I don’t think this was the game that anyone was expecting. I was quite excited when Nintendo announced a crossover between the Fire Emblem series, which I love, and the Shin Megami Tensei series which I’m less familiar with but have liked what I’ve played. I imagine that most of us were predicting a dark fantasy tale and not something based around JPop idols. Taking the weeaboo plunge, I went for it anyway and quite enjoyed it, although I did leave still feeling that the overall aesthetic definitely wasn’t for me.
Itsuki is a normal high school student in Tokyo whose best friend since childhood, Tsubasa, is trying out for a competition to become an ‘Idol’, an all round performer with a focus on singing. When the compare for the event is possessed by a sinister entity, Tsubasa is pulled into the ‘Idalosphere’, a dangerous parallel realm and Itsuki must head in to save her. Mysterious beings known as ‘Mirages’ have been attacking Toyko, with the most significant event being the mysterious vanishing of hundreds of people at an Opera House five years previously, including Tsubasa’s sister. These beings seek ‘Performa’, a mysterious force generated during performance for nefarious purposes. Itsuki, Tsubasa and a group of other young friends are bonded with friendly Mirages, who are familiar characters from Fire Emblem, to keep Tokyo safe from the mysterious threat. They are all performers themselves, working for the agency Fortuna Entertainment.
The plot for Tokyo Mirage Sessions is all fairly predictable, with little in the way of interesting plot twists or even a feeling a genuine peril. A lot of the story relies on comedy and, to be honest, the Japanese sense of humour has never really worked for me. That’s not to say that an odd smile wasn’t raised, but I personally found it more annoying than anything else. The main characters are likeable, but very broad with no complexity or depth. Some interesting ideas are touched upon; Eleanora is a party member of mixed race heritage, being half Japanese and half European. The effect of this heritage on her career in the entertainment industry is hinted at, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions doesn’t really have the courage to explore the bigotry she has experienced in any depth. Any potentially interesting moments are undercut with a need to keep everything light. That’s not to say that a JRPG can’t be light and comic; I love the humour of the Mario RPGs and Earthbound, but a lot of that is due to excellent translation but the Tokyo setting means that many of the cultural references flew over my head. If you are a full on weeaboo I think there may be more for you in the story of Tokyo Mirage Sessions. I actually love Japanese culture, but not this particular facet of it.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is primarily a straight forward JRPG, with a really fun and stylish battle system. The elemental weaknesses of Shin Megami Tensei is paired with the weapon triangle from Fire Emblem to give each enemy a complex list of weaknesses and resistances to exploit. Where most Shin Megami Tensei games provide extra turns when a weakness is exploited, Tokyo Mirage Sessions triggers combos called ‘Sessions.’ For example, if a sword aspected attack is used on an enemy with that weakness, another member of the party can use a passive move which converts to another element or weapon, such as fire or axe, which then in turns converts into another. Initially you’re limited to combos of three with your party members, but later on party members held in the reserves can join in Sessions too, allowing you to chain together some pretty massive combos. It’s an inherently satisfying system, but one which doesn’t really involve a huge amount of player agency. Towards the final hours of this lengthy game I was desparate for the ability to skip watching these attacks and the stylishness of the presentation only got me so far. There are also random attacks which can trigger, called ‘ad lib’ performances which got me out of a few tricky boss fights. There are some really cool boss fights with some interesting mechanics, like shifting weaknesses and the like and it gets really tricky.
There’s a lot of content to this game, with most of your time being spent in dungeons. Compared to a lot of JRPG dungeons, which are often essentially paths for you to travel down while fighting battles, each dungeon has a different puzzle mechanic. They’re not particularly clever or intricate, but they do a good job of making what is often the blandest element of the genre interesting. Between dungeons you’ll be wandering around a few areas of Tokyo buying items and accessories and taking part in side quests. These quests are quite interesting, with each focusing on different party members. Some are very straightforward and just involve wandering around Tokyo a bit and some are a bit more elaborate, but it’s here that the better storytelling is to be found. You’ll also be powering up and crafting new weapons with your spoils from battles and it is from these weapons, called ‘Carnage’ for some reason, that you gain new abilities for your party to use in battle. You can also develop passive abilities and eventually Fire Emblem style class changes. This is all fine if not for the fact that the only place you can do this is behind two loading screens. If you’re in a dungeon and your weapon maxes out and you want to go upgrade it or make a new one, you have to leave the dungeon, go into the Bloom Palace where the upgrades are made, make the upgrade, move back through Tokyo to the dungeon entrance, enter the dungeon and then warp to where you left from. I did this dozens of times as I was playing and it’s a bit infuriating to think of how much time I wasted. That’s an issue this game has overall; wasting the players time. A good JRPG should have a solid curve that removes the necessity of grinding. If you fight every battle offered you should be able to, with skilful play, fight any boss you come to. In Tokyo Mirage Sessions you will need to grind. In the 45 or so hours I spend with this game, I estimate that around 10 were from time wasting activities like this.
Appropriately considering that performance is the key theme of the game, the battles in Tokyo Mirage Sessions are really flashy and fun to watch. The combined visual design of JPop Idol culture and Fire Emblem high fantasy actually ends up working bizarrely well. Although the story never really lives up to the crossover potential, the overall design works very nicely. That said, the whole thing is very much 80% Shin Megami Tensei with 20% Fire Emblem sprinkled on top and I think I would have preferred it the other way around, but that’s likely just down to my own tastes. A strong area is the music; there are a few JPop tracks which are fairly catchy, although my favourite piece of music is a reworked version of the Fire Emblem theme which shows up fairly regularly. The voice acting is good and only in Japanese; this is a good shout as this is a story so heavily meshed into Japanese culture. It’s a miracle it was released here in the first place!
All said, Tokyo Mirage Sessions wasn’t quite my cup of tea. My love of Fire Emblem and desire to actually use my Wii U drove me to give it a go. I wouldn’t say that I regret my time with it, but I’d say that this is a game more for fans of Japanese Idol culture than for fans of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. It’s mechanically strong but with far too much time wasting, something which the best JRPGs manage to streamline away. If you’re desperate for a traditional JRPG on the Wii U you could do worse than Tokyo Mirage Sessions.