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In Defense of Fire Emblem Heroes’ Aether Raids

For just about a year Fire Emblem Heroes has been one of my primary sources of entertainment. After abandoning the mobile game shortly after its launch, I gave it another shot last summer and have been hooked since. I’ve come to adore the fantastic character art, stellar voice acting, and shockingly deep gameplay that have made FEH a runaway success, but the game is not without its flaws. There are a handful of aspects of the game that its detractors (who are generally also its fans, go figure) tend to cite as issues. These include powercreep, a problematic gacha system, and overrepresentation of certain games and characters in the Fire Emblem franchise, to name a few. I will agree with the naysayers to a certain extent on most of these topics, but there is one on which I stand firmly in the minority: the player-versus-player game mode “Aether Raids.”

Aether Raids (commonly abbreviated to AR) is a game mode with two objectives: attack and defense. Players must build a defense by designing their “Aether Keep” using defensive structures and playable units. The goal of a defense is to defeat as many enemy units as possible, or keep at least one defensive unit alive for seven turns. Attacking players are looking to defeat all of the defensive units, as well as to optionally destroy two structures that will grant them additional resources. At first glance, the defense has a clear advantage. Defenders have control over the design of the map and the position of structures, and their win condition is much more forgiving. Additionally, every offensive unit that is defeated penalizes attackers and rewards defenders. The catch, though, is that defensive teams are controlled entirely by AI. This creates an interesting balance of preparing for as many eventualities as possible when designing your defensive team, and overcoming a very specific challenge when controlling your offense.

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The mechanics are all well and good, but how are the player’s hard-earned defensive and offensive victories rewarded? Defeating every enemy as the offense grants you “lift,” which is essentially a skill rating system. The more lift you have, the higher ranked you are. There are resource rewards for both the amount of lift a player has and their ranking compared to other players. A defensive loss will lose you lift, while a defensive win preserves your spot. Thus, the overall goal is to win as frequently as possible on offense (without allowing your units to be defeated, as mentioned before), and to lose as infrequently as possible on defense. This will allow you to climb the ranks and reap greater rewards.

My Aether Keep, for context. Offense heroes are at the bottom, defense heroes are at the top. Sorry these screenshots are so big, I have no idea how to make them smaller.

Without any further context, the mode sounds pretty dynamic and enjoyable. Since players are rewarded for creating challenging defenses, Aether Raids essentially creates an endless source of new content for the game. As long as the rewards are valuable enough (and believe me, they are quite valuable) the mode should be a smash hit. Unfortunately, for many players that has not been the case. Most members of the community were excited when the mode was released last November, but now AR is just another punching bag for people looking to complain about the game. As an avid enjoyer of the game mode, I would like to go through an few of the more common criticisms of AR and explain why I believe it is worthy of the time and effort it asks of you.

The first complaint that you would likely see were you to browse an AR-related discussion board would be about the “meta.” Metagames are an intrinsic aspect of any PvP-based game, but they can be frustrating when a handful of characters and strategies shine brighter than the rest. It is impossible to deny that there are aspects of the AR meta that can feel repetitive and obnoxious. Characters like Ophelia, Reinhardt, Legendary Azura, and Surtr have been extremely contentious in the community due to their performance and prevalence in this game mode. In addition to individual characters, specific strategies can feel overused or played out. Tight groups of flying units (AKA “flier balls”), units that force you into unfavorable positions (AKA “lunge chains”), and many more annoying strategies have surfaced and infected the defensive metagame for AR.

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Literally only needed to go into one raid to find a defense with both Reinhardt and L!Azura (top right and top left defense heroes, respectively)

My response to these complaints? This is how PvP modes work. Players will always seek out effective strategies and use whatever will net them the most victories. These strategies are definitely annoying if you are unprepared, but as an attacker it is your job to prepare for certain defenses. If you build the right offensive teams, dealing with the meta is a simple task more often then not. People that take issue with this aspect of AR will likely never be satisfied with any PvP mode, since there will always be some form of metagame. There is an argument to be made that PvP modes in gacha-based games are intrinsically harmful to the community, but that is its own extensive discussion. In the context of a PvP environment, complaining that a metagame exist is hardly a legitimate grievance. Additionally, I think it’s important to have a place where the very best characters can really shine. If there isn’t a game mode hard enough to justify cutting-edge characters, why would you invest time into building them? The hardest PvE modes in FEH hardly require fantastic builds. Finally, Intelligent Systems (the developers of FEH) are constantly releasing units that shake up the meta and lend themselves to new and interesting strategies. Unfortunately, that point leads into the next common complaint.

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If you didn’t know, Fire Emblem Heroes is a gachapon, or gacha game. To play it, you must spend in game currency (or actual currency, if you so choose) for a random chance to get certain characters. This is a common business model for mobile games and it always comes with its own bundle of issues, but many see Intelligent System’s attitude towards Aether Raids as problematic when it comes to the gacha. Certain new characters appear to be specifically designed to perform well in AR, with some going as far as to have skills that only apply to the game mode. Players’ issues with this are largely twofold. First, making characters specifically for Aether Raids harms their effectiveness in other modes, in theory. If a skill is worthless in all other modes and you don’t like AR, why would you pull for that character? Second, gating important counters and strategies behind the luck-based pay wall of the gacha is seen as insidious. Sure, the developers created a counter to “Wrazzle Dazzle” healer strategies, but it took the form of a skill exclusive to one character with a low drop rate. People looking to counter that strategy in AR were forced to spend their currency on a chance to get that character, which only solves the issue for players that were able to pull her. Those that can’t pull her with free in-game currency are then left with the option of paying for more, turning the skill that should have helped fix the meta into a money trap.

I will concede that these skills are pretty bad, but that’s not really the point.
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I have issues with both of these arguments. The first is particularly weak due to FEH’s skill inheritance system. If a character has a skill that you don’t like, you can sacrifice a character with a different skill to transfer to the first character. So, the AR-specific skills can easily be replaced, assuming you have the resources to do so. Characters with AR skills are therefore far from useless outside of Aether Raids, since the skills can be swapped out for more effective ones if they need to be. With that in mind, whining that a character’s base kit is slightly less than optimal is hardly a noble endeavor. The second argument holds a lot more weight, since locking important skills behind the bars of a gacha prison is without question a strategy on the part of the developer to increase profits. However, I would only see this practice as insidious if the skills in question truly were necessary to advance in any particular game mode. Players that are lucky and players that are willing to spend money are always going to have an easier time than the rest of the playerbase in a gacha-based game. That is not problematic in and of itself. Since no particular strategy is completely impossible to counter without hard-to-obtain skills, using new skills that make certain situations easier as an incentive to spend money is simply something that should be expected. This isn’t something that is specific to Aether Raids, but it is fuel for the heated debate surrounding the game mode. In summary, basing balance changes around the gacha in a free-to-play game is obviously profit driven, but it shouldn’t be seen as distasteful unless the game is close to unplayable without them.

The final argument against Aether Raids that I will discuss here is one for which I have no rebuttal. Remember the rewards I mentioned? Well, one of them is almost entirely exclusive to AR. The in-game currency called “Heroic Grails” is a very sought-after prize, since it is the only way to obtain multiple copies of certain units. Using grails as a reward for Aether Raids is a good way to incentivize players to play the game mode, but currently only a very small amount of them can be obtained outside of AR. This means that if you despise Aether Raids but love any of the units available for purchase with heroic grails, you are forced to spend a large amount of time playing something you hate or to abandon the chance to build a character you adore. This is definitely problematic, but it is easy to fix. Intelligent Systems just needs to provide another reliable source of heroic grails outside of Aether Raids. Obviously, someone refusing to participate in AR will never maximize the number of grails that they can get, but a simple fix like that could greatly improve the enjoyability of the game for many people.

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I think I’ll end the rant here, though this measly 1,800-word article does not come even close to summarizing the entirety of the discussion behind Fire Emblem Heroes’ contentious game mode. I’d like to end with something of a disclaimer: I am not trying to tell anyone that they are “wrong” for disliking AR. Whether you like or dislike something is entirely subjective, I am simply arguing against the points that claim the mode is poorly designed. To me, it’s very clear that Intelligent Systems put a lot of thought and effort into designing this game mode, and I think that effort payed off in a big way. Aether Raids is unique, interesting, and dynamic, and the mode deserves more recognition and appreciation than it currently gets.

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