Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
We doubt that, say, having a magic knight help you find a doughnut for a vocaloid was the first thing on the whiteboard
Developer Atlus Publisher Nintendo Format Wii U Release June 24
OK, Japan, this is getting a bit weird. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is the third game to grace these pages in the past 12 months to wed itself to Japan’s idol scene. Yet while it was merely a five-hour detour in Yakuza 5, and was a fine logical fit for Persona 4: Dancing All Night’s pacey rhythm action, here it’s the setting for a party-based JRPG. And though the Persona series from which Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is drawn typically has a youthful, modern-day cast, here Atlus must also incorporate the stars of the Fire Emblem series, which gives this already awkwardly named game its closing hashtag. Thematically, it’s an absolute mess.
Yet, weirdly, it all hangs together quite well. The Fire Emblem characters take the role of the titular personas, here known as Mirages, the mystical beings who give these everyday teens their magical powers in battle. The likes of Chrom, Caeda, Virion et al lend their might to the main party; Gangrel and Aversa help out the antagonists. Tiki, once a being of such fulsome power she was locked away in a thousand-year slumber, is here a cutesy vocaloid who administers the upgrade system.
Tiki resides, along with your ever-expanding collection of Mirages, in the Bloom Palace, a beautiful Japanese garden behind an innocuous door in the offices of Tokyo’s Fortune Entertainment. Run by the distractingly leggy, impossibly buxom former model Maiko Shimazaki, Fortune is officially in the business of talent management, helping the youthful likes of Tsubasa Oribe and Kiria Kurono make it big on the idol scene. Behind the scenes it’s also working to prevent an evil Mirage force from destroying the world by harvesting Performa, a powerful energy source hidden in talented people, with which it intends to summon an ancient, world-devouring dragon. You know, as you do.
So, yes, you will battle. A lot. But in between times you’ll help a young popstrel overcome her social anxiety before her first handshake event. You’ll seek out ingredients for a mystical hangover cure for your stilldrunk, party-girl boss. You’ll prepare the team for TV debuts, magazine photoshoots and festivals. Every so often you’ll be rewarded with a music video or live performance with a backing track produced by renowned J-Pop hitmaker Avex Group.
It’s a curious blend of fantasy and reality that’s lent a little more of the latter by its setting, though this is a Persona- style vision of Tokyo – of small chunks of Shibuya, Harajuku and so on linked by fast travel rather than Yakuza’s city districts. While there’s none of the latter’s atmospheric real-world branding, it’s still a much-needed dose of reality for a game that is, in almost every other respect, absolutely off its rocker.
Deliciously so, in places. The battle system is always the highlight of a Persona game, and so it proves here, though there’s a new dimension courtesy of the J-Pop set-dressing, which Atlus uses to fine, flamboyant effect. In the series tradition, you must first identify and then target an enemy’s elemental weakness (here expanded with the addition of Fire Emblem’s sword, axe, spear and arrow attacks). Doing so allows your onscreen teammates to join in with automated follow-up moves, known here as Sessions.
Early on, that means a three-hit combo. By the end you’ll be hitting in double figures. First, characters earn upgrades that enable them to join Sessions from offscreen when not in the party itself. Then they gain the ability to launch partner combos mid-Session; these ignore an enemy’s elemental resistances, kicking off another Session from the start. All the while you’re filling the SP meter, which when full can be used to perform one of a character’s super moves. Then there are ad-lib performances, which have a chance to occur when you use a regular skill. Combat hardly lacks spectacle, then, and the steadily increasing duration and power of your moves, combined with a generous flow of new abilities as you level up your party and their weaponry, mean battles are a consistent thrill.
The dungeons in which they’re set, however, are a different matter. How we found ourselves longing for the unremarkable corridors of Persona 4: Golden, where the search was simply for the staircase to the next floor. Here, themed levels incorporate puzzle elements, a fine idea in theory but one that serves simply to irritate as you try to retrace your steps down identikit corridors, losing your bearings every 20 paces as a mirage rises up from the floor and rushes towards you.
A well-timed sword swing will knock the beast back, and it’ll des-pawn after a few seconds. Tempting as it is to ignore the combat and focus on puzzling, doing so means starving yourself of much-needed experience. Text popups before boss fights consistently recommended that our party should be three or four levels higher than it is. And the elemental design of the combat system means you need to keep the entire cast, not just your favourite trio, levelled up. Churlish as it may seem to chide Atlus for trying to inject some flavour into the rather bland business of dungeon crawling, it frustrates more often than it enthrals.
And yet the whole thing is just so gleefully off its head that you can forgive its little missteps. Tokyo Mirage Sessions was announced just two months into development, under the even more awkward moniker Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem. Few of its core concepts were in place and we doubt that, say, having a magic knight help you find a doughnut for a vocaloid was the first thing on the whiteboard. But it’s all the better for it. Recognising that its core concept is absurd, Atlus has decided to simply go for it. You think a fantasy RPG set in the idol scene sounds a bit weird? You don’t know the half of it.