The Shin Megami Tensei series has always been excellent, but it didn’t get its shot at mainstream appeal until its Persona spinoffs shot to the top of critics and players’ best lists in 2006 and 2008. A game like Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, which crosses SMT with Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series against the backdrop of Japanese idol culture, would probably have been laughed offstage before then. This year, though, it was one of the most hotly anticipated JRPGs out there. There’s a good reason for that, of course: Atlus have proven themselves to be among the best and most beloved developers working in the category.
With even the biggest publisher of the genre, Square Enix, turning out trite, cheap guff (see Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness), many fans — myself included — are finding it harder and harder to defend the JRPG’s failure to evolve. And while Tokyo Mirage Sessions may not reinvent the category as we know it, it serves as a wonderful reminder of why Atlus is seeing the success they are. This is a fun, lighthearted affair with adorable characters and excellent combat, and it’s easily my top recommendation to anyone looking for a reason to dust off the ol’ Wii U.
When I first heard that a Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem crossover was going to happen, my thoughts ran wild. The possibilities were endless. Two of my favorite developers — Intelligent Systems and Atlus — working together?! How would these vastly different worlds merge? What would the story be like?
Well, as it turned out, it was just Atlus working on the game… and as for the story, I found out it centered on a bunch of young J-pop stars who use the Fire Emblem characters as their Persona-esque sources of power. I can’t lie: I was a little less excited than before. On the other hand, I love to be proven wrong, and I trusted Atlus to create something great — so I kept my expectations high. That turned out to be the right move, because while Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE’s story is definitely an unconventional way to tackle this crossover, it’s also a delightfully good-natured romp through the world of Japanese pop.
The story focuses on a young man named Itsuki Aoi and his friend Tsubasa Oribe. The latter’s sister, a famous idol, went missing a number of years ago. When the duo attend a singing contest, they accidentally stumble upon a clue to the mystery when Tsubasa is sucked into a mysterious world by its hypnotized host. As it turns out, a number of “Mirages” both good and evil — naturally taking the form of Fire Emblem’s heroes and villains, respectively — have somehow come into contact with Tokyo. After defeating one of the bad ones and escaping the “Idolasphere,” Itsuki and Tsubasa are recruited to become entertainers at the world-renowned Fortuna Entertainment, where they’ll team up with a number of other entertainers to uncover and stop the Mirages’ plot.
For the most part, I really enjoyed watching the lineup of Fortuna Entertainment grow and getting to know all the characters. These folks aren’t quite on the level of depth and originality as the casts of Persona 3 and 4, but they’re a fun bunch regardless. I particularly found myself fond of Maiko, the group’s mentor, who reminded me of Instructor Sara from The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel with her blend of irreverent drunkenness and constant optimism. Sadly, though, I think the weakest link is lead character Itsuki. He’s supposed to be a sort of blank slate, for sure, but his bland dialogue and forgettable design put him among the worst leads I’ve yet seen in an Atlus game. It’s a good thing he surrounds himself with much more interesting company!
The gameplay should feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Shin Megami Tensei game, whether that’s one of the main series entries or a spinoff. All the familiar elements are there: exploring an overworld with shops, side quests and characters to talk to; a parallel dimension filled with dungeons for you to explore; and, of course, a special place where you can perform some sort of fusion to up your characters’ abilities and stats. Your time will be mostly spent jumping between these first two elements, witnessing the story of the idols’ normal lives before something weird inevitably happens and sends you back off to the Idolasphere to find something or someone.
It’s all pretty standard stuff until you get into combat, although I’d really like to make a point of complimenting the dungeon design — at the risk of over-referencing Persona, it’s so cool how these locations feel like an extension of the ones we saw in Persona 4. They’re all visually and mechanically designed around gimmicks that use specific characters as a theme, and they only get more twisted and fun to explore as you go along. One early highlight is a possessed photographer’s lair, peppered with eerie photos of models and creepy cameras that send you back to a certain point if you’re spotted. Given what we’ve seen of Persona 5 so far, it seems like Tokyo Mirage Sessions might be a tantalizing preview of the increased complexity of that game’s dungeons.
Combat, though, is where things really get interesting. The game’s titular gimmick, “Sessions,” continue Shin Megami Tensei’s tradition of exploiting enemy weaknesses to great benefit. Each enemy type is weak to a certain kind of attack — whether that’s of the physical variety, like Sword or Lance, or the magical, like Agi (Fire) or Bufu (Ice) — and hitting them with said attack will trigger a Session. Here’s how it works: in addition to each character’s normal moves, which you pick every time they get a turn, they also have a set of Session moves that automatically follow up another character’s successful exploitation of enemy weaknesses. For example, if you successfully land a Sword attack on an enemy weak to Sword, a character with a “Sword-Ice” Session will immediately follow up with an Ice attack for additional damage.
Once your characters have learned enough Session moves, you can orchestrate massive combos during battle that essentially amount to dozens of extra turns. But don’t get too comfortable, of course — plenty of enemies, particularly in the later stages, can also exploit your characters’ weaknesses. One boss about 10 hours in absolutely wiped the floor with my team, pounding them with one successful hit after another. It might sound frustrating, but it’s difficult in a very fun, diabolical kind of way that only Shin Megami Tensei can deliver. Plus, with the ability to save anytime and switch to one of two “easy” difficulty modes, things never get all that bad.
Aesthetically, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE isn’t the most technically proficient game you’ve ever seen, but it more than makes up for that with a little of Atlus’s signature style. Bright colors and gorgeous designs dazzle when it comes to both the characters and environments, and interesting little touches — like unimportant NPCs appearing as neon-colored silhouettes — lend the visuals a look all their own. Oh, and that’s to say nothing of the stunningly gorgeous anime music videos, which pop up more frequently than you’d think. They’re pure eye candy.
As for the music itself, I frequently found myself humming along to composer Yoshiaki Fujisawa’s infectiously catchy themes. The idols’ songs themselves are, for lack of a better phrase, J-pop to the extreme — loud, busy and fast-paced musical deluges that aren’t for everyone. I personally came to love most of them after the second or third time through, but for a game about music and performance, it’s a little disappointing that the tunes aren’t more polished. Regardless, I was almost always having too much fun from the sheer spectacle of it all to really notice.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a delight. After trudging my way through a number of JRPGs that took themselves too seriously and then failed to deliver on even the most basic gameplay elements, it was nice to sit down with a lighthearted and cheery game like this one. Sure, the story is absurdly over-the-top and most of the characters don’t hold a candle to Atlus’s best, but the game knocks it out of the park with humor, stunning visual design and pure fun. If you come to find yourself drowning in the dark waters of current events and social media drama, I implore you to take a break and pop in this Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem spinoff. Your brain will thank you.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which we were provided with.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE's first few hours can be frustrating as you wait for the game to open up. Once it does, though, it's a delight — this is an excellent new take on Shin Megami Tensei's combat, combined with a fresh narrative and lovable characters that infectiously idealize Japan's music industry.