Captain Falcon has finally been executed for his crimes.
It was almost three and a half years ago when Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was announced under its working title, Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, via Nintendo Direct. Although both series have consistently hit US shores in recent years, it’s hard to imagine that the Venn diagram of people who’d actually care about that crossover would warrant an American release. Yet here we are, blessed with a game weirder than anything I’d speculated that it might become.
Indeed, TMS#FE is exactly as ludicrous as the name would imply. Not content to settle for an SMT sundae with FE sauce, Nintendo and Atlus decided that throwing in a healthy dose of Japanese idol culture would be the perfect cherry on top. The result is a remarkably stylish, completely absurd JRPG about ghosts who sustain themselves on the soul-energy of those in the entertainment industry. Also those ghosts are Fire Emblem characters. Sure, I’m on board so far.
Our hero – a dense teen boy named Itsuki Aoi – finds himself almost immediately haunted by a Mirage, which he quickly purifies with his Performa and then uses as a Carnage to kill some other, more wicked Mirages. Or in layman’s terms: Itsuki uses his latent performative abilities as means to turn a spectral Chrom (of Fire Emblem: Awakening fame) into a cool sword, and then kill ghosts with it. Before long, Itsuki finds himself surrounded by other Mirage Masters – that is to say, teens who can turn FE characters into weapons – and tasked with saving Tokyo from the besieging Mirages. Oh, and rising to idol stardom in the process, because that makes you better at fighting of course!
Even if you don’t find the ridiculous premise as charming as I do, there’s a remarkably deep game behind it all. The turn-based battles, set in packed arenas pumping with kickin’ tunes, differentiate themselves from the pack through a mechanic known as Session Attacks. Essentially, any skill that hits a foe’s weakness will trigger other members of your party to press the advantage with their own attacks, completely free of charge. After a certain point in the game, this includes even characters outside the active battle party. As if that wasn’t enough, you can eventually extend these Sessions even further through overpowered-but-infrequent Duo Arts. The further you progress, the more combat starts to look like a complete bed of chaos. However, there is order here, and the game makes absolutely sure you know it. TMS#FE employs a slow, steady drip of battle mechanics; every time you feel like you’re starting to reach the limits of what’s possible, some new game-changer is introduced. For instance, I didn’t obtain my first Duo Art until over thirty hours in. Every JRPG worth its salt gives consideration to the progression of power – the player should not only become stronger over time, but feel that increase intrinsically. TMS#FE not only displays a sound grasp of this concept, but executes on it flawlessly.
In keeping with that slow-drip methodology, character abilities are learned quite gradually as well. Each weapon (sorry, Carnage), forged with enemy loot, has four skills to offer. These are learned one at a time by accruing Mastery points through battle. At least, this is true until you gain the ability to reforge mastered weapons, adding a fifth learnable skill to each one. Character stats are increased through standard leveling, but each Mirage Master also has a Stage Rank that will increase via combat, unlocking both passive Radiant Skills and sidequests that offer powerful combat techniques as rewards. TMS#FE bears the sign of any good JRPG: it has almost as much content as it does proper nouns.
Be warned though: this is a Shin Megami Tensei game at heart, which means you should expect some resistance. Although far more forgiving than most SMT games, you will still absolutely get wrecked if you just try to mash the Attack command. Don’t expect to shoot through the Idolasphere dungeons in one go, either – you’ll likely find yourself warping out regularly, whether to heal or forge new Carnages. Personally, I don’t mind this structure; each area has its own puzzle gimmicks to keep things from getting stale, as well as convenient teleporters interspersed throughout. Still, it runs counter to most modern RPG design, so your mileage may vary.
Of course, TMS#FE shares another trait with its demonic cousin series: it’s stylish as all get-out. Barring some occasional odd-looking facial animation, the entire game is absolutely gorgeous. Color and vibrancy is the order of the day in Atlus’ vision of Tokyo. From Shibuya streets to Idolasphere depths, submenu screens to battle arenas, everything pops. Heck, the loading screen when entering combat is a Jumbotron-esque display of your party, all suited up for scufflin’. The music keeps pace with the visuals, offering up plenty of catchy numbers, and of course a few J-pop performances as well. I do wish they’d gone a bit wackier with the soundtrack, as it feels almost tame for a game like this, but what’s there doesn’t fail to impress.
Unfortunately, the plot and its characters never manage to be quite as interesting as the bizarro pop-idol window dressing. What’s here instead is a pretty standard “plucky teens save the world” situation, only this time the teens are making pop hits and TV shows on the side. The cast comprises pretty one-dimensional anime archetypes, running the gamut from “creepy otaku,” to “bull-headed hero wannabe,” to “rich boy with empathy problems.” Their personal sidequests attempt to shake out a little personality, but the dialogue (voiced only in Japanese) rarely manages to offer more than some dumb laughs. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad – in fact, one quest in which Itsuki offers friendly advice on doing food reviews had me quite amused – but it is a little disappointing. After all, these are characters you’ll be spending fifty-odd hours with.
Regardless, with its hyper-colorful quasi-Persona aesthetic and gratuitous Fire Emblem fanservice (it does the little fanfare for level ups!), Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE seems like a perfect entry point to Shin Megami Tensei – a franchise often talked up as being impenetrable. But its greatest accomplishment is that, even for a veteran of both SMT and FE such as myself, what’s here is so much more than just fanservice. It is uniquely its own game, and a master class at that.