Fire Emblem Heroes was developed by longtime series stewards Intelligent Systems, and manages to strike a pretty good balance between the traditional turn-based gameplay of the series and a "gacha" central conceit.
If you're not familiar with "gacha" games, it's the Japanese word for those capsule toy machines and the central principle is the same. These games center around earning virtual currency (or just paying real world monies to shortcut your way to it) which is then spent on random draws for in-game characters. FE Heroes is in the direct lineage of 2015's Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius, having you randomly draw heroes (using Orbs) and then level up the ones you prefer to use through gameplay.
The roster spans over 300 characters (as of this writing) and romps through the entirety of the Fire Emblem history, from the original adventures of Marf and crew on the NES to the newer ones that have all the cringey dating stuff and some real questionable "1000 year old dragon / demon" character designs. They tend to add a handful of characters per month, and are at a clip of adding about 100 per year since the game debuted in 2017, but keep in mind that quite a few are special seasonal and weapon type alternates of the most popular characters.
The actual gameplay is limited to one screen; mostly it's four of your units vs a comparable number of opponents, but there is a special game mode that doubles the screen real estate (by shrinking everything) allowing for eight-on-eight battles.
The signature "weapon triangle" style of the series is retained, but altered for simplicity. Instead of different weapon and magic triangles, everything revolves around your unit's color. Regardless of the character class it's red over green, green over blue and blue over red (with the grey neutral units getting neither bonus nor penalty). The unit types do get their own little damage bonuses against other types in keeping with series standards, however; for example archers still get a big damage bonus against flying units, and armored units are hardy against regular weapons but susceptible to magic.
One series element that has been abandoned is permadeath when a unit is killed - now they're simply out of the battle and returned to you in like-new condition afterward. I suspect this has everything to do with Nintendo crossing the gambling Rubicon with this title. They dipped their toes in the mobile gaming waters previously, but those prior efforts really didn't smack of addiction-focused mechanisms; Super Mario Run was basically a free demo that asked you to pay a one-time fee for the full game, and Pokemon Go and Miitomo just sold bonus items that were truly optional. FE Heroes is their first mobile game making a clear effort to hunt for the "whales" who get hooked on these sorts of titles, and I think unit permadeath in this setting would have been a bridge too far (toward outright gambling) for them.
That isn't to say that you need to pay to play here. FE Heroes is actually more substantial than most mobile games in terms of Free Daily Stuff To Do; unless you get deeply hooked on the Gachaing or the Waifuery or what have you, you can easily play this for free without coming even close to daily limits on gameplay. As with most mobile titles these days, there is a poopton going on here, so we'll tackle it by breaking the game down into its component segments forthwith.
Time Restrictions and Currency
So freemium mobile games usually put limitations on how much you can play in one go, and naturally that's the case here. Fortunately, the limitations are extremely generous here unless you're a super-addict.
The central limiting mechanism is "stamina", which you start out with 99 units of. Most game modes take some amount of stamina to initiate; generally between 1 to 20 units. You get one unit back every five minutes, so it takes about eight hours to refill to 99 from zero. The game also tosses you a ton of "stamina potions" that fully refill the meter as rewards, though; in a few weeks of play I piled up about 50 of these things before I even got around to using one.
The Orbs are the central currency for pulling your characters, but there are heaps of other things to earn for character improvement. For example, feathers are used to increase the "star rating" of your character (and thus their base stats per level).
The two "sorta PvP" modes have their own unique limitations, but we'll get to those in the sections below.
There is an ongoing story, but don't expect anything on the order of the console games. It's divided up into stand-alone chapters into which you can bring any member of your army, and it's also about as boring and forgettable as it gets. The game is set in this entirely new realm called Askr, which is like some interdimensional thing that can open portals to anywhere else (which explains all the hero-teleporting). Evil forces of Askr are running wild in various Fire Emblem worlds and you play as some mysterious tactician who leads the efforts against them. I guess the writing isn't awful but it's about as boring and forgettable as it gets, and definitely don't expect any of the darker edge of some of the earlier Fire Emblem games - it's in that distinct Safe For The Animu Kids territory. Though the new characters are boring, some of the units invented for this game are among the most powerful.
So the only real purpose to Story Mode is that three of the chapters give you a good character for completing them, and you also get an Orb for completing each difficulty level (three in total per chapter). There is also a separate set of chapters called the Paralogues, which are kinda wacky follow-ups to the main story. These actually tend to be more fun because they're silly and anything goes, plus you still earn Orbs for completing them.
Under this heading also falls the Tactics Drills, which are basically puzzle battles that you have to move through in a particular way using character buffs and abilities. You don't use your own characters for these so they don't help you level, and the reward for completing each is a meager 300 feathers, but there are a ton of them and all of them are free to play without using stamina.
Then you got your Heroic Ordeals, which is a one-off map for each of your characters that you can only bring one partner into. These earn you Dragonflowers that can be cashed in for stat boosts.
Finally there's the Multi-Map Battles. The Chain Challenges seem kind of dumb to me; tons of stamina to play a long string of maps and only get a few hundred feathers as your reward. The Squad Assault is similar, but is an even longer chain that you bring multiple teams into and actually has some substantial rewards (like equippable seals that boost stats plus multiple Orbs). The Blessed Gardens are tough maps with likewise bigly rewards, but they have weird pre-conditions that the game doesn't explain adequately (characters have to be of a certain element, but apparently color =/= element ... found no in-game explanation determining that so I just gave up on it).
The Training Tower is the main grinding area of the game, allowing you to re-roll the current selection of enemies at your desired level until you get a lineup you like. It does require stamina, but very little at the lower levels. You also earn badges and shards as a reward, which are needed for increasing character star rankings and auto-leveling them.
This limited-time map selection is anchored by three maps with recruitable characters that rotate daily. There is also a special training mode that throws a ton of enemies at you and gives an Orb for completing. The "Rival Domains" brigade battles also make an appearance here, which is the only semi-regular way to play the eight-versus-eight maps (where you bring in a team of 20 overall and fight it out until the enemy base is overrun).
The "Events" section holds the big limited-time promotional maps that are the current main attraction. These things generally bestow upon you piles of loot, and also sometimes contain a special character or two to recruit by meeting certain conditions. There are a whole bunch of these that come and go, usually sticking around for a couple of weeks: the little Tap Battle rhythm game, the Voting Gauntlet where you back a character in a bracket for them to get a new alternate version if they win, some variations of the Brigade mode, and more.
The Arena is the simpler and more straightforward of the two "sorta PvP" competitive modes. You set a defensive team of four for other players to come along and challenge, then you can send any of your squads up against three randomly chosen opponents. AI controls the defensive team, there's no direct battle option between players.
The rewards for this are kinda lame, with the exception of winning a chain of five battles once per week. Other than the weekly chain challenge there's little point to this unless you're super into climbing a leaderboard.
The limiting mechanism here is Dueling Swords, which you start out with three of and replenish at a rate of one every few hours. But as with the stamina potions, you also frequently stumble upon Dueling Crests as rewards, which restore all three swords when used.
Arena Assault is a bit more interesting - here you have to field seven teams for seven battles, and you're forced to use new characters for each new battle. So it's one you'll probably have to reserve until you have a big roster of powerful characters, but the rewards in this mode are more substantial.
This is the other "passive AI PvP" deal, which cobbles in some RTS and tower defense elements. Basically, you have a map you defend, you set a team of four to defend it and you also build various structures on the map to help out - like a healing tower, an attack tower, etc. You can raid other people's maps as well. You add more defenses over time by earning special currencies from offensive and defensive wins in this mode.
I guess this one is the most meaty of the game modes, and certainly had the most promise, but I found it to just be too much of a confusing headache to navigate. It seems like it was cobbled into the engine after the fact, and building / organizing your maps is kind of a mess.
Graphics and Music
Art is basically the Funko Pop version of game characters with unremarkable backgrounds, but an underrated quality is that you're getting a Best of Fire Emblem Soundtracks album with this. Well, you can't actually play from a playlist (my one big wish), but the music is taken from previous games throughout the series and whoever made the selections had pretty good taste.
That Halloween Snicker Fire Emblem
The gameplay was handled about as well as you can expect given that it's a mobile freemium title. Maps are fun to play and strategize your way through on their own right, making for a nice little snack-sized burst of gaming that lasts a few minutes. Expecting the depth and complexity of a full-size Fire Emblem game is expecting too much, however. There is plenty of room for variety in battles depending on the units participating and the map (which contain elements like defensive squares and destructible barriers), but there does tend to be a core repetitive meta of trying to rush and one-shot enemies or bait them out with a tank.
Intelligent Systems, c'mon man
Powering Past 40
You can only grind characters up to level 40. After that, it's a bunch of more esoteric stuff to continue powering them up.
For example, you use the various items you pick up to forge equippable seals that give stat boosts. You can also "merge" copies of characters that are at the same star level to give one character an added level-up, up to 10 times. The biggest thing is skill inheritance, however; unfortunately it's also poorly explained in-game and a pain to wade through looking for who has what skill and who has the prerequisites to equip it. Fortunately, it's also not that important unless you want to climb up into the higher ranks of competitive play.
Mobile games serve all sorts of different needs, but the main one is for something fun but not too in-depth that gives you a few minutes of reliable playtime here and there. In that sense, FE Heroes is exceptional. It's a littler deeper and more strategic than the usual Kardashian Candy Ninja type game, but not something that puts a big demand on your time and attention. The turn-based style is also perfectly suited for touchscreens. For me, it filled a nice "get away from working on the computer and flop on the bed for like 10-15 minutes to take a break" need, at least for a while.
It doesn't offer a lot in terms of long-term involvement, though ... at least unless you get sucked into the addiction well of Gacha-ing. The two "PvP-esque" modes are the whole purpose of building up your army, yet they're just really not that satisfying. Otherwise, the only purpose of playing is to grind up characters, to earn more Orbs, to ... pull and grind more characters.
FE Heroes really does have the foundation to be something much more than a Gachafest. At the higher levels of play, the depth of options in buffs and counterbuffs and ways to customize characters with skills actually makes for some significantly deep strategy, and ever-evolving as new characters are introduced and tweaks are made. Dare I say, this could almost be a chess-like esport if the randomness and grinding/outspending advantages could be removed from the equation somehow. As it is, though, that element just isn't there. It ends up being a somewhat better class of time-killer, but a time-killer all the same.
* F2P hero tier list
* List of the most powerful characters and how they're used, from TVTropes of all places
* Gameplay Video