I went into Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore relatively blind. I knew it was a Nintendo Switch upgrade to a Wii U crossover between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem. I’d also heard about some controversial Western censorship that angered large pockets of fans. Having now beaten the 30-odd hour RPG, I can safely conclude that this is the most Japanese game I have ever played.
That’s not an insult. I love Japan, but my experience underlines the importance of research prior to purchase, as it’s fair to say this is not for everyone. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a dazzling, over-the-top escapade into Japan’s idol culture, where characters burst into song during encounters, dramatically step onto the battle-stage to showcase costume changes, and overcome foes by channelling performing arts to release the glowing light inside their heart.
There were times, like when teen pop star Tsubasa Oribe flew down a torrent of water in her bikini to blast an enemy with an ad-lib drink-commercial/attack hybrid, where I wondered what my parents would think if they could see what I was doing in my spare time. On the other hand, I also found myself humming some of the catchy J-pop and often getting engrossed in each character’s unrelenting desire to reach their peak performance.
For all the artistic ability of the singing, dancing cast, the main protagonist is a young man who very rarely exhibits any such talent. Itsuki, who doesn’t climb to the celebrity stardom of other party members, is not quite a self-insert but his lack of pop skill makes him a far more relatable character. The downside of this is that without any specific career ambitions I found him by far the most boring cast member.
The secondary protagonist is Tsubasa, who reminds us she is 18 years old virtually every other line in one of the aforementioned Western changes. She dreams of being a famous pop singer in the same class as Kiria, an established idol who also joins the playable party. Making up the rest of the team are the likes of Touma, aspiring actor and ‘bro’ hot-headed best friend, and Ellie, who mentions Hollywood and the fact she is biracial once every scene. These characters and a handful more form Fortuna Entertainment, a business whose goal is to produce stars of wondrous concerts, TV shows and films whilst casually saving the world in the background.
I’ll give Itsuki some credit where it’s due – when dialogue options are presented to the player, they commonly contain some incredibly cheesy, forward choices. It’s so common for JRPGs to play into the trope of romantic interests being overly shy and flustered, and I found Itsuki’s delivery of these lines pretty hilarious. Not only does he say them verbatim, but he then owns them and happily elaborates on why he thinks someone is beautiful, or why he enjoyed seeing someone in a revealing costume. He doesn’t try to backtrack or play down his words, yet somehow avoids a creepy vibe.
The wider plot will be hugely familiar to anyone who has played a Shin Megami Tensei game, or one of the Persona spin-offs. There is a dark, hidden world called the Idolasphere full of evil creatures known as Mirages. They can drain the ‘Performa’ from humans, effectively stealing their artistic talents to grow in power. These foes are a threat to the world, with incidents of Mirage abductions growing around Tokyo. Our group of stylish teenagers soon awaken to powers that make them ‘Mirage Masters’. This is where crossover elements are introduced, as each playable character links to a Fire Emblem counterpart to unlock potential within that can banish the Mirages by utilising the overwhelming power of song.
For those coming mainly from the Fire Emblem series, it is important to note it is not treated as an equal. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is primarily a Shin Megami Tensei game with some Fire Emblem characters and references, with the most significant crossover parts coming towards the end of the story. If I had to apportion shares, I’d say it’s about 80/20 with Fire Emblem getting the short straw. This will please some and disappoint others, but as more traditional RPG player myself I found myself in the former camp.
When introductions are done and routine sets in, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a chapter-based tale, where segments typically contain a mission into the Idolasphere to tackle a dangerous Mirage and save a specific area of Tokyo, followed by an intermission where side stories and quests can be completed.
Each character has a handful of individual stories that are similar to the social link arcs contained in the Persona titles, though admittedly nowhere near as long or as detailed. The actual gameplay parts of these are pretty tedious, involving things like finding a cat around town (must every RPG have a sidequest to find a cat?!) or entering the Idolasphere to beat a set amount of a certain enemy. No matter how obscure or tenuous the connection, these quests all somehow link to some new artistic motivation inside the relevant character, unlocking a new performance that helps in battle.
Often, these moments are actually quite inspiring as we see characters overcome hurdles in their careers and lives, pushing themselves to greater heights by facing fears or embracing different sides of their personalities. Other times, not so much. One side story ends up with the stirring revelation that… you need to eat food to survive. Another involves someone deciding to dress up as a huge dog so he seems cute in the eyes of the young girl with whom he has a rather disturbing obsession.
The side stories are still well worth doing to develop the characters, power them up and usually see a showcase of their talents in animated cutscenes that can then be activated at random during combat. It’s here where the best of the soundtrack is witnessed, with a nice variety of J-Pop numbers and spirited dance choreography. As catchy as some of these tunes are, it’s surprising to note that the general music in towns, dungeons and battle is quite uninspired. Nothing stands out and since the Tokyo setting makes it easy to slip into Persona 5 comparisons, it feels like a missed opportunity to match the stellar all-round soundtrack of its Atlus cousin.
The combat itself is a turn-based affair where three party members literally take the stage in their flamboyant costumes. Standard attacks and commands skills are performed in front of an audience, with typical Shin Megami Tensei tactics employed – each foe has weaknesses to certain attack types, and hitting these grants additional moves. Extra turns come in the form of session attacks, which are learned alongside command skills but only activate when enemy weaknesses are exploited.
For instance, if an enemy is weak to lightning attacks and a different character has access to a session attack that also contains the lightning element, then they will join in and start a combo. Session attacks have two elements, so it’s possible to continue combos with attacks of different elements. In this example, if there’s a lightning-fire session attack, then another character with a fire-sword session can jump in and keep combos going for big damage.
It’s a neat system that looks great when characters take turns leaping around the stage landing hits, but the tactical side doesn’t take long to become simplistic. Once you know an enemy’s elemental affinities, the interface will display any session attacks that will automatically link together with each possible move. Usually it’s a simple choice of just picking the attack that links the most sessions, and requires little thought or strategy.
Another element to battle is the Special Performance gauge, which fills up by landing enough attacks and provides the ability to launch powerful moves that ignore resistances and automatically prompt sessions. More special performances unlock as side stories complete, as well as separate ad-lib skills that randomly activate during combat. The upshot is that the more a character furthers their career within main and optional plot events, the more chance you have to land these strong attacks when you need them.
Dungeons take a few different forms, and whilst they feature some cool concepts, like a film studio and a lake shrine, the actual map designs themselves can be repetitive and feel overly long. They each contain at least one inane puzzle sequence that forcibly drags on without posing any actual mental stimulation.
Outside of the idolasphere, there isn’t an overwhelming amount of the capital to explore, with the majority of the game taking place within the same handful of compact areas. However, having been to Tokyo a few times, I have to say Tokyo Mirage Sessions still does a great job of capturing the positive energy of the city, particularly the prominent Shibuya district. Bopping tunes blare from shops, enormous billboards of idols are emblazoned on walls, screens display the latest fashion trends and music videos, and countless colourful silhouettes blend into the crowd. Despite the extravagance, it genuinely evoked nostalgia for the real thing.
The character development has some nice ideas but fails to find the perfect balance of Kiria’s dance steps. Characters level up traditionally with EXP gained in battle, and normal encounters are mostly ridiculously easy before each chapter’s boss brings a difficulty spike that goes through the roof. They are usually accompanied by two or three lackeys, and if you fail to take a couple of them out before they act, the group of enemies can easily string together enough session combos themselves to quickly decimate your party if weaknesses are hit.
As such, a bit of grinding is often called for, best done in a training area that can be accessed at any time where enemies drop consumable items called ‘tomes’. No matter your level, it never takes more than two tomes to level up a character (though you have to fight a battle before the level up takes effect). This is just as well, because it’s hard to grind without them. As characters increase their levels the EXP gained against weak opponents deteriorates to the point that it is barely worth bothering.
Tomes can also be found on the training area floor, and since longer session combos are rewarded with further item bonuses, it becomes so easy to farm a huge batch that it rather breaks the game. By the halfway point, with a bit of tweaking to your tactics and party, it is possible to gain enough tomes in a single battle to level up your whole cast, even against the weakest enemies.
Whilst levelling up is easy, unlocking some of the best abilities requires an increase to the stage rank of your character. This is separate to a traditional level up and can only be improved by characters participating in battle or completing a side story. With only three side stories per character but twenty stage rank levels, you need to fight a lot. Though we all expect to fight battles to boost power, to me it felt like an arbitrary requirement to blast through enemies that are ridiculously weak and provide almost zero EXP, just for the sake of giving characters some time on stage.
Later in the game there are ways around this, with abilities that allow characters to join in and improve stage rank whilst in the support cast, but by then I was already overpowered. With difficulty spikes commonplace it’s hard to know where to draw the grinding line, and even going for half an hour too long can be enough to strengthen yourself to the extent that every subsequent battle, including the last boss, is a pathetic challenge. In my view it would have been far better if tomes were dispensed with altogether, and EXP did not reduce by levelling up.
If you do find yourself in trouble, missions into the idolasphere can be abandoned at any time with frequent warp points allowing the party to resume roughly where they bailed out. A secret door in the Fortuna Entertainment office leads to the Bloom Palace where Tiki, the Fire Emblem inclusion who gets by far the most character development, is waiting to upgrade weapons and teach characters new abilities from things found in the dungeons.
Skills are also learned from weapons in a straightforward system that can also be abused in a similar way to the level tomes. The main complaint I have here is the sheer number of times you need to warp out of a dungeon, run through the Fortuna office, take the door to the Bloom palace, listen to Tiki tell you which new options are available, and then watch a half-skippable cutscene as the characters proudly display each new weapon and skill one by one. I badly longed for a quicker option within the menu to perform these upgrades.
If you complete the side stories, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ends up giving far more screentime to the showbiz aspirations of the characters than the actual saving the world thing. There’s a pleasant, friendly atmosphere to it which is enjoyable enough, but given the brutality of the entertainment industry it sometimes feels like everything is a bit too easy. Every song is a smash hit. All acting jobs get great ratings and reviews. Each collaboration works seamlessly. Showbiz isn’t this straightforward… is it? There is no exploration of the fickle nature of the consumer base, or the way the media can bring a celebrity crashing down as easily as they lifted them up. Maybe that’s all part of the charm. If there’s one thing I’ll say for Tokyo Mirage Sessions, it’s that it won’t leave you down in the dumps.
Finally, the censorship issues. I have investigated the main Western changes and I’m not sure why they bothered. Some costumes are made slightly more modest, and some scenes are significantly altered, such as one in particular that originally featured three characters in bikinis but was completely redone to cover up those flesh-colours pixels. The bizarre thing is that completing the scene still unlocks an ad-lib performance where the central character Tsubasa does only wear the bikini. If this image was too offensive for sensitive Western eyes in one scene, then why leave it in elsewhere?
To conclude, I must reiterate my opening point – this game has a specific target audience. If Japanese idol culture is a passion, then Tokyo Mirage Sessions may be the game of your dreams. If not, then it’s a fairly strong title on its gameplay merits alone, but compared to the JRPG superstars it’s a solid supporting act without quite being good enough to take centre-stage.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is available here.