Fire Emblem Heroes: Cookie Clicker without Grandma
20 April, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Games
I've also posted this on Medium.
Before playing Fire Emblem Heroes, I always looked upon it with a doubtful eye: Nintendo, in the low-quality gacha business? Unbelievable. What happened to their prudish attention to image?
Now, I can say with confidence that FEH is every bit the low-quality gacha game I feared. In fact, it's worse: it fails at even being a low-quality gacha game, because it's not enticing.
FEH is the first game I've ever played where I never really figured out the point of playing the game. I love narrative experiences and mechanical challenges, and I've certainly done my time grinding Maplestory mobs. I can spend hours on Cookie Clicker, but the moment I try to open FEH, I'm immediately met with the doubt of "why bother?"
Gameplay in FEH is, to put it bluntly, fairly shallow. The narrative is unimpressive, the strategy is a p2w bastardization of Advance Wars, and the experience of immersion we so cherish is nonexistent. There's no significant skill-based challenge, multiplayer is stripped down so far as to be meaningless, and the aesthetic is "good" at best. (Standard fare for mobile games.)
Thus FEH lacks any grounding in most tenets of game purpose. It's difficult to provide a good answer to the question "Why play this game?" But let me offer the answer that should be given: Play it for the progression.
A Retrospective on Maplestory
I bring up Maplestory here because I think it much like gacha games in terms of its lack of serious value. But-- and this is widespread across MMOs in general-- it always hangs the next carrot in front of your face, showing you interesting skills that you can't yet use, or interesting bosses that you can't yet fight. In the old days, Zakum and Horntail were half myth, but dreams of amazing boss fights incomprehensible to us level 50 newbs. In the post-BB era, they push out new boss fights regularly, and by the time you have the stats to beat it, the next one is out. Either way, there's always that carrot: the next boss, the next level, the next set of equipment.
It's a common pattern across all games, but what's unique in low-quality gacha games (and Maplestory) is that the progression is the only thing the game offers. Rather than focus on a narrative experience or some complex mechanics, you are fundamentally playing a somewhat complex clicker game that is constantly releasing pretty GIFs for you to buy with your cookie points.
The Importance of Progression
FEH fundamentally requires this kind of cookie clicker progression system (CCPS for brevity's sake), since it by design lacks any other purpose. Generally speaking, any game with no serious narrative and no serious gameplay requires a CCPS to actually make people want to play the game.
Let's, then, take a look at the game's progression systems:
- Getting SSRs to fill out your party. You only really need 4, since that's the max party size. You get to choose one when you start (Lyn, one of the strongest heroes in the game, is a choice), you get one during an early story mission, and you can reroll for one easily. So you only need to worry about getting one more SSR after starting.
- Levelling up your party. This doesn't take too long; I maxed out my main party within a day.
- Miscellaneous minmaxing, including skill inheritance, merging allies, forging seals, upgrading weapons, and getting stat boosts from the Blessing and Support systems.
Now, you'll notice that I seemingly arbitrarily grouped a lot of progression methods under one point. Here's why: I consider filling out a team with SSRs and maxing their levels an "obvious" thing to do. It's something that comes as an instinctive goal when you pick up the game. But the rest? Not really. I see no reason that I should bother with minmaxing my team's stats.
Here's the problem: There's no real reason to engage with progression in FEH past the fairly short task of getting a fully levelled SSR team. There's no carrot. There are neither fancy bosses nor fancy skills, no GIFs to ogle at beyond the basic attack animations, no absurdly high damage numbers pouring out of your enemies as if someone accidentally unsigned a Siberian thermometer. The best opponent you can get is a statted-up version of some run-of-the-mill enemies, without even a nice OST to spice it up. All the arena modes that would necessitate minmaxing ultimately fall to this: there’s nothing outside the same spectacle, sometimes on a bigger screen.
My first thought upon levelling my party to 40 was, "Alright, now what?" Even in Cookie Clicker, there's always the urge to get the next item type, or to break the next boundary of cookies per second, or to simply watch that cookie counter go up until it overflows into infinity (this is possible). But there's nothing to aim for in FEH. I gladly grinded for months at Maplestory to take down boss after boss, but I can’t find that pull in the barebones sameness of all the game modes.
What Could've Been Done
It's not difficult to conceive of ways that FEH could have made the progression system more interesting. (Of course, I would prefer if they just made a game worth playing on its own merits, but we all know that's not happening.)
- Bosses, or other combat interactions more interesting than copies of sprites you've probably already obtained. I think this is the easiest route, as all it takes is fancy art to make boss encounters interesting as a carrot.
- A proper reason to invest in more than one or two teams. This would probably necessitate actually involved combat, which is difficult.
- More incentives to seek out SSRs. As it currently stands, player "interaction" with heroes is fairly undeveloped, and hero development is the only progression in the game.
Let's not also neglect how the game has intentionally hamstrung its own progression systems. It's too easy to max out levels, and the game pretty much hands you a complete team at the start.
I don't want to convey the impression that I think FEH would be a "good" game if it fixed its CCPS. Games based on CCPS are almost invariably terrible, and gacha games are almost invariably evil. That being said, I can't understand why Nintendo so neglected to develop FEH's CCPS, even though there's nothing else the game can offer. It's like Cookie Clicker without Grandma: just spend your time clicking, without even an "upgrade" dangled before your face.
I realize now that I didn't even touch upon the topic of gacha. Perhaps this is because I never really had to bang my head against the summoning RNG. This again is a marker that the game couldn't keep me hooked long enough, even though I'm a compulsive gamer who just spent several hours playing Cookie Clicker for "research". You're losing your grip, Nintendo!