Review: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE makes its grand entrance
Take a bow, you deserve it
Platform: Wii U
It's undeniable that the fans who fell into the Venn diagram of liking both the wonderfully stylistic Shin Megami Tensei games and the tactically dependent Fire Emblem series, were foaming at the mouth when Nintendo first made their announcement in 2013. What we ended up with, was probably not what many were expecting, but despite its new idol-centric exterior, is a wonderful dungeon crawler filled with compelling characters and stellar combat.
It's your stage now!
To say that Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE revolves around music would certainly be an understatement. Everything from the central plot, to gameplay mechanics, and even naming conventions such as calling your party members Artists, party management Casting, their equipment Wardrobe, and special effect attacks Sessions.
It's brimming with J-Pop culture, which certainly might turn some players off, as it's certainly not for everyone, but those simply dismissing the game due to its large focus on the idol industry would be doing themselves a great disservice, especially for fans of games like Persona.
Sure, the game was originally announced as an SMT and FE crossover, but TMS#FE certainly has a lot more in common with the Persona series, more specifically, the latest two Persona games, P3 and P4. Like those games, TMS is split into two segments, one taking place in the real world streets of Tokyo, and the other dungeon crawling in fantastical locations.
Like those games, your team is part of a task force dedicated in trying to solve the mystery around beings known as Mirages, all under the guise of a production company called Fortuna Entertainment. That's right, that means all your
party cast members are in some way involved in the entertainment industry.
While your crew doesn't summon Persona per se, they do call upon the help of famous Fire Emblem characters, such as Chrom, Tharja, Caeda and more, to help fight baddies in combat. By now, you should certainly be seeing the parallels between the two franchises, but TMS still does a lot to distinguish itself.
Adventure on your own time
Completing the story moves time forward, meaning once you start a story mission, you're dedicated to focusing only on it. However, time isn't constantly against you. After each story mission, you get an Intermission, which lets you get a breather and focus on whatever it is you want. That could be completing side quests for NPCs, going back into dungeons to grind a bit and learn new skills, or strengthening the bond between your character and the rest of your cast.
The latter is especially important as it fleshes out each character a lot more. For instance, one of the early side quests for your best friend Touma Akagi involves training him in one of the dungeons in order to get him ready for an audition to star in a Tokusatsu (think Power Rangers or in this case Kamen Rider) show called Masqueraider Raiga. It's brilliantly done and delves into each character's dreams as well as insecurities. Once again mirroring the fantastic character development you get in SMT or Persona games.
But another important side effect of completing these character specific side missions is to unlock Ad-lib attacks, which activate at random during your turn, but cause some extra damage. Not to mention, these attacks will mirror something that happens during side missions, so for example you can expect Touma to appear dressed as a character from the show he auditioned for, and do some damage.
Dungeons add a layer of complexity
Dungeon crawling is certainly just as fun as it was in previous SMT or Persona titles, with each dungeon resembling a theme based on the current mission's villain, so yes, very Persona-like. However, unlike those games where it was more of a matter of surviving from floor to floor, here you must also deal with various puzzles.
One of the early dungeons for example has you activating switches that will pose giant mannequins a certain way, so you can use their sleeves as tunnels to other floors. While it wasn't a hard puzzle by any means, it did leave me scratching my head for a bit. The puzzles only get more complex from there. It's more Zelda than it is Persona in that regard, but rest assured combat is still king in these areas.
Like the rest of this game, the combat also gets its own musical spin, though don't worry, no rhythm game shenanigans here. During your dungeon delves, enemies will appear as ghostly reapers that you can get a jump on with a quick attack with your sword, or even avoid entirely if you don't feel like fighting. No random encounters here, folks.
Battles, unsurprisingly, take place on a stage with a giant crowd all around you, while the monsters are placed right in the middle. It's more or less a traditional turn-based affair with some neat twists. The top of the screen shows you the order of who attacks when, allowing you to focus on specific enemies that have a turn coming up, and trying to deal with them before that happens.
Fire Emblem carries over its rock-paper-scissors weapon mechanics where swords do extra damage to axes, axes do extra damage to spears and spears do extra damage to swords. But of course there are elemental weaknesses to exploit as well, such as casting SMT or Persona classics like Bufu and Zio.
Where the combat really shines is with the previously mentioned Sessions. When enemies' weaknessess are exploited, which is always clearly indicated by a green exclamation mark, you have a chance to pull of crazy skill chains called Sessions, assuming you or your Cast members have the appropriate Session skill. These skills are separate from your active skills, and they act as an "If, Then" trigger. For example, if my character performs a sword attack the enemy is weak to, and Tsubasa has a Session skill that activates off of that sword attack, she will then follow up with her own attack. The beauty here is that this can continually chain, creating dazzling combos of characters unleashing skill after skill. What's more, these Session skills won't cost you any of your EP to pull off, and the characters don't even have to be a part of your main line-up to activate.
Then there are the crazy Special Attacks which will cost you precious SP, that accumulates as you fight. These wild attacks with crazy animations are powerful, but they're also situational. For example, Tsubasa's special attack, aside from doing damage, continually heals the party every few turns. Touma's attack for example will hit everyone, but deals fire elemental damage. If the enemy is resistant or immune to fire, it won't be effective. However, since these special attacks are still based off of your weapon and elemental damage, they can still chain into Sessions, causing even more devastating damage.
Leveling and Progression
Characters themselves gain levels and in turn raise their stats in a very Fire Emblem-esque level up screen. However, your Fire Emblem Mirages take a more Pokemon style approach to leveling. As you progress through the game, you will be able to craft and wield wildly different and stylish weapons.
Each weapon earns XP and when leveled, will allow your Mirage to learn a new skill. That could be an active skill such as an attack or buff, a Session skill, or even a passive skill. However, each Mirage can only hold a certain amount of skills at a time. You get six slots for your Command Skills, so you'll have to carefully choose which skills to keep, and which to replace with newer ones. The beauty here is that if the weapon manages to teach you a skill you already know, that individual skill will get leveled up.
Like in Pokemon, you'll have to be mindful of what attacks, buffs, or debuffs will be useful for battle, but also which ones will work in synergy with the rest of your group for Session attacks. It's a rather deep system that never gets too complicated.
As for the previously mentioned weapons, you'll craft and acquire these in the Bloom Palace, a Velvet Room-like location within the Fortuna Entertainment office where you'll bring various materials from enemies known as Performa, to craft better, more powerful weapons. This is also where you'll get to interact with a lot of the Fire Emblem Mirages, who stay mostly true to their personalities from their core series.
However, it is rather annoying that this is the only location where you can craft new weapons, and in order to do so, you have to return there each time. It helps that very early on, one of your cast members learns a skill that returns you immediately to the Fortuna Office, but you still have to then enter the room, exit the room, run back to the dungeon entrance, and then make your way back to where you left off. It's not the most elegant of gameplay loops.
Style to the max
Dating all the way back to Persona 3, and even more so in Persona 4, as well as the more recent SMT games, it's clear that style goes a long way in terms of menus and presentation. The same can be said for TMS#FE. All the menus have lavish, bright and colorful transitions. The pause screen showcases the cast laying on a bright green grassy field. Even minute things like the quick level up screen, or the transition into battle is super stylish.
A few nitpicks
While I personally liked the original Japanese voice-overs, it was odd that there wasn't always a translation for everything said. Sure, outside of battle that doesn't end up being the case, but each character is an absolute chatterbox during battle, and while you can somewhat "get" what they're trying to say based on their tone, it still would have been nice to know what was being said at all times.
The lack of being able to use my Gamepad to play the game exclusively was also somewhat of a letdown, since I don't always have control of the TV in my living room. Since the Gamepad has an actual in-game use of essentially being your phone screen, and your primary tool to receive and send text messages, that means that off-TV play unfortunately had to be scrapped to ensure this kind of gameplay element could work.
Lastly, and this could just be a personal opinion, but the game is certainly more heavily leaning on SMT / Persona elements, than it is Fire Emblem. Outside of the Mirages you summon and sometimes interact with as well as the Bloom Palace that you can visit to craft weapons, the game doesn't really put a whole lot of focus on the FE side of things.
I fear that perhaps Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE might be a bit too niche for the mainstream crowd. Not only do you have to be a fan of turn-based RPGs, you also have to be a fan, or at least tolerate J-Pop culture, which permeates the game from start to finish. Seriously, you'll be watching cutscenes of song performances in this game. You also have to be willing to read subtitles, as the game doesn't come with an English dub. And lastly, you must own a Wii U.
However, if you do happen to fall into the specific niche that this game seems to be geared toward, then you certainly have an amazing time ahead of you. It's fun, stylish, fast-paced and extremely well-designed.