Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE has had an interesting development cycle. Announced several years ago as Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, it has now arrived at its current state, bringing the dungeon-crawling of Shin Megami Tensei and the strategy RPG elements of Fire Emblem together, in a package that contains self-aware Japanese and popular culture references, gravure idolatry, and lighthearted dialogue. With the combined works of ATLUS and Nintendo, and as one of the few Wii U titles coming out for 2016, fans are in real need of some serious action.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE brings classmates and close friends together in modern-day Japan to solve a large-scale problem related to Mirages, beings who hail from the Idolasphere, a freakish realm seemingly born from the ashes of the fantasy realms in Puella Magi Madoka Magicka. The story focuses on
Kousei Arima Aoi Itsuki, a young man who has relatively few aspirations for his future and his friends. He much rather prefers to stay hidden and not attract attention. His close friend, Megumi Tadokoro Tsubasa Oribe, searches for her elder sister, who disappears from an on-stage performance with many other civilians in the opening cinematic, and seeks to become a famous Japanese idol singer. She’s also not very bright and very much a super fan of these idols in the industry. With Mirages, as they are referred to in the story, attempting to absorb the creative energy Performa from select individuals by literally sucking it out of their bodies, Japan collides headfirst with the characters from Fire Emblem. The cast from Fire Emblem includes hit characters such as Chrom and Caeda, Tiki, Tharja, and Cain among other familiar characters, although they definitely look a bit more menacing.
The gameplay for Tokyo Mirage Sessions brings the best in dungeon crawling from Shin Megami Tensei and the character-building elements from Fire Emblem together. The game is divided into different chapters and sub-chapters (Fire Emblem). The chapters take place in real-world Japan, with the dungeons taking place in the otherworld realms called the Idolaspheres. Sub-chapters focus on building the relationships between Itsuki and his fellow cast members through side-quests. These side quests are simple tasks that add more lore-building elements and help Itsuki understand the motivations of his friends. It’s when Itsuki traverses this overworld that he finds more meaning in his life as a supportive character for his friends’ aspirations.
In the dungeons (Shin Megami Tensei), Mirages appear and can be stunned by pressing X on the Wii U GamePad/Pro Controller and attacked preemptively. The reverse can also happen, where players end up ambushed. The camera is admittedly a bit wonky at times, and requires a bit of working around in order to properly approximate where the enemy is in order for the stunning strike to take place. Dungeons also contain items and other points of interaction across several floors. Cast members are brought in, three at a time, with two interchangeable as Itsuki (being the “Lord class”) cannot be swapped out. The other two can be swapped with other supporting cast members at any time.
The battles are where Tokyo Mirage Sessions shines the brightest. Battles revolve around a rock-paper-scissors format, following Fire Emblem weapon triangle mechanics. In addition, players can choose from RPG-battle options: attacking regularly to save EP (used for general skill casting), using items, skills, running, or performing automated movements. When moves are performed on enemies advantageously, the supporting cast members (party members) can jump in and add extra damage as Sessions. Stacking these Sessions is key to building the Special Performances (a small, low-quantity resource) attack bar. They also build up the internal relationship between the cast members. These Performances are enormous, beautifully animated attacks that can cause severe damage to the target. Character skills can vary as offensive, supportive, or healing attacks, and can be single or multi-target. As the game progresses, the player can add new combos to their repertoire as the human counterpart improves his performing abilities. Battles rotate around different Acts that have player character phases intertwined with enemy combat phases.
While the gameplay is heavily addictive, the bosses in this game can be exceptionally brutal, capable of killing well-rounded units with one shot. I’m talking, the potential to spend hours on the boss, even with the right luck in hitting all the surrounding enemies. The temptation to even lower the difficulty temporarily does little to quell the boss’s damage, only yielding a minor reduction. Even with party units that exceeded the level of the boss, some of the party members still had a hard time performing admirably. Lowering the difficulty does allow the player to re-scale the intensity back up to normal levels after completing the encounter, however.
Understanding the game play ties heavily into the central theme of idolatry. Itsuki is involved in the rescue of Tsubasa and becomes a Mirage Master, controlling Fire Emblem Awakening protagonist Chrom. His aspirations led him to be recruited by the production company Fortuna Entertainment, which is a public front for its Mirage investigative services. While Itsuki has no formal aspirations to become a performer, his friends do. Tsubasa and Touma both work within the company as well but have aspirations to become major figures in the Japanese entertainment industry. As such, over the course of the story, their prowess as performers grows. Their performing abilities become key to reaching their own individual goals such as reaching out to family or pursuing higher roles in the entertainment industry. Through the story, the player picks up Performa from the Mirages they’ve since defeated, which could be infused to harness their soul’s power from a Radiant Unity through Tiki’s powers at the Bloom Palace. Their story growth is merely spoken; their Radiant Unities are the tangible proof of their improving status. Radiant Unity serves as the passive skills for each of the Mirage Masters.
The question is, what does the whole thing with the characters being Mirage Masters serve? Their Fire Emblem hero/heroine counterpart in turn grows as well! The hero/heroine Mirages develop through Carnage Unity, another feature in which Tiki is involved with. This Carnage Unity is seen as the soul of the hero/heroine imbibing their strength within newly forged weapons. The skills that each Carnage possesses are the physical skills that the Mirage Masters control in battle, and can level up in battle. These skills are often inherited from their previous forms, and carried over. It’s like breeding skills, in a broader generalization.
The above information serves as the core foundation of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE, of the core JRPG and of the turn-based strategy genre. Tokyo Mirage Sessions stands unique in its quest as a powerhouse RPG in its self-awareness of popular culture. The game deserves a huge point of merit for its organic world. The world feels alive. The developing bonds between Itsuki, Tsubasa, Kiria, Touma, and the others, the interactions that take place on the GamePad’s phone feature, all of it feels like something that we’d typically do on a regular day. This includes stickers and emoji – lots and lots of emoji. The on-screen phone gets little app notifiers from Tiki that indicate when the player can perform new Carnage or Radiant Unities. Characters have unique personalities: the shop manager at the market in Shibuya has a dull and listless demeanor, while other market managers acted eccentric with masks from Shin Megami Tensei. It’s actually important (for me) that they added voice overs to properly demonstrate emotion. Behind the main cast members’ light hearted humor, however, lies a complexity that is further aided in the dialogue’s choose your own adventure-type choices.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions pokes a lot of fun at the franchises it builds from. Even the name, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, contains the letters TMS, backwards from Shin Megami Tensei (SMT). The Fire Emblem cast, though they do not have their proper memories, recall interacting with each other from a “past life.” The main character, Itsuki, casts Zio Thunder Magic, the preferred elemental magic of Chrom’s companion Robin from Fire Emblem Awakening. Even characters like Tiki are called Singaloid-Tiki, which is a pretty close variant to the actual vocaloid sensation Hatsune Miku. From Shin Megami Tensei, we get a cast of teenagers in Japan. There’s a ton of fan-service gags to look out for, and it’s so great when they’re caught. Tiki-Waifu, anyone?
Visually speaking, Tokyo Mirage Sessions has some of the most intriguing of art styles for a Wii U game, in that it uses three distinct styles. The first such art style is in-game sequences, where the characters take on smoother features. They look much more “video game-like” here. It looked okay, and environments looked decent. There’s also a hand-drawn animation style that’s akin to modern Aniplex anime productions or those from Fire Emblem Awakening/Fire Emblem Fates cutscenes, and then there are hand-drawn art for each of the character portraits. The character portraits, in my opinion, look fantastic as well. It gives the vibe of Yoshitaka Amano for whatever reason.
The music department is a knock out of the park. I am also a music guy, so this can be taken with a bit of a grain of salt. It’s no surprise, given that the title uses the dièse music notation (♯) in its name. The music for the overworld sounds pop and upbeat, fitting the culture of Japan while remaining accessible to Western audiences. The dungeon themes revert to more of a Twilight Realm (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess) feel, with ominous bells and noises. However, when the music shines best is in the in-game universe pop star themes for characters like Tsubasa or Kiria. In these cutscenes, the game goes all-out with actual upbeat music whose lyrics strongly match the personas their characters envelop. It goes beyond a few warbling notes that most music type games go for. Sorry Aqua, (Fire Emblem Fates) I think I’ve found a new video game singer. Kudos to the singers on these roles and for some great reprisals. The music in this area strongly resembles the thematic music elements from the popular anime Accel World ending and opening themes. Part of me wants to believe it’s the same voice actress doing it; they actually do sound quite similar! When Kiria gets up on stage and does her get up, it’s great to see how their lyrics change over the course of the game.
This game is admittedly complex, much more so than I anticipated. Everything, from the music lyrics to the theme of the user interface, all of it ties together. The theme interface being green ties into the color theme elements found in the Persona series; the names of the cast members (Aoi, Kurono, and Akagi) all reference different colors. I have watched enough anime to know at least that much! As much as the characters demonstrate complexity, they too share parallels with their otherworldly and rather intimidating counterparts. Even now, many hours in, there are still references to be caught and details observed.
With all good things, there has to be criticism, and that unfortunately falls relatively minority in the consistency field. In terms of raw consistency, Tokyo Mirage Sessions creates a bit of a jarring disconnect in how it portrays its citizens. Important characters and interactive NPCs are given standard, human character designs. For non-vital characters in the mass crowd, they appear as faceless shadows. It’s a bit creepy, and in a way highlights some of the characters’ individuality. Either way, it’s kind of eerie especially when the Idolaspheres appear and the characters go dark. From the visual perspective, the in-game environments could have been done a little bit better to not be quite as blurry and smoothed out. Some areas like the Bloom Palace could have used a bit of a darker saturation for maximum effect; the place looked a bit too cheerful and childish when it gave off this aura of being an ancient ground for hosting Mirages and forging new weapons.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is hours and hours of fun in itself. In a campaign that lasts a couple dozen hours, combined with side quests from both cast members and NPCs scattered throughout each of the locations, the game is ripe with content and addictive game play that is further burnished with eShop downloadable content which has costumes and extra quests. This is one of the better games for the Wii U, hands down. Despite its niche audience, the appeal to fans of both series should be readily apparent and will more than suffice for fans who seek a good dungeon exploring RPG. At its current price point, based on the amount of content, I cannot recommend Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE enough.
Gamer Professionals thanks Nintendo of America for providing the Wii U review copy.