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Import Report – ‘Heroes,’ Gacha, and Gambles

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Fire Emblem: Heroes has been out for two weeks now. This week’s Import Report explores the good and the bad about it, and the capsule machine-inspired genre it comes from.

It’s been roughly two weeks since Fire Emblem: Heroes launched on iOS and Android, and with it came another new attempt at pushing the gacha genre onto a Western audience. Gacha follows a lot of the same principles as most other free-to-play mobile games by enticing the customer with short, but addictive, gameplay that is eventually stunted by some kind of wall. It could be as simple as running out of turns in a match-3 game or as elaborate as a difficult boss fight in an RPG. There have been some successful attempts at localizing gacha titles outside of Asian territories, like with Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, but the brunt of controversy surrounding these games is still mostly overseas. One gacha game in particular saw a man spend roughly 6k trying to get an unlock which in turn led to a lot of backlash and regulations being brought upon the market. Heroes takes a slightly less greedy approach to the gacha formula though, and it’s these particular choices that will help it stand out in a sea of similar-styled games.

The gacha genre of video games is one of the only ones out there defined by how it makes money rather than how it plays. Gacha is named after the word “Gashapon,” a Bandai owned trademark for capsule machines in Japan. Gacha games work similar to capsule machines in that content is locked behind randomized drops from some kind of micro-transaction machine. These types games also tend to have timed special events. Certain limited gear or characters can become easier to unlock for a short amount of time, or those same characters are only available for that short amount of time before vanishing indefinitely. It’s an easy way to get whales, the minority of players that spend more than the average of the majority, to actively invest in the game.

Gacha sounds like a bunch of crock, right? Gacha games often do a lot of things to offset their paywalls, such as being entirely free-to-play. One could realistically get through all of a gacha title without spending a single cent, but at some point or another, the player is going to hit a wall that will require time to grind up their resources. The idea is that everyone has a threshold, you just need to place it high enough where the investment of time can be rationalized with the investment of money.

Fire Emblem: Heroes isn’t the first gacha title to be released in the West, but it is a great example of some of the best and worst parts of the genre. In general, Heroes does more right than wrong. Its stages are short, level progression through the main game doesn’t feel stunted, and most of the story missions are manageable with even the weakest units when played properly. There’s also an ample amount of stages and scenarios to replay to grind out levels and resources quickly. Things like quests also facilitate continued play and give a way for the player get even more rewards that are otherwise unobtainable. It’s a healthy system, where players are given enough options in what to do that things don’t become boring unless you find the base gameplay boring from the very start.

Orbs serve as the coins for the gacha machine in Heroes, and they’re easy to obtain, at least while the game is still in a honeymoon phase of sorts. The entirety of February is filled with opportunities to gain orbs, from a daily bonus to special event maps that hand out 6 total each. This early-to-adopt inflation gives a player about 3 extra rolls in the machine, assuming you use the 20 orb max when you roll. It’s a great incentive for people who grabbed the game on launch day to keep playing, but it’s not nearly as forgiving to those who start later. There’s still plenty of opportunities to gain orbs if you’re a late adopter. You can gain 1 per-story mission when you first clear it, but those extra free rolls could be the difference between getting good party members or a bunch of weak ones.

Orbs do more than just fill in for gacha currency though, they’re also needed to get experience upgrades and even refuel other limited resources if the player is too impatient to wait. This kind of stuff is really par for the course when it comes to gacha games, as you really want to stress the inflated importance of paying to play more. Imagine you’re on a hard level, one laid out to be unfair and unforgiving to the slightest mistake. It takes a 1/5th of your limited stamina bar to play this level and you’re near zero now after binging for about an hour. Your last unit dies to theirs, and now it’s going to be a 2-hour wait for your stamina to recharge for you to try again. In the heat of the moment, you’re given the offer to trade in 1 orb to continue on the spot and have all your units come back at max health for a guaranteed victory. Logically, you should just hold off and patiently wait for your stamina to restore, but there’s always going to be more people who hit “try again” in the spur of the moment for their singular orb. These decisions stack up over time, and what started as one orb to continue quickly becomes 10 or 20, where you’re at the point of losing your free character rolls.

I had said earlier that you can get through most parts of the game with the weak units, which is true, but there’s no real way to get the strongest units outside of getting them through the gacha process. Each unit in Heroes has a star rating from 1-5, and then “5 focus” as an added 6th tier, and exclusive to the gacha machine. The more stars a unit has the better it’s base stats, skill pool, and ability to gain skill points becomes. Units can be upgraded at level 20, and with enough patience, you can turn any 2-star unit into a hefty 4-star in a few play sessions. The one thing you can’t effectively do right now is upgrade a 4-star unit to a 5-star. Each upgrade requires two separate resources of feathers and badges, and the badge required to go from 4 to 5 is not easily obtainable. This is where the grind kicks in, as suddenly you have to start doing more and more expensive side-missions in a power struggle to continually promote your units to make them stronger. Is it bad? A little, but the satisfaction of promoting a unit to 5-star ranking feels great since badges and feathers cannot be purchased or replaced by money. Players with dedication to specific characters will get way more out of grinding and playing the game than they will by lightening their bank accounts.

The ability to turn weaker units into stronger ones is one of the main things I like about Heroes. Rolling low-stat units always feels bad, but it doesn’t feel like complete garbage when you can turn them around and make them into stronger fighters with a little dedication. The maps in Heroes also lend to making its grind feel shorter. Most stages can be completed in a matter of 3-5 minutes, while it could sometimes take almost an hour in certain mainline Fire Emblem titles. The experience upgrades pay off as good investments since they too speed the process up and let you climb the training tower faster for rarer badges to make promoting units easier.

Fire Emblem: Heroes isn’t that different from your average gacha title like Granblue or Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius, but its legacy lies in its brand. Fire Emblem is a solid strategy series, and its gameplay translates well to mobile. The franchise has a huge roster of characters to choose from, which makes its biweekly roster roulette much easier to update and differentiate from week to week to keep players coming back. Heroes might not have had the same initial launch success as Super Mario Run or Miitomo, but it has the opportunity to outdo both of them. With a healthy free-to-play game structure and simple gameplay, Heroes has set itself up to be one of the better mobile games with longevity in mind.

Taylor is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His passion for games extends across genres and generations. When not playing or writing about games, he's probably reading science fiction.

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