Heroes is so short and bite-sized that it means it’s perfect to slot into this schedule. The most demanding fights only take five minutes or so, and while the stamina system which determines how much you can do in a day seems like it’s aggravating some, for me it serves as the perfect end-cap for how much I want to play in a session before returning to whatever I was doing.

I’m also usually a huge sucker for games where you collect stuff (Pokemon, specifically), but I don’t think Fire Emblem Heroes necessarily has its hooks in me for that reason. I’m not hugely attached to the Fire Emblem series (the only game I’ve played is Awakening, although I’d quite like to play the others in the future), so seeing all of these familiar faces from the whole series really doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Instead, I think the character progression is what’s holding me close.

You see, characters in Heroes level up as they fight and kill enemies, and doing so unlocks Skill Points. These points are then spent on a hero-by-hero basis to unlock new basic and special attacks, as well as to unlock certain special feats and traits. One hero might gain the ability to drag an attacked enemy back a space, back towards the rest of your forces, while another might attack twice, so long as they initiate the combat. Unlocking these abilities I think forms the strategic depth of the game needed to hook me.

Fire Emblem Heroes obeys the first law of making instantly interesting gameplay: easy to learn, hard to master. The initial mechanics are easy: guys can move two spaces than attack. Faster guy attacks first. Weapon triangle grants buffs. Simple enough. However, as you progress through the game and your characters accrue more and more Skill Points, your strategic options grow in kind, as suddenly you’re paying very close attention to character positioning, to the types of enemy on the field, to whether you should initiate a combat or let an enemy come to you. Sure, none of these puzzles are equal to, say, a game of Starcraft, but they’re just mentally engaging enough to be a satisfying five minute distraction.

Furthermore, the sheer quantity of heroes you get, as well as the difference in abilities between them, means that you can always mix up and try new strategies. You can lumber forward and fight enemies with brute strength with a bunch of knights, which are very strong but can only move one space a turn, or you can hope to decimate a foe’s melee units with a barrage of arrows and spells before they even get close.

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The arrows strategy also gets much better if you get lucky like I did and pull a five-star version of the best archer in the game early into your playtime.

The beauty is that all of this is condensed into a game that just takes a couple of minutes to complete, instead of hours. Each match feels like a tiny little puzzle, one where you have to work the numbers out in your head. There’s no RNG in the fights at all, just pure strategy, so the game strikes this beautiful balance of having just enough tacked on to each character to create a vast array of possible strategic situations, combined with a wide range of characters to choose from, all condensed into an extremely short play time. Sure, a full length Fire Emblem game would be boring if it were this simple, with no equipment system, support system, or even classes, but you’re not playing a full Fire Emblem game, you’re playing a five minute one.

Ultimately, I feel like Fire Emblem Heroes works because it fills a nice niche as far as games are concerned. The game isn’t brain dead, you do need to engage with it on a mental level in order to plan around assorted character abilities, positions, and tactics, but it doesn’t require near the same tactical investment as a round of Heroes of the Storm or Overwatch, and that strategy is condensed into such a tiny little span of time that it doesn’t feel like an investment of time or energy at all, just a quick little diversion to distract from the day.

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