Reset Abandon: Permadeath and casual play in Fire Emblem Heroes

I play Fire Emblem methodically, slowly, tactically — and with a whole lot of resets. With ‘permadeath’ on, any time a character falls in battle, they are lost. For good. For ever. Until you start again, from the beginning. My Fire Emblem save files are tales of team triumph, of overcoming the odds, of warfare where literally no man or woman gets left behind.

Those save files belie the stories that are contained within them.

Like many people, my first exposure to the Fire Emblem franchise began with Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Though I had dabbled in some emulation and had access to the Game Boy Advance’s “Sacred Stones” via the 3DS Ambassador program, the game had never really captured me. The series felt too complex and too difficult to learn. It wasn’t until the critically acclaimed Awakening released back in 2012 that I first came to love Fire Emblem.

There has been a lot of ink spilled about Awakening, a fantastic video game that has A LOT going on but isn’t impenetrable, even for newcomers to the series. My save file says that I got through the game unscathed, not a single casket buried, not a single gravestone placed. My main man Frederick, and his valiant steed, by Chrom’s side until the very end. But that’s not the truth.

The truth is, I must have reset and reloaded my Awakening save file over 100 times. The real number may even be a lot higher. In fact, one level in particular caused me so much grief — I couldn’t finish the level without someone dying — that I gave up on Awakening for half of 2012, only coming back to it on a long haul flight across the Earth.

Notably, Awakening was the first in the series to offer a gameplay option that allows players to play through the series with permadeath turned OFF. As opposed to Classic mode, this mode, known as Casual, revives any of the heroes slain during battle at the end of each mission. It’s seen, at least by Fire Emblem purists, as the ‘Wrong Way To Play’. This method of play was also implemented in 2015’s ambitious, excellent Fire Emblem: Fates.

Initially, I looked at Casual in much the same way as the purists — it isn’t the way the game was designed to be played. It makes the game easier. It is a ‘cop out’, a way to play with no real reward. No risk, no reward. There’s no sense of satisfaction beating the game when you know, if you had played it the way it was intended, that you likely wouldn’t have got this far.

But more importantly, for me, death becomes a tactic. A viable gameplay strategy to be used against the enemy. If you can willingly sacrifice a unit, dropping them into battle to divert the enemies attention or to take damage for other, less powerful heroes, the unit — a named character you can level up, converse with and help fall in love — becomes nothing more than a faceless pawn. People die in war. That’s the truth. Rarely the Commander in Chief sends them, deliberately, to their death. But that’s what you can do, in Casual mode.

I couldn’t. I can’t. I won’t play Casual. Death is death. Resetting is life.

Then Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Heroes.

Heroes is Fire Emblem Lite and Nintendo’s second foray into the mobile space using a franchise that, a decade back, was scarcely known outside of Japan. I’m kind of amazed it exists at all, to be honest. Heroes takes all of the staple elements of a Fire Emblem diet and streamlines them so they work neatly on a small phone-sized 8×6 grid. The weapon triangle remains centre stage, while magic takes a back seat. There are no unit classes, but you can still level up and improve the base stats of your favourite characters (like, every character that has ever been in a Fire Emblem game, basically).

Heroes doesn’t have a Classic mode and a Casual mode. Heroes is locked into only one of them.

Casual.

The mode where, no matter what happens in battle, your heroes cannot die. The mode where death is a tactic.

And, of course, that makes sense. This is a mobile game we’re talking about and people can invest real, physical, human currency to purchase in-game items and increase their pool of heroes. Having a game where you can pay money just to piss it away in a fantastical, medieval style war on a grid would probably break some law. Or it would be an insanely smart business decision. I’m not sure. I didn’t study law.

Regardless, here it is — Fire Emblem Heroes has altered the way that I look at Fire Emblem.

Being locked into Casual, it’s been interesting reflecting on each battle and finding out exactly how I’m trying to cater to this entirely unfamiliar play style. I don’t find that I am being reckless, that I’m storming into battle without forethought or strategy. But the sticking point has been using death as a tactic.

The early levels in Heroes aren’t incredibly hard, but as you progress further, more enemies appear and the difference in their attack begins to show. In later parts of the game, I found myself directing units into situations I knew would get them killed —their sacrifice paving the way for the remaining 3 units to mount an all out assault. Most notably, I’ve begun to run through maps with 4 attack units, using one as bait, and letting the other 3 pile on to the enemies I drew near.

I just don’t feel as attached to these characters.

In Awakening, Tharja, the dark mage, was an absolute necessity on my team. More times than I can count, she saved me from the depths of another reset with her timely book of spells. Her access to the most powerful tomes meant she could wipe out entire armies, alone. She was an angel, all dressed in black. If, because of sheer luck, she were to fall in battle, I could not have continued on. I needed her on my team.

Reset.

When I summoned her in Heroes, I was elated. Yet, even though Heroes features a spattering of voiced dialogue and maintains the cold, grim personality I was drawn to in Awakening, I feel no attachment to her. She’s not an angel, all dressed in black, but a blackboard filled with numbers and equations, all dressed in… well, black. She’s a black blackboard. I cannot lose her, so she merely becomes an extension of her stats. 26 ATK, 22 DEF and some long, black hair.

Heroes hasn’t changed my opinion on permadeath or how to play Fire Emblem, if anything it has strengthened my resolve to finally beat Fire Emblem: Conquest without losing a single character (a near impossible task, it constantly seems). But it has allowed me to experience the other side of the coin, a completely separate world — one where a different set of skills and strategies can be used to complete the game.

I no longer think of Casual as the ‘Wrong Way’ to play, rather I think of it as another way to play. Another reason to play through games that I enjoy. Another reason that Fire Emblem is one of the most successful, engrossing strategy titles that money can buy.

I actually feel kind of stupid that it took me this long to accept that.

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