Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
Format: Wii U
In my previous coverage of Nintendo’s E3 2016 show, I explained the absence of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE due to my preference for a full-blow review instead.
Now, a few months later, here we are. Now, I’m going to be completely honest with you, dear reader – I was very reluctant to review this game.
You see, I’m not a fan of Atlus’ games, like Persona or Shin Megami Tensei. Nor am I a rabid Fire Emblem fan, despite my love for all things Nintendo. Hell, I don’t even like anime… so, who better to review this than me?
Now, before you gnash your teeth in a rage, and furiously send me sternly worded messages, let me soothe any doubts by saying this;
I actually quite liked this game.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it was tough going at first. When I reluctantly shoved the disc into my Wii U, my fears were seemingly justified once a cheery, helium-voiced J-pop song assaulted my ears, causing me to sink my face into my palms.
“What have I gotten myself into?” I muttered silently, as neon images of a Japanophile’s dream flashed across the screen, nearly causing me to seizure as if it were particularly nasty Pokémon episode.
But first, let’s cover the story. Playing as a Tokyo student named Itsuki Aoi, you begin this zany tale by visiting your friend, Tsubasa Oribe, who is auditioning for an opportunity to become an idol (famous person, to all you Western n00bz). As shown in a brief flashback, Tsubasa is a scarred kid – five years prior, she witnessed her sister (another idol) disappear during a performance, along with everyone else in the building, leaving her the sole survivor.
After shenanigans ensue, mysterious ghosts appear, and kidnap her. Chasing after them, Itsuki finds himself in the mysterious ‘Idolosphere’, an ethereal realm where nasties roam, and everything is twisted. It’s here he meets Chrom – the very same Chrom from Fire Emblem – who is saved by Itsuki. A ‘Mirage’, Chrom has no memory of his past, nor how he got into his current predicament. As the duo are slowly assaulted by evil forces, Itsuki finds that his soul produces ‘Performa’, an energy that battles back the baddies, whilst freeing both Chrom and his pal Caeda from unwilling servitude.
Rescuing Tsubasa, Itsuki discovers that both he and her have the power to become ‘Mirage Masters’; warriors that use the power of Chrom and Caeda (who can transform into weapons)
Phew. With me so far? Yes? Well, it gets more complicated after that. I won’t delve into too much more, but essentially, the game reveals that people can create ‘Performa’ spirit energy by engaging in the arts (acting, singing, etc). For some reason, these evil Mirages have invaded Tokyo in search for this power, and as such, Mirage Masters battle them, whilst becoming idols that are adored by the public… because the only way they can become powerful, is by building their Performa… and that’s done by… performing.
It’s suitably bonkers stuff, but honestly, I found it both endearing and interesting. Hired by a talent agency called Fortuna (which also acts as the Mirage Master headquarters), leader Maiko tells Itsuki about the power of performance, and that humanity throughout history has used it in conjunction with spiritual beliefs. Through song. Through dance. Through prose. It’s a culture that had endured throughout the ages, because it speaks to people in a way unlike anything else. This surprisingly struck a cord with me, and was the first moment that made me realise that this game isn’t as vapidly silly as it initially seemed.
So too, did the gameplay. A turn-based RPG, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a snappy affair, with flashy battles mixed with dungeon crawling. There’s very little fat in this product; it all feels very streamlined. A constant tempo that reflect that game’s musical narrative.
Based in the Fortuna offices, you journey around Tokyo via a menu system, and each area is pretty small. Again, this isn’t a game about journeying across epic landscapes and exploring uncharted territories – it’s essentially split in two segments; dungeons, and the stuff outside dungeons.
Spread across chapters, Itsuki and his crew basically go to an area in the city. Chat a bit to the populace. Maybe buy a couple of things. And then the story event happens, and you need to enter the Idolosphere, which get harder and harder as the game progresses (naturally).
Fans of Atlus games will be familiar with this set-up, and contrary to its discouragingly minimalist design, it actually works quite well, and is well-suited to small bursts, or longer play sessions. You see, dungeons/Idolospheres aren’t meant to be done in one go. Every few floors presents a warp to the outside, and these encourage you to stock up and re-arm your party, before diving back in. This gives a satisfying sense of growth, as you get stronger and stronger with every visit.
Of course, such gameplay requires a lot of patience, just like other JRPGs, but I was impressed with how well the developers made it constantly engaging, whether through Idolosphere gimmicks, quirky visuals, or exploiting that ‘one more go’ obsession via collectables.
Battles themselves are standard fare, but are nevertheless quite fun. Central to these are the ‘performances’, which are basically special moves. By selecting a special attack that an enemy is weak against, you can create a chain-combo with your buddies (here known as ‘Sessions’), which are incredibly satisfying to pull-off. As you progress though the campaign, you will also unlock ‘Dual Attacks’, which can be added to a pre-existing Session, Mirage ‘Duo Attacks’ and ‘Ad-lib Performances’, that enable random moves for that extra oomph. Care must be taken though, as enemies too can use these abilities, which for me created a perfect balance of challenge and strategy. I really do have to give kudos to the combat designers here.
Of course, upgrading is a big part of exploiting the full potential of an RPG, and here this is done in the ‘Bloom Palace’; a benign Idolosphere dimension located in the Fortuna building. Home to Tiki, a five-year old Mirage masquerading as a popular digital singer (of course), this is where you create new weapons and performing arts.
Labelled under ‘Carnage Unity’ and ‘Radiant Unity’, such confusing terminology belies a very simple system. During fights, your Mirages (FE characters) are your weapons, and here the game refers to them as ‘Carnages’, because why not? Killing enemies and unleashing Sessions nets you items from their non-corporeal corpses, and you can trade them in for better carnages. Radiant Unities too, are merely prettied-up buffs, that enable passive magic protections and stuff like ‘free item use once per battle’ or ‘get more money’. You know, that type of jazz.
Outside of fighting, Atlus has provided plenty of world-building for Tokyo Mirage Sessions. In between chapters, there are intermissions, and these give the player some down time to carry out secondary quests – both from NPCs, and your own friends. Certain stretch-goals must be met in order to unlock new quests for the latter (obtain a certain ability or level), and these expectedly flesh-out the supporting cast with background stories and characterisation, Each party member has their own career they’re trying to get off the ground, and it was pretty fun trying to help them in Itsuki’s own hapless way.
On an audiovisual level, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is fantastic. The graphics are amazingly well-done, and are as close to an interactive anime as I’ve ever seen. Colours are bright, and pop off the screen, and the art design is simply superb. I’ve always heard good things about the aesthetic of Atlus games, and now I can see why. Impressive too, are the anime sequences, which combine hand-drawn characters, motion capture and 3D CGI in a blindingly-good, movie-quality effect.
In a curious move, Nintendo decided to bypass English localisation entirely in favour of Japanese speech with English subtitles. Stating that dubbing would have delayed the game’s release by a year, I’m more than happy with this decision. Personally, whenever I play or watch something set in a specific region, I always prefer to listen to the native speech – so you’ll hear no gripes from me on that front. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the acting itself is campy, with eye-rolling archetypes that had me using the mute button.
Similarly cringe-worthy were the music numbers – but I’m fully aware that’s just down to my personal taste, and no fault of the game itself. I was just thankful I had headphones on in my crowded house.
I also have to give a special mention to the usage of the GamePad. On the second screen, there’s always a faux social media app open called ‘Topic’, which contains messages from the people you meet. When something needs to be brought to your attention, you’ll receive notifications, just like a smartphone. It’s a small touch, but I really thought it was cool, especially when characters would post misspelled, rambling messages and emoticons, just like a real messenger. That alone made the game worth it.
Overall, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was a pleasant surprise. I entered with extreme reluctance and apathy, and emerged with a new appreciation for what Atlus fans have been loving for so long. As the Wii U slowly shrivels like a prune, I really respect Nintendo for continuously greenlighting such unique, quirky games, without seemingly giving a damn about their commercial viability or mass appeal. If you’re a JRPG fanatic, and have been on the fence about this, I’d say it’s definitely worth a try. If you’re a Fire Emblem loyalist… well, I say give it a shot. It’s nothing like the SRPG series, but it does have certain themes in common. Who knows, we may get a sequel some day…