Release date: June 2016
Developer: Nintendo/Atlus/Intelligent Systems
Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical disk
Other platforms: NA
Price: ~$90 AUD
When it was first announced, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was one of those games that interested me, but not enough to make me commit to buying it. The concept of a crossover between Persona or Shin Megami Tensei games (none of which I’d played except Persona 4) and Fire Emblem sounded too weird to work, and as it got closer to release and it seemed that the Fire Emblem aspect would be little more than a few tacked-on references, I decided to take a pass on it. Some of my friends got it on release and raved about it, making me reconsider, but as this was more of a niche game, chain retailers (which usually sell launch games much cheaper than RRP) like Big W and Target didn’t stock it, meaning my only option would be to pay $90 for it from EB Games. Luckily my Nan ended up buying it for me, and since I’ve just gone on intermission from my PhD studies, I’ve had plenty of time to play it this week.
In TMS: FE, Tokyo is being attacked by otherworldly beings called Mirages, who steal and consume the creative energy of humans. After an encounter with these Mirages at a talent show audition, Itsuki Aoi and his friend Tsubasa Oribe find themselves partnered with benevolent Mirages based on characters from the Fire Emblem series. After signing up with the Fortuna Entertainment talent agency, Itsuki and Tsubasa begin to built their Idol careers while continuing the fight against the sinister Mirages, with other characters joining them along the way. The story isn’t particularly deep, and the character archetypes are common in many Anime series, but the interactions between the characters and the pop idol themes and aesthetics still make for a charming experience.
Scattered throughout Tokyo are shining portals into alternate dimensions called Idolospheres (dungeons) where Mirages reside, and these are where you will spend the majority of your time in the game. The design of these dungeons is heavily influenced by the entertainment and show-business themes of the game and there are a variety of puzzles to solve in order to get through the dungeon. Though I liked the dungeon designs from a visual standpoint, I did find myself growing bored and irritated with the tedious puzzle-solving and constant backtracking this required. This feeling usually didn’t last long, and the ability to activate warp portals to quickly travel between different points in the dungeons alleviated it somewhat, but it did detract from my immersion at times. While walking around in the dungeons, you will often see shadowy robed figures floating around. Some of these will ignore you, but others will rush at you if they see you. Touching one of them (or letting one touch you) will start a battle, but if you hit it with your weapon and then touch it, you increase your chance of getting the first strike once the fight starts.
The dungeons themselves were hit and miss, but the combat within the dungeons was one of my favourite things about the game. Though your Mirage companions take their original Fire Emblem forms in certain locations, they take the form of weapons (called Carnages) to be wielded by the main characters while in dungeons and in battle. These battles occur on a round stage surrounded by a cheering audience, with the characters transforming into glamorous, decadently-costumed alter-egos. The attack order is determined by each character’s position along a bar at the top of the screen, and whether an enemy is weak to a particular attack is only shown once you have tried that attack on it. While you can only have three characters active in your party at once, you can switch out characters during battle if someone is incapacitated, getting low on health or if all the enemies are resistant to their attacks.
By far the best aspect of combat is the Sessions mechanic. If one of your characters uses a Skill and attacks an enemy’s weakness (either against elements or weapon types), it can trigger a Sessions combo where other characters who have a Session skill of the same type will jump in and attack the enemy as well without using a turn. Not only does this do a lot more damage, but the animations are full of flashy special effects and are a joy to watch. Sessions generally result in more loot being earned from the battle, and some particularly strong enemy bosses can really only be defeated by chaining together a lot of Session attacks.
In addition to earning Performa, yen and experience points to level up during battles, you can also get various items from the dungeons, either through defeating monsters or by finding treasure. These can be used to forge Carnage Unities or Radiant Unities. When you have enough items to forge any new Unity, you will get a notification through Topic (see below) telling you what Unity you can create and what character it is for, so you can head back to the Bloom Palace (within Fortuna Office) to have Tiki (another returning Fire Emblem character) perform the ritual. Carnage Unity forges a new weapon containing several new skills, which the character wielding it can earn by gaining experience in battle. Skills can be Command Skills (which allow the character to perform attacks or spells), Passive Skills (usually boosting stats of party members) or Session Skills, which are used to chain together Session attacks; each character can only have six of each type of skill. Radiant Unity, on the other hand, gives the characters Radiant Skills, which are permanent and separate from skills gained through Carnage. These can include battle skills as well as passive skills like health or stat boosts.
I did find it a bit annoying that all upgrades had to be performed back at the Bloom Palace, as it meant you had to keep trekking back and forth between the dungeon and the Bloom Palace every time you had a new Unity available rather than just being able to do it in the field. It really is a necessity, though; once your character has mastered all the skills from a particular weapon, they can’t gain any new combat skills until you go and forge a new weapon and equip it.
In between story chapters, you can take on side quests involving other characters. Some will be requests from random characters (these occasionally appear in dungeons as well) and usually take the form of fetch quests. Other quests involve the other main characters in the game and though they have different objectives, they generally end up furthering the friendship between your character and the supporting cast by helping them expand their own careers. The quests tend to involve a mixture of exploring and talking to people around Tokyo and venturing back into dungeons to defeat monsters or rescue lost characters. Most of these main character side stories have certain stage rank or level requirements to unlock, and though they don’t directly affect the main story, they do help the characters earn new skills or abilities, so it is well worth completing these side story quests when you can. While you’re in Tokyo, it’s also a good idea to visit the shops to stock up on healing items or stat-boosting accessories.
Early in the game, you get Topic, which is essentially a chat/message service for your handheld device. Throughout the story, other characters will send you messages and your GamePad will vibrate, prompting you to look down at the small screen. Some of these messages are related to the main story while others may concern side quests for certain characters; occasionally the messages don’t have a direct purpose but are more just casual chatter from the characters. When the mechanic was first introduced, I feared that having messages pop up would get annoying, but this was rarely the case; if anything, it makes the world and the characters in it more relatable.
Another gripe I have to mention (along with the sometimes-annoying dungeon puzzles and frequent backtracking required for upgrading characters’ skills) is the loading screens. Any time you have to travel to another location, a loading screen pops up for anywhere from 5-10 seconds. This wouldn’t be so bad if they only popped up occasionally, but when you have to leave the dungeon, travel to Fortuna Office and then the Bloom Garden and then travel back to the district the Idolosphere gate was in before entering the dungeon to continue where you left off every time you want to upgrade, the time spend staring at a loading screen quickly adds up.
Still, all of this was forgiven when I watch the performance cut scenes or the battle animations. They are so energetic and flamboyant, the costumes are decadent and the JPop music is so upbeat and catchy I often ended up with the songs stuck in my head when I was trying to go to sleep.
The combination of Persona‘s friendship/relationship aspects, Shin Megami Tensei‘s demon fusions and Fire Emblem‘s character class and weapon fusion system seems like an odd one, yet it works. I had feared that the more ‘serious’ characters of Fire Emblem‘s world might not mesh well with the colourful and exuberant world and characters, but they did. Even so, sometimes I couldn’t help but feel the Fire Emblem characters were just tacked on; I would have liked to see more of them rather than having them relegated to just being used as weapons most of the time. I think I’m only about halfway through the game at this point, but so far these mechanics and the gorgeous art and music style are enough to keep me coming back, even though the story is relatively insubstantial so far (if the story does develop further and become more complex by the time I finish the game, I’ll update this review).
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is weird, it’s ridiculous and it’s definitely over-the-top. And you know what? I love it. When I first fired up the game, I ended up playing it for 10 hours straight, and it’s incredibly rare for me to play any video game for more than a couple of hours at a time. If you have a Wii U and you love JRPGs, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a must-buy. Though the experience is occasionally marred by long loading times and tedious backtracking, the catchy music, bright and colourful art style and engaging battle mechanics will be more than enough to keep you playing.