Fire Emblem is a franchise that sets the standard for strategy role playing games. A world filled with characters fighting for their ideals in a conflict that generally ends with a big dragon. Fire Emblem is one of my favorite franchises ever and, while I did not love the most recent entries (the multiple versions of fates) change in direction, I still adore the series. So when Fire Emblem on mobile was announced they had my attention. Naturally I’ve dived deep into this game, clearing every normal story mission, most hard, and half the lunatic missions. That said there is another, Phantom of the Kill (PotK), a mobile game in the vain of Fire Emblem I also played during this stretch of Fire Emblem time. How does a game inspired by Fire Emblem for consoles compare to the “real deal” made for mobile? Let’s find out shall we?
Fire Emblem Heroes has a cute little chibi-style that the “sprites” section covers. It’s not complex but it’s adorable. The cut-out art is done by a wide variety of artists capturing the differences of style from game to game in the series. Sadly a bit of the art is more miss than hit with the trope-y anime stuff even to the extend of battle damaged clothing. The clash of art styles can be a problem since it’s not even a game by game situation to make a universe feel different but simply there because they got a bunch of artists to draw a bunch of characters. While in battle there is a sense of cohesion that cohesion does not apply to the art cutouts you get while attacking and being attacked.
Phantom of the Kill feels more consistently anime-style. While this results in some badass looking girls, it also leads to plenty of really perv-y costumes and posing as well. You have women making boob-butt poses, ridiculous armor design, and plenty of bog standard titillation. The 3D models in the game are also going for a chibish style. It works, but in general I think Fire Emblem Heroes maps look prettier with the cute 2D design as opposed to the low quality 3D chibis. Musically Fire Emblem also has tunes that I resonate with more, but I have a bias as a long time fan of the franchise whereas Phantom of the Kill is simply a random game I decided to add.
Gameplay: At their core the gameplay is very similar in both games. Each gives random level ups to stats, each has a system of checks and balances where swords lose to lances, lances lose to axes, and axes lose to swords. Each has grid-based gameplay where your objective is to wipe out your foe’s army with your squad. Bows do extra damage to flying units and magic is a threat at range. It’s the nitty gritty that separates the two.
Fire Emblem’s biggest game changer is its skill system. Every unit has their own skills, many of them unique to the character. It’s very focused on being simple, removing a lot of the systems that were in place in the games that you pay a premium for and working to make them all easy to handle at a glance. It’s why skills really stand out, because they are the only reason to really care about characters outside of design in the same class. Sadly the skills lead to an imbalance where some characters are so clearly better than others that it’s not even fun. For instance, counter skills on characters that extend their range make characters lose their previous weakness. That is just one major example but there are skills that allow for extra moves and more that just objectively are better than other characters’ moves.
Characters in PotK have a bunch of hidden and not-so-hidden systems attached to them. They have friendships, they have traits, they have leader skills, and while all this likely means an equal balancing issue in Phantom of the Kill, it doesn’t feel apparent, or, perhaps because how different a character can feel, it simply doesn’t feel like it matters. Fire Emblem had to a lot of negotiation to make the console versions still a solid value, whereas PotK characters are allowed to have wider varieties of movement and ability thanks to the map designs and the main focus being on single player.
Gaining access to these characters is where both are really focused on making their money. Gaining characters in both games is mostly done by an in-game currency. However, in my experience, this is harder to judge given that Fire Emblem Heroes is just launching so it is still in “treat your players” phase and Phantom of the Kill is in the middle of its big Madoka crossover. Phantom of the Kill seems more generous. Everyday I’ve gotten two free characters where two orbs a day is the standard gift from Fire Emblem Heroes. It takes five orbs to buy one character but you really want to use 20 because that increases the number of characters you can gain per orb (the cost lowering to four for the next three characters and then three for one more before you need to start again).
What really makes Fire Emblem Heroes’ character system feel flawed is a really simple difference in how they handle character growth. Fire Emblem Heroes gives experience for every attack a character does and more for getting a kill. On the other hand, in PotK you can have one unit kill every single monster and they will simply gain an MVP bonus where every other character gains EXP. EXP is instead distributed at the end of combat making grinding characters far easier and cost way less stamina. You can take this awesome new character and not have to spend a whole day just to raise them up if you can handle a the mission with one less unit or a unit that can’t do as much damage. When paired with the fact that in Fire Emblem Heroes characters who die in combat lose the EXP from that battle it makes the time management for the game far more tedious.
Then there is upgrading the heroes you gain. While PotK feels pretty standard (so, not very good) for a hero upgrading system to raise the rank of a hero you have,it does give enough to upgrade at least three-star heroes to four-stars. On the other hand, upgrading characters in Fire Emblem Heroes requires “hero feathers.” I can’t tell you what it takes to do a three-star hero because I have no three-stars at a high enough level, but to upgrade a four to five costs 20K hero feathers. You can’t even buy hero feathers with money and as of my most recent session, I had a grand total of 53! I get like 15 a day at best and the PvP rewards as a player at the very top rank only give 1,600 feathers, and that’s a once a week reward, it seems. So players looking to upgrade characters they’re attached to better be ready to grind the hell out of PVP; likely meaning they have to pay cash but, instead of for sure getting an upgrade, risking it.
When it comes down to raw layouts of these maps there is a very deliberate intent in Fire Emblem heroes to make it visually appealing and simple to handle. PotK opts for bigger maps that require some scrolling or shifting the camera perspective but that larger scale allows for a lot more tactical planning instead of playing the numbers game. The small scale of Fire Emblem Heroes makes it boil down to who has better stats and who wins rock-paper-scissors. I like removing the minor systems like high ground advantage FE Heroes does, but at the cost of engaging tactical combat we have these simpler maps that don’t feel like a solid trade.
Story is always really important to me and could really pull a game I have a lot of complaints about more to my favor. Sadly, neither game is exactly a master class of creation. Fire Emblem’s plot is “you got summoned here, fight the evil people who are evil for reasons! Oh, and meet a bunch of characters for about a minute, ohhhhh, wait and here is the hook: a guy with a mask is around and is totally not the person we keep talking about that went missing.” Meanwhile, Phantom of the Kill is a bit more engaging with a world on the brink of death, with the player fighting demons and trying to obtain some weapons as a last ditch effort. I honestly can’t even count Fire Emblem Heroes’ story as a story because I’ve played a lot of crossovers and this doesn’t even have the depth of some of the worst I played. It’s really sad because I hold Fire Emblem’s storytelling in pretty high regard given the epic fantasies and engaging characters they offer. PotK feels generically anime, but at least it’s something to glue story beats together (plus you can just skip it).
The real successor to Fire Emblem on mobile is Phantom of the Kill. Fire Emblem Heroes sadly has to restrain itself to not be a product that could be seen as competing with the 3DS and Switch Fire Emblem games, so it can’t offer nearly as much. Even then I honestly believe there is some fundamental misunderstandings on how to build a good mobile game that the folks at Nintendo have that must have damaged it. Phantom of the Kill is fun and, while still a mobile game through and through, much more worth the hardcore SRPG player’s time. Perhaps casual players will enjoy Fire Emblem Heroes more, but if substance is what you’re looking for, you know where to go.