Back in early 2013, Nintendo announced that they were working with ATLUS to create a role-playing game that would cross-over Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. Gamers the world over were immensely excited, considering how Nintendo had recently revitalized their ailing strategy series with a lauded release on the 3DS. Taking the strategy elements of Fire Emblem and bringing ATLUS’s story-telling chops together seemed like a fantastic match.
And then we heard nothing for years. For a long while, it seemed like the idea was too much for either company to hash out. Who has handling the story? Who was developing? What gameplay style would it resemble? We had no idea, and from all accounts it seemed like neither Nintendo nor ATLUS knew what to do with it either. However, everything eventually worked itself out and the game was properly introduced to the world in April 2015 as Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.
Crafted as a more traditional Shin Megami Tensei-style RPG, the newly introduced game showed modern teenagers battling monsters using stylized versions of popular Fire Emblem characters as summons in areas based off of real-world locations in Japan. Oh, and all the playable characters were part of a Japanese talent agency which helped them fight the beasts. It was both everything and nothing of what fans expected. ATLUS and Nintendo somehow managed to take two niche game series and make something even more obscure. It was an impressive gamble and one that is likely to not appeal to all audiences. When ATLUS announced that the US release would only have a Japanese voice track with English subtitles, they doubled down on that niche audience snapping it up. But man, the audience that TMS #FE does appeal to will be so happy with the final produce.
As previously mentioned, you play as a group of teenagers who are part of a talent agency that protects the world from monsters called Mirages. These monsters steal “Performa” or the emotional energy that springs from witnessing moving performances. Through out the story, you investigate dimensional rifts into the Idolasphere, preventing the Mirages from gaining further footholds in Japan. The teens are assisted by friendly Mirages, who are also famous Fire Emblem characters. Lacking memories of their former lives, they assist their human partners in protecting the Earth and finding out how they got to the Idolasphere.
In short, it’s an anime-ass anime story. It’s got all the typical story beats, stereotypical archetypes, exaggerated reactions, just about anything you can imagine from your typical tween-to-adult action story. If you aren’t fond of those types of stories or don’t have a lot of experience with anime, you’re likely to find the whole thing incredibly dumb. And you know what? As a fan of all the previously mentioned genre conventions, it IS pretty dumb. And I love it. TMS #FE is unashamed of its roots and revels in its silly and bubbly story. It drips charm, with help from its excellent J-Pop soundtrack, original Japanese voice track and extravagant character designs. Combat even takes place on a giant stage while other monsters cheer and wave around glow sticks in excitement. The whole visual and audio design of the game has a boundless energy that’s hard to ignore.
Unlike most other Wii U games, there is no off-TV play on the gamepad. Instead, ATLUS uses the gamepad in some rather clever ways. Like a lot of other games, you have access to current maps and enemy data while you’re bombing around the world. What’s unique here is that ATLUS created a LINE-like messenger app called Topic. Your party members and support cast will send you messages through the game, both story-related and just for fun. None of the messages are ever repeated, and they’re sent at intervals that won’t interrupt the flow of the game. It’s a great way to get to know each cast member and be able to organize sub-quests later on. Doing a mission for somebody and forgot something? Go to their Topic heading and look back at the messages. It’s probably the best use of the gamepad I’ve seen in the three years I’ve owned a Wii U.
Gameplay-wise, things are far more standard fare. You choose locations around Tokyo to visit, where then you’ll run around a smallish field before choosing to enter shops or tears into the Idolasphere. Due to the hardware limitations of the Wii U, most of the non-player characters you see in-game show up as neon outlines going about their business. Only people that you can interact with are fully-modeled, which does make it easier to find specific NPCs for sub-quests. Some people will find it kind of cheap; Personally, I found it kind of charming. It’s more color on screen and I’ll rarely complain about that. Better to have them represented instead of having busy locations like Shibuya look like a ghost town.
Navigating the Idolasphere, you run around the dungeons and are able to interact with the enemies as they appear on the field. Like the Chrono games of old, you can avoid combat by not touching enemies and you can even hit them to give you enough time to run. When you do get into combat, it’s a standard turn-based affair, styled after the Shin Megami Tensei games. There are several different weapon and element types that enemies will either absorb, resist, take normally or be weak toward. As the game goes on and additional characters join you on your quest, you can bring them in on group attacks when you take advantage of an enemies weakness. Later on, you can combo on seven, eight, nine attack in one turn by using those weaknesses against your foes, but the same also goes for your characters. Variations of this system as appeared before, but they’ve never felt as good as they do in TMS #FE.
You use the drops from monsters to craft new weapons and unlock new abilities. Continued use of characters will further unlock abilities to craft and give you the chance to learn more about them in their individual side stories. In a small nod to the Persona series, each of your main team and supporters can grow closer to you as you complete their side missions. It isn’t as vital as the Social Links in Persona 3 and 4, but it’s nice that you get a chance to pal around with them between excursions into the Idolasphere.
As this is a previous generation game, TMS #FE isn’t going to wow you with its graphics. It doesn’t look ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but you can tell this running on aging hardware. There are a decent amount of load times between hopping into sections of the Idolasphere and the animations look pretty stiff. That said, the art design does a lot to help you get past it’s limitations. Nintendo excels in using design to make it’s games look good forever, and that is the case here.
There is one thing that does bother me about the design, and that’s the at times baffling censorship that ATLUS chose to use. Likely in an attempt to avoid a Mature rating, several instances of cleavage and scantily-clad outfits have been altered and, in the case of an entire dungeon, completely altered to look different. What bothers me here is the lack of consistency in what the chose to change. Several of the alternative outfits have had the flesh tones altered to cover up expose skin. It works in the case of making an exposed pair of legs look like they’re covered with black leather pants. It fails when a rather cute wedding dress has white added to the skin and looks like bad body paint. There’s an inconsistent cut-scene at the end of the first dungeon where a busty boss has her chest plate exposed in battle, then gets a smokey veil during a cut-scene, then goes back to having her chest exposed in another battle. You can tell it was done as fast and as cheap as possible and, well, it looks pretty poor over all. I understand that a Teen rating will get this game out to as many people as possible, but with a title as niche as this, it feels really pointless.
This game is absolutely wonderful and I’m amazed it ever made it out here. It had to get over the hump of getting made, period. Then, ATLUS had to be willing to publish this here, knowing that it would appeal to a small audience on a platform with already an already small ownership. It does everything it sets out to do with style and a sense of wonder that is missing from a lot of releases. It’s silly, happy and it’s loud with it’s love of the Japanese entertainment industry. It’s a lot of fun to play and has a lot of content to keep RPG fans busy for several dozen hours. If you’re a fan of ATLUS’s games, RPGs or anime in general and have a Wii U, I absolutely recommend picking up Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.