This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Hello Kitty franchise, as well as the 40th anniversary of Gundam in Japan. There have been a few crossover products and even an animated special released to mark the occasion. Even still, that may only be the second strangest crossover they’ve had in recent months. The other one might be Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore for the Nintendo Switch.
A relatively obscure title originally released on the overlooked Wii U back in 2015/2016, the premise of the game seems simple and marketable enough. It is a crossover between the worlds of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series and Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise. The former franchise is a tactical fantasy RPG where every decision you make has consequences. The latter is a very mature RPG franchise where you can capture demons and gods to aid you because every decision you make has consequences.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions presents both these ideas though the world of, uh, Japanese pop idols?
The game follows you, a young man named Itsuki Aoi, as he gets pulled into the idol business alongside several other recruitable artists. Initially uninterested in the lifestyle, Itsuki stays to help fight as mysterious beings from another dimension begin attacking Tokyo and causing the disappearances of top artists. In order to fight these “Mirages,” Itsuki and co. have to awaken Mirages of their own.
These heroic Mirages come in the form of Fire Emblem characters from across that franchise. You discover that the evil Mirages are drawn to a force that dwells in artistic individuals called Performa that is directly tied to creative energy. Not only is this essense the ultimate goal of those Mirages to attain, but to strengthen your team’s Mirages, you have to become a better performer to improve your own Performa. Essentially, you train/rehearse in the dance studio by day, duel demons by night.
That’s the main crux of the story, but the mechanics of which those battles happen as well as how you get those powers is really where the heart of the game shines through. While the game is advertised as a melding of the worlds of Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, truth is, it is probably closer to seventy percent SMT and thirty percent FE. The turn-based battles use the SMT elemental categories, with the Fire Emblem weapon triangle replacing the melee categories.
Like the base SMT games, the game rewards you handsomely for figuring out your opponent’s weaknesses. In this game that means enabling you to lock them in combos called Sessions where all your teammates can attack. Occasionally, your teammates will bust out with Special Performances that can further wreck opponents, being anything from one of their hit songs to an action sequence from a Kamen Rider-esque show they’re in to performing a love confession scene they recently filmed. Yes, you can kill demons with melodrama and it is glorious.
How do you unlock these special combos? The tried and true convention of getting to know your teammates, or “cast members” as the game frames it, through side stories. Use them in battle to raise their Stage Rank, learn new skills, and possibly also unlock Duo Arts. All the while, you also unlock the mysteries surrounding why the Mirages are attacking, as well as deepening the bonds between the FE Mirages and their Mirage Masters (you and your teammates). Names like Crom and Tharja from Fire Emblem: Awakening and Caeda and Cain from the Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon games are just some of the dimension twisters that FE fans might be familiar with. It helps that even they are just as confused at the creative driven nature of their very existence.
To summarize: you and the rest of your squad of theater kids have to save Tokyo from interdimensional parasitic machine-like demons who are absorbing the life out of content creators and you fight them using your very own soul Pokémon, who all happen to be veterans of fantasy warfare, in turn-based combat while a million things are happening on your screen at one time.
Got all that? Good because it’s fun as hell.
If you couldn’t tell from all the above rambling, it is pretty difficult to break this game down into explainable terms without sounding a bit over the top, and that’s probably because the game itself is so over the top. This game oozes aesthetic and charisma and is a huge love letter to creatives and artists while acknowledging the difficulty of the industry they have to survive in.
The game is so strange, in fact, I never thought it would even be an option for a port. Probably the only reason why it did was because Fire Emblem: Awakening caused a revitalization of that franchise right around the time this game came out. To pair with that, while the Shin Megami Tensei series has never been the powerhouse worldwide that it has in Japan, its spin-off Persona series has become a phenomenon. Put all that together with the Switch’s popularity, and it is actually no surprise this title got a second chance at stardom. It, alongside Fire Emblem: Three Houses, are probably the closest we’ll get to a Persona style game on Switch.
The soundtrack is poppy, boppy, and constantly upbeat, which is in direct opposition to traditional SMT or even Fire Emblem games, and is just as catchy as any of the famous music from its parent series. Even writing this article, I can hear “Give Me,” “Reincarnation,” and “She Is” on loop. As someone who has never ever cared about skins or costumes in games, the instant one of my squad gets cast in a new show or drops a new single, I absolutely have to go buy the outfit they wore. I can safely say I have never before played a video game where my personal goal was to unlock all of the music videos.
In terms of RPG or JRPG principles, the game is on a much easier scale than most of the big names in the genres. It will take you a while to really grasp all the mechanics which include, but are not limited to: Carnage Unites, Radiant Unities, Duo Arts, Ad Lib Performances, Special Performances, Stage Rank, and Session Skills. It can all be very overwhelming and the game doesn’t really have a “Help” menu to assist you in getting it all together (or if it does, I haven’t found it), but it all somehow clicks.
The game is exponentially more forgiving than any SMT or FE game, probably on par with the difficulty and escalation of its cousin series, the Persona games. Making it through the dungeons, or Idolaspheres, is actually pretty relaxing with all the musical and aesthetic combat mechanics. Grinding has honestly never been more fun. Probably my favorite part of JRPGs is the turning your brain off and fighting against a billion things to get stronger parts. With this game, that means finding a monster’s weakness, hitting one button, then watching my squad execute a seven combo Session, hit a Duo Art which heals the party and resets the counter, and then flow seamlessly into another seven hit combo immediately after, while super catchy music swarms around me. The catharsis level is off the charts; it is the perfect chill RPG, especially in handheld mode.
In true RPG/JRPG fashion, however, the ease of making it through levels is counterbalanced with the difficulty of the boss battles. These can be anywhere from incredibly annoying to downright unforgiving, as bosses will do things like constantly call for reinforcements and shift their weaknesses. The former is insanely vexing because while yes, you can hit those multi-hit Session combos, your enemies can too. That means five hit combos from bosses with two turns and there isn’t anything you can do to stop them. In addition to dungeon bosses, there are mini-bosses lurking around the Idolaspheres called Savage Mirages which can randomly generate and are always five to ten levels higher than whatever you are. Oh, and they chase you down and can’t be knocked away like regular Mirages. Good luck with those.
Or maybe you like that cereal, Oops, All Savage Mirages? There is an area you can explore in the game’s hub area that has training dungeons for you to grind for skills, EXP, and the aforementioned super hard enemies. There is also the EX dungeon, which is tied to the story and is great for finding bonus outfits for your squad. The Encore version has a new level to this dungeon and new outfits, the most popular one undisputedly being Itsuki’s “Rebellious Joker” outfit where your protagonist can dress up as Joker from the incredibly popular Persona 5 (not Joaquin Phoenix, sadly).
The game is an absolute delight. Of course, there are some criticisms – the music and aesthetic that I love absolutely does not click with anyone, the mountain of mechanics, the fact that this port is a censored version, it being one of those games with lots of fetch sidequests and no way to track them, subbed not dubbed, and the fact that the game is very niche and unapologetically Japanese can all turn people away. If you’re okay with all that, you will be treated to one of the most unique games I’ve ever encountered.
This isn’t so much as a review or even a critique, this is just me showing my great appreciation for such an enjoyable game that might get lost in the shuffle. The fact that it was released the same day as Japanese franchise juggernaut Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot probably keeps it underground once again, but here’s to hoping that some of you allow this wonderful title to come to the stage to audition.
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