I was immediately attracted by the colourful, beautiful art style, gorgeous anime cutscenes and the J-Pop culture when I first laid eyes on a trailer for Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. What I discovered was this was a crossover between Fire Emblem (the #FE part of it's name) and Shin Megami Tensei. Having never played Fire Emblem and only dabbled in Digital Devil Saga back on the PS2 (Urk I feel old), I was unsure of what I was going to be dropping myself into.
Upon beginning my "Debut" I was not disappointed. The opening anime cutscene was the same style as I had originally seen and that I have now come to recognise as typical of Atlus's work, especially as part of the Persona series (another I really need to play). I witness an Opera, but with a dark tone. The main star disappears before the audience's eyes and one by one they begin blip out of existence. Eventually all that's left is a young girl, alone. Five years skip forwards and this girl has grown up, enjoying school with her friends. We are then introduced to our main cast going about their normal days and it isn't long before I am dropped into the actual game and the role of our hero, Itsuki Aoi. A handsome but regular high-schooler.
Right away Itsuki receives a text. The Gamepad starts to ring and vibrate, which caught me by surprise as I have little experience with the Wii U. Itsuki looks down at his mobile on the TV screen and you see a message on the Gamepad. The texts are known as Topics and reminded me a lot of LINE, a social app that's very popular in Japan, the green bubbles and the constant use of stickers are welcoming and pleasant to the eye. This is used as a social hub for the various cast members to contact you, which can cleverly act as reminders for what you have done or hints on where to go next. I also discovered off screen play was not available due to the Gamepad also being used for displaying maps, character and enemy data and sidequest tracking. Normally this would disappoint me as I like this function when I move room to room, but it made sense for the game.
It is then we come across Tsubasa Oribe (our main heroine) who is waiting for talent auditions to become an Idol like her favourite singer, Kiria. Itsuki seems disinterested as she speaks about her fandom but it's clear they are close friends. Soon after Tsubasa's turn to stand on the stage comes and suddenly things turn for the worse. The announcer seems possessed, cloaked floating figures known as Mirages and people begin to disappear around Itsuki. Colour drains from those left behind and Itsuki is left alone but unaffected. A portal appears before him and he walks through to find Tsubasa.
These portals are known as Idolospheres, the equivalent of dungeons. These appear throughout Tokyo, often emulating what is nearby, such as clothing stores or photo booths. Enemy Mirages appear on the pathways you take in the dungeons and making contact with them starts a battle. You are able to attack them beforehand to daze them, this can either allow you to slip past without an encounter, or to get the initiative and take a first strike. These enemies want to take your Performa, basically your creative soul. When first set upon by one such creature, Itsuki uses his Performa to free the soul of one. This is when you meet your partner Mirages, Chrom (familiar to Fire Emblem fans) and Caeda for Itsuki and Tsubasa respectively and become a Mirage Master.
Tutorials are blessedly light and taught to you naturally as you progress, only popping up when it is relevant. Some I didn't even come across until nearing the end of my 100+ hours in, so this was definitely refreshing. As you play you meet 7 partner Mirages in all, each with their own weapon and magics and the subsequent strengths and weaknesses therein. This is part of the real meat of the battles, which are a traditional turn based style, allowing you to have the time to pick what approach is best. There is a basic attack option, though I found I scarcely used this as it offered little reward, instead opting for the fun part, Skills.
Skills are split between Active, which sets your Physical and Magical options, and Passive, which allows you to buff specific attributes and abilities. At the start it's a matter of trying things out to see what is most effective, some enemies being weaker to Lightning or perhaps Lances. But the most fun are Session Skills, which can link together attacks from the whole group. Three of you are in active battle and as you progress you can learn new abilities so those in the "Sub-Cast" can take part in it as well. When you select an attack that your enemy is weak to, a list can appear to show who will follow up. This happens all on its own and it's a joy to watch. You learn more Session Skills as you develop and learn more ways to link them so you can make Sessions last longer. The longer they last obviously you inflict more damage but you also gain more rewards, such as more money or crafting materials.
These materials can be used at the Bloom Palace to create more Carnages, the special weaponry of the Mirages. Using the essences of what you have faced is how you acquire more Skills. Also at the Bloom Palace you can use some of these materials to bolster you Cast with unique abilities that happen at random when using specific types of Skills. For example Tsubasa using her Lance can activate an advert she starred in for a popular soda or using a Wind based magic can invoke one of her music videos.
As well as this, you can take on Side Stories in Intermissions between Chapters, which make it feel a lot like you're in an episode of your favourite show. During Side Stories you can spend time with your friends to learn more about them and to help them gain confidence. Occasionally this allows them to trust in another of the Cast, when this happens you can gain a Unity between them allowing for another of these random events during battle that also extends Sessions even further. These are very powerful attacks and often have extra bonuses such as healing, debuffs and buffs. Once you obtain more of these, two will pop up at the same time and you have to chose which will be more effective or helpful for this occasion. All of this combined makes for a fun and varied experience every battle, a visual and musical display that breaks the monotony that can occur when grinding for EXP.
Speaking of music and visuals, Tokyo Mirage Sessions emulates that J-Pop feeling well. Outside of Idolospheres you wander Shibuya and Harajuku, both parts of Tokyo known for their modern and popular fashions. Everywhere you go there are crowds of people which are colourful silhouettes, and the backing is an upbeat pop tune, making the streets bright and cheerful. There are cafes and food courts to visit that can heal you after a long trip and can also raise your Luck stats to make item drops more frequent. And there are regular stores where you can restorative items, buy Accessories to bolster your stats or new outfits to wear in battle.
Graphically TMS doesn't do anything spectacular, but what it does do is solid and still incredibly charming. Constantly crisp and clear, each character and area is well defined and stand out appropriately. Equally I didn't experience any performance issues to begin with, but near the end of the game when using higher forms of magic (particularly Ice) on groups of enemies or when there were a larger number of particularly strong enemies on screen. This was very occasional, but frustrating after such a long time of having a smooth experience.
It's worth noting that everything about this game is INCREDIBLY Japanese, as such it received no English voice overs as part of it's localisation. This is an excellent choice, as the cast is well voiced and fit their roles perfectly and does much to immerse you into this world. This also means that the songs in the games are unchanged as well. The performances of the singers were mostly all catchy and well choreographed, but not particularly special in the J-Pop world, which was a little saddening when I heard Yoshiaki Fujisawa, the mind behind Love Live! was involved. The localisation team did an outstanding job of making the English subtitles feel natural to each character as well, making more western jokes that make more sense to the audience and translating lyrics that fit quite well into the songs. That continues through-out with NPC's and even villains, though it was a shame that during battles there were none despite the quips and encouragement the group give to each other.
Some changes however, were slightly jarring. Ages were raised and some odd costume differences were made, largely likely to avoid seeming sexually exploitative of the younger girls. Such as Tsubasa having her cleavage covered in a music video but wearing a bikini in an in game soda advert. Kiria, the main popular Idol of this world, having her thong replaced with leggings even though she is an adult. And even with an enemy having her breasts covered by a black cloud during a cutscene but not in battle. Many reports came out about censorship before it's release and while I can't say I didn't notice most of them I also don't feel it harmed my experience of the core game at all and that the teams involved did a good job with most of it, though I would have preferred it to be untouched.
Despite removing a few things, there is a New Game Plus mode where you can try the game again on a much harder difficulty (that also offers a few extra side quests and new bosses) and an in game Trophy system for you to aim for a full play record. There's plenty to do and lots to see. And with the option of DLC dungeons designed to speed things along this can be a great boon.
All in all I feel as though Tokyo Mirage Sessions has plenty to offer that you simply cannot get anywhere else. The soundtrack is a lot of fun and will be making it's way into my permanent collection with its interesting mix of pop and techno-orchestral. Fresh gameplay that made what could have potentially been it's weakest point into its strongest attraction. And a truly unique story that actually led me to be interested in both the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei series. I'm eager to see more of Atlus's work.