- Provides a more casual RPG experience than most Atlus games
- The 50 hour runtime is solid, but not excessive
- Sticking with Japanese-only VO serves the setting
- Each party member is useful and swapping between them is easy
- Excellent in-game difficulty customization
- Aoi Itsuki is a relatable everyman protagonist
- Provides a lot of interesting concepts but doesn't tie them together in a meaningful way
- The behind-the-scenes story is not as fleshed out as it could be
- The focus on status quo ruins many emotional moments
- The conversion from Wii U to Switch has done little to make the game any better
- Bright and vibrant, but still a game from a few years ago
- The soundtrack has some of the least interesting Fire Emblem remixes I've ever heard
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a fine time for people looking to fit an RPG into their busy lives without spending hundreds of hours. Those who know Atlus' work, or simply want to see how their big collaboration with Nintendo went, may be more disappointed by the results.
SHIN MEGAMI LITE
The appeal of stories that go “behind the scenes” in the entertainment industry usually comes from two major factors. The first, on a practical level, is seeing how the sausage is made, by showing how events like concerts and movies happen from start to finish. The other factor is more personal: a look at the celebrities involved with the show. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is a bold attempt to give audiences this kind of story in video game form. Made in collaboration with Atlus (Shin Megami Tensei, Persona) and Nintendo (specifically, Fire Emblem), this game looks into the world of J-pop idols, acting, and celebrity success on top of the turn-based, monster-slaying action the genre is known for. The problem is, the game never quite lives up to its premise. As a Wii U game originally released in 2016, this was perhaps always going to be the case – to make this game shine, it needed to be released in a different time, on a different platform. With this Switch port, not much has changed. It’s a B-tier Atlus game; alright in some circumstances, but never quite as good as Radiant Historia or Persona Q2.
As a mix between Shin Megami Tensei sensibilities and elements from Fire Emblem, the plot makes about as much sense as any crossover. Through circumstances beyond his control, high school senior Aoi Itsuki finds out that modern day Tokyo is under attack by interdimensional, brainwashed beings called Mirages who seek to harvest Performa energy from local entertainers. Though he lacks talent himself, Itsuki’s ability to bond with a Mirage brings him to the attention of Fortuna Entertainment, a talent agency for many Japanese stars. Though the agency keeps up appearances by booking shows and hosting events, the real action happens when the stars are off the clock and they work as Mirage Masters, entering dungeons all around the city to protect the industry from the enemy. All said, Itsuki is as much an errand boy as he a star in training. His personality is slight, meant to be filled in by the player, and he only gives off the faintest hint of personality when it matters. He’s more interesting than a silent protagonist, but barely.
In a more story-focused game, Itsuki’s avatar personality would be a great conduit for players to connect with the other party members. The entertainment industry always has tons of stories to tell that run the gamut from salacious to weird and innocuous. The thing is, though, that Tokyo Mirage Sessions doesn’t actually care about its subject matter. It uses the occasional well-animated music video to reward players for their progress, but it’s not interested in getting the player invested in the industry. Most of the actual work is done off-screen, while the moments that do get attention are portrayed as in-engine cutscenes where the text boxes convey the action and the character models stand around awkwardly. There’s potential at several points to go into serious issues like how young stars can be overworked and manipulated, but if the game bothers to bring anything up, it’s usually played for laughs or only explored on a surface level.
In fact, character specific plot points are usually sacrificed in favor of moving the plot along. The main story is about investigating the Mirages (aka: various Fire Emblem characters) and saving other performers from oblivion when they’re in danger. Yet, the game displays a constant curiosity about the people helping Itsuki that’s never properly explored. It’s as if the whole entertainment industry angle could be written out and replaced with a high school drama club, or a secret cabal of firefighters, and it would barely make a difference. Instead of using the wealth of ideas to shape and grow these characters in organic and gameplay-changing ways, status quo is god, and the game has the overall vibe of a Saturday morning anime.
One party member might ask Itsuki for help landing a role in a Hollywood movie. Another might find time to reconnect with a long lost family member he’s been searching for. These side-stories, which are presented somewhat similar to Social Links in Persona, start out strong, but are inevitably written in annoying ways that wrap things up without disturbing the main plot. I would have preferred if the game embraced its ambition and took that party member out to Hollywood for a bit, or gave that other character some kind of stat boost for that fateful family meeting. But the game just handwaves everything away as best it can and gives you a new special attack for the trouble. The way this game blunts these storylines for the sake of status quo limited my attachment to these characters and turned me off to the main plot, which never rises above anything I’ve described so far.
Despite my annoyances with the story content, the act of playing Tokyo Mirage Sessions isn’t all that bad. This is an RPG that’s consciously designed with casual and time-sensitive fans of the genre in mind. It delivers the typical Atlus experience at a faster pace and with less filler. All the familiar terminology like Zio and Agi are there, and the turn-based battle system communicates its combo-focused approach clearly. Where a game like Persona 5 might take over 100 hours and require lots of grinding, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is beatable in 50 hours, and provides plenty of tools to make leveling up a breeze. An optional dungeon unlocks early on that provides players with the Tome item that helps level up characters similar to a Rare Candy in Pokémon. The game may explicitly advise against it, but if you’re a busy person and want to play the game without getting too stuck, spending a few hours farming Tomes will make your experience that much better.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions also moves quickly, delivering content at a steady clip. The dungeons, all feel distinct from one another, and have puzzles that feel pretty clever at first encounter. Players who don’t stray far from the mainline story won’t get much farther than that. However, if you like to go after ever side-quest possible, the game gets bogged down in repeating the same puzzles as you enter dungeons again and again. I started avoiding certain quests outright because even with fast travel, objective markers were sometimes placed in super obscure locations, saving me no time and even less patience.
As one of several Wii U games to jump to the Switch, Tokyo Mirage Sessions seems to have less big changes than most. Non-party members can enter combat to add to your party’s combo meter, and there’s a small bit of story content tied to a new dungeon. However, translating the Wii U’s two screen set up to the Switch’s one makes for some interesting concessions. All the UI information is more compact and easier to see, but systems such as Topic, the game’s texting app, stand out more front and center that they were likely meant to. Itsuki texts with his co-workers often, which is great for relaying in-game information, but bad if you start developing anxiety about having to stop to look down at a phone once you enter a room. The last thing I need is an in-game device constantly pausing the game so I can text my boss while she’s day drinking, but here we are. This isn’t to say these texts aren’t well-written, but they drag the pace down considerably.
The rest of the technical aspects fall into the same category as the gameplay; overall, they’re fine. The graphics look a little fuzzy on a TV screen and most of the NPCs are cardboard cutouts, but the game is bright and colorful enough to get by. I also applaud the decision to stick with Japanese-only voice acting, as I’m sure having to translate a bunch of J-pop songs into English would’ve been murder. The one thing I take exception to is the soundtrack’s attempt to remix Fire Emblem music for the soundtrack. Hearing the level up jingle when characters max out their XP bar is a nice touch, but in a game about the power of music and performance, hearing these classic tunes performed in a modern style just because, is not what I’m looking for.
If you’re looking for a great introduction to JRPGs or don’t have a lot of time, then Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is most likely for you. The gameplay mechanics are solid, and everything generally works just fine. If you’re someone who’s very familiar with RPGs and want something different, then this isn’t it. Ambitious story ideas are hampered by the game’s unwillingness to explore them, and the core story suffers from uninteresting crossover nonsense. Character development is generic, and music videos for progress aren’t enough to keep everyone going. Nothing is impressive. It’s just an okay Shin Megami Tensei game with Fire Emblem floating around the edges. The makings for a great game are there, but it’s like the rug got pulled out from under it during development and the staff had to pick up the pieces. Its more interesting than the average RPG out there, but just barely.
Platform: Switch| Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Atlus
Release Date: 1/17/2020 | Rating: T for Teen
This review was conducted using an original model Switch, both docked and undocked, using a retail copy of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore I purchased on launch day. It is also available on Wii U. If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter. You can also reach me via email at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com. For a look at what else I’ve published on Tilting Windmill Studios, you can look here.