When Nintendo announced that they were partnering with Atlus to create a crossover between Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei I don’t think anyone expected it turn out like Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. Maybe some of the details were easy to guess; I wasn’t surprised that it essentially plays like a Persona game, but the end result is something that has little in common with either of its inspirations. There are certainly elements of both that remain, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions is very much its own game. TMS is a game that takes it theme and commits to it whole heartedly.
This is a game about idols, there is no getting away from that. There are numerous musical numbers that pop up as party members put out singles and perform in concerts. The whole game is awash in pastels, all sky blue and pink. The character’s home lives are never even mentioned, they all work for a talent agency that doubles as a cover for their monster fighting, and spend their time training for various artistic endeavors. It is as far away as possible from SMT’s post-apocalypse or Fire Emblem’s fantasy medieval battlefields. Yet, despite being nothing like them, it does feel a bit like the progeny of both series.
The party in TMS is made up of aspiring or active performers. Some are pop star-esque idols, others are actors on teen TV shows and some do it all. Their artistic abilities and aspirations also give them the power to be Mirage Masters, people able to harness the powers of martial spirits from another realm to fight back against the mysterious entities that are stealing people’s “performa,” the essence of their talent and artistry. It is nonsense, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions commits to this conceit with an admirable completeness. Everything revolves around it. As the characters grow stronger in battle their musical skills grow stronger, which in turn makes them stronger in battle. It is a cycle, everything feeds into everything else. Crazily enough, if one is willing to buy into this central conceit, then everything kind of works.
Battles, which take place in an arena and are themed to look like performances, play out much like the PS2 Persona games. Four characters in the party each have an array of skills that are mostly from the SMT series, with a few Fire Emblem themed ones tossed in. Like the Persona games, there is a great emphasis on hitting enemies’ weaknesses. In this game, doing so trigger a session attack, where the other party members take turns jumping in to continue the assault. Eventually even inactive party members start to join in the fray, creating cascading sessions of 6 or even more attacks every time a weakness is hit. Each party member has certain skills that can be powered up with random “ad-lib” performances, which turn the games many musical numbers into more powerful attacks. Soon multiple characters work together in duets that combine two characters for an attack that extends the session. It eventually makes hitting those weaknesses almost essential to effectively fighting through the dungeons.
Those dungeons are right out of SMT games. They are some effective and sprawling puzzle dungeons. Each one has a trick. One had the player avoid camera’s that snap a photo and send the player back to the start, another is set on the back lot of a movie shoot. Each has its own tricks and themes and none are a pushover. Since the bulk of the player’s time is spent in the dungeons, they needed to be good and they are.
Going into the game, I was afraid that the theme and cast would be suffocating, but Atlus, who did the heavy lifting on this game, and the localization team did a wonderful job creating a group that is largely enjoyable. They don’t break far from anime tropes for characters: there’s a taciturn loner, an earnest yet slightly inept romantic interest, and a boozy female authority figure, but they are portrayed in such a way as to make them charming instead of grating. Touma, the player character’s best friend, really wants to be a Power Rangers like hero. He tries to live up to a heroic ideal in his real life. There isn’t much complicated about him, but he is generally positive and enjoyable. Other than protagonist Itsuki, the bland everyman that rallies the others around him, Tsubasa is the center of the game. It is her quest to become an Idol, despite her nervousness and fear of the spotlight that continually pushes things forward. It is what gets her and Itsuki drawn into this drama and her rise and success keeps bringing the team in conflict with the dark forces working behind the scenes. If he character didn’t work the whole thing would fall apart. Luckily, she is one of the games strength. TMS does a great job of building that character throughout, as she conceivably grows as a performer and a character. I don’t even have time to get into Barry Goodman, who might be the most scathing take on a Western anime fan I’ve ever seen.
Spending so much time with the characters helps disguise how small this game actually is. It is only six dungeons and one hub area. There are a handful of other areas, one screen each, but outside of the dungeons the game is actually tiny. It is like the game wants to pass itself off as a sprawling JRPG experience, but to do so it has to patch over its budget roots. It doesn’t make much of a difference while playing, but thinking back on it makes it clear how limited the game is. Maybe limited is the wrong word; focused us more appropriate.
If the battle system comes out of SMT, where does Fire Emblem fit in? In the Mirages, the spirits that help the party fight their evil counterparts. The Mirages are all slightly reimagined Fire Emblem characters, mostly from the first game or Awakening. They act like the Personas out of that series. The main plot is about the Fire Emblem characters getting stuck in the real world. It is nonsense, but it kind of works.
There are some problems with this game. By the end battles can become tedious as the increasingly complex attack sessions take longer and longer to play out. It feels like it goes on about one dungeon too long. Outside of each character’s trio of sidequests, there isn’t much else to do but fight through the dungeons. Still, I think I love this game. It is not subject matter I tend to like, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions makes it all feel refreshing. It is probably the best console JRPG since Persona 4. It is light, a piece of fluff, but also a fully realized experience that doesn’t get made all the often anymore.