Fire Emblem has been my favourite Nintendo franchise for years now. We bought a 3DS to play Fire Emblem Awakening, and we bought a Wii U this summer to play Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. During development the game was often referred to as Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, suggesting it would be a mashup of these two wildly popular Japanese RPG franchises. In the end, as the hashtag suggests, Fire Emblem is more a flavour here than anything else: sure, there are Fire Emblem characters and gameplay devices, but don’t buy this game expecting anything like a standard Fire Emblem experience. Instead, what you’ll get is much more akin to a Persona game (it was developed by Persona developer Atlus, after all, rather than Intelligent Systems). But don’t let that put you off. TMS #FE is one of the most enjoyable JRPGs in years, and I had an absolute blast playing it from start to finish.
I had actually never played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game before, so the mechanics and style of this game were something of a novelty to me. The first thing to note is the distinctive setting and storyline. TMS is an unashamed celebration of Japanese popular culture, and the main story sees you control a group of teen pop idols. In the UK that would be the worst thing ever, but what’s remarkable here is that the game manages to make the pop idols thoroughly likable. Not only that, but even their managers and trainers are, for the most part, pretty decent and entertaining people. It’s quite an achievement.
The main character is high-school student Itsuki Aoi. Itsuki can’t really sing or act but he certainly knows how to make friends and bring out the best in others. Itsuki is joined by several other aspiring musicians and actors who for the most part are well-written and pretty fun to hang out with. There’s only one real exception in the form of Barry, a former platinum-selling American Death Metal musician who gave up his career to become an Otaku and who is obsessed with little girls’ anime. Lame. Your troupe of artists (who, of course, don’t just sing but also act and model as well) get caught up in a sinister plot to destroy the world. Basically, demons (called ‘Mirages’) are invading our dimension in order to consume people’s ‘Performa’, which is the embodiment of confidence and the performing arts. Once people lose their Performa they become depressed, mope around, and eventually die. Much of the game revolves around returning people’s stolen Performa, which often involves some kind of minor fetch quest followed by a boss fight and some kind of awesome musical performance or comedy routine.
The writing in Tokyo Mirage Sessions is consistently excellent and often very funny. There are a welter of side quests, including several personal quests for each party member. These often put you in unusual situations, and generally revolve around using The Power of Friendship to inspire other people and help them reach their potential. It’s a well-worn trope in anime and Japanese RPGs, to be sure, but here it’s handled with a sincerity and vivacious panache that will win over all but the most hardened cynic. I also wondered about the subtext: ‘Mirages’, many of whom are actually video game characters, come to our world and prey on people’s potential, causing them to lose confidence in themselves and the wider world. How many of us have seen this happen to people we know (or even ourselves) when becoming a little too immersed in video games? However, Tokyo Mirage Sessions shows that it’s perfectly possible to create video games that inspire and bring wholesome joy, rather than sucking the life and/or money out of you. It stands in the best tradition of video games.
The game’s graphics are colourful and the characters are well-rendered and animated, and most of the environments are vibrant. The game’s dungeons do feature some very flat backgrounds, but then they are all set in inter-dimensional space. Nobody plays the Wii U expecting amazing graphics, but TMS does a great job with its art style and design. At first, when I saw T. playing it I thought the graphics looked somewhat primitive; but as soon as I started playing myself, I stopped worrying about that. It just sucks you in.
As well as the colourful and fresh visual style, TMS features a pretty amazing soundtrack. There’s plenty of J-Pop, as you would expect given the subject matter, but also a number of rock and electronica-inflected themes, and even some jazz. It’s surprisingly varied and a major part of the game’s attraction. There are several stand-out themes and some of them rank with the best RPG music I’ve heard in years. Only fitting for a game which revolves around the music industry.
There is a great deal of conversation and exposition, and Itsuki occasionally gets to make choices in the form of dialogue options and so on. This is mainly played for laughs though, as you can’t really change the direction of the plot. Most of the actual gameplay revolves around exploring several hub areas in Tokyo, before entering ‘Idolaspheres’ which serve as dungeons which you have to explore and where you fight semi-random encounters. You see generic ghostly creatures as you explore; Itsuki can whack them with his sword for an advantage before running into them to start an encounter. Fights are a turn-based affair where each character and enemy can attack during each round. You have a selection of physical and magical attacks, and by targeting enemy weaknesses you can trigger ‘Sessions’ which cause your party members to attack in turn, giving you free hits and building up combos. This way you can also build up your ‘special’ meter, which allows you to unleash devastating ‘Special Performances’, and you also eventually unlock Duo Arts where your party members attack in unison.
The combat strikes a great balance between strategy and spectacle, and it is pretty well-paced for the most part. Even on Normal difficulty your party members can easily die if the enemy targets their weaknesses, so you’re forced to plan and use your entire team. Your attacks, and especially special performances and duo arts, often look incredible and are a real pleasure to behold. Your teammates tend to be quite talkative in battle and the voice acting is really good. Even though it’s all in Japanese, and unfortunately none of the in-battle dialogue is subtitled, I still found myself enjoying some of the silly phrases spouted by Touma and the rest of the gang.
It can be very silly to see two teenage girls doing a song-and-dance routine in front of some weird monster in order to cause a huge amount of damage to it, but it’s always fun. Generally speaking, combat is not too difficult if you do all the side missions; there is one very challenging boss fight about halfway through the game, but once you unlock the gamut of special abilities combat is not too frustrating. This is relatively forgiving as JRPGs go. Unfortunately, although your party will eventually grow to well beyond the three-person limit you can have in combat at any one time, Itsuki always has to be in the party.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions sold very badly, which is no surprise I guess considering the low install base of the Wii U but still something of a shame. I’m aware there was some controversy over ‘censorship’ of its Western release, which saw the removal or adaptation of some more revealing outfits from the female characters. I’m opposed to censorship in general, but that said, I don’t think it can really be said to have detracted from the overall experience in this case. There’s no question that the pervier side of anime can put some people off engaging with it, so I don’t have a problem with pre-empting potential criticism in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Sensibilities about these things are different in Japan than they are in Europe and North America, and a couple of bikinis wouldn’t have added to this game. If anything, the lack of fanservice adds to the game’s whole positive and upbeat aesthetic.
Another criticism of Tokyo Mirage Sessions that has done the rounds is that the game is heavily based on ‘anime tropes’. This is true to an extent, but I suspect a lot of people dogpiling on internet forums about this simply have no idea what tropes are. Every production of popular culture is based around tropes, either from within that culture or borrowed from another one. Tropes can be adhered to or subverted, but they’re always there, and it’s completely fallacious to condemn an artwork merely because it ‘uses tropes’. That said, Tokyo Mirage Sessions sticks quite closely to some familiar anime and JRPG tropes, especially The Power of Friendship. But its execution is so good, and the experience of playing the game so damn positive, that it’s self-defeating as well as wrongheaded to avoid the game on this basis. This is a game that’s definitely a force for good in the world. Although I came expecting more Fire Emblem, I’m delighted to have been introduced to Atlus’s world of video games. TMS may have sold badly, but since finishing it I’ve bought at least half a dozen SMT and Persona games in preparation for the release of Persona 5 next year. Bring it on.