Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE review

Game Info
Platform Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Atlus
Release Date Jun 24, 2016

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE deserves its turn in the spotlight.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions takes its characters' craft to heart. Every fight is a stage, every attack a performance, and the entire thing is paced so well that the act never truly wears thin. It trades on dungeons and combat in the style of the Shin Megami Tensei series (complete with shadowy demonic enemies bent on consuming our world) while borrowing a heap of fantasy lore from classic Fire Emblem games, then draws both into the gleaming world of pop stardom in present-day Tokyo. This mashup might seem absurd, but the end result is absurdly good.

In spite of some of its source material, Tokyo Mirage Sessions feels as much like a magical girl anime (think upbeat teens with jeweled transformation lockets and overly sincere catchphrases) as anything else — particularly in the beginning. Just to set the stage, the main character is recruited by a talent agency alongside a group of wannabe singers, models and actors. They struggle to improve themselves and land increasingly better gigs, broadening their skills and their public visibility.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions feels as much like a magical girl anime as anything else

At the same time they're also Mirage Masters, fighters imbued with the power of heroic spirits like Fire Emblem's own Chrom, Caeda, Tharja et al. to fight the evil mirages trying to steal the energy of the innocent, performance arts-loving populace of Tokyo. The characters even occasionally get their own glittery, spectacular transformation scenes when they enter a battle. It's like a co-ed version of Sailor Moon for the Love Live! age, and that is absolutely something I'm on board with.

Combat in Tokyo Mirage Sessions will be familiar enough to anyone who's played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game in recent years. You have all the usual options, but more incentive than ever to use character skills rather than just straightforward attacks. That's because skills (typically elemental spells for your magic users and weapon-based actions for your fighters) can cause Sessions — chained attacks carried out by each member of your party for no cost. You get multiple hits for the price of one, and on top of that, Sessions dramatically increase the amount of loot you'll get at the end of the encounter. There's no reason not to aim for a Session every single time, because they're as useful to execute as they are exciting to watch.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions review screenshot

Sessions start out simply, limited to the three members of your party and triggered when you exploit an enemy's weakness or use a special attack. Around the point when that started feeling like old news, my party members began unlocking a passive ability that allowed them to participate in Sessions even when they weren't part of the active party. Session chains became longer and longer, did more and more damage, and earned exponentially more loot. When even that started to lose its novelty, the game introduced Duo Arts, randomly triggered performances between two characters (often reprising a duet they had in one of their side stories) that allowed for the session chain to continue even further. These animations are short enough that I never felt like they were dragging the pace down, even as the combos grew.

Most of Tokyo Mirage Sessions' combat takes place in tiered dungeons connected to principal areas of the map like Shibuya and Harajuku. You'll run through clearing them level by level, swinging your sword to gain the upper hand in the mirage encounters that appear along the way. Each dungeon has a theme reflecting its place in the story, and each also has a core puzzle element that must be solved in order to progress.

This is where my biggest gripe with the game comes in — dungeons are puzzles that feel like massive obstacles even after you've solved them. Even understanding the mechanisms for Tokyo Mirage Sessions' dungeons seldom saves you from the work of grappling with them. Some of the pain of this is alleviated by warp pads and shortcuts that can be opened up, but there are some dungeons that remained as frustrating on my third visit as they were the first time through.

And you will visit and revisit those dungeons, particularly if you're completing side stories for each main character in the cast. And honestly, those side stories forgive every moment of irritation the dungeons might inflict.

Spoilers, but the answer is friendship. The answer is always friendship.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions review screenshot

If you want to play a game about Japanese idol culture, you'll find yourself mostly relegated to rhythm games. Tapping your way through stage shows, you'll occasionally reveal story beats and costumes, leveling up your cast of starlets and unlocking new performances. Given its lineage it should come as no surprise that Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a wildly different kind of game, but it's not completely divorced from the likes of Love Live! or Idolmaster, either. From the basic language it uses in its menus to the costume changes available to characters to the presence of a Vocaloid-esque support character and her fans, Tokyo Mirage Sessions leans into its idol motif hard.

The side stories are actually the very best evidence of that. Unlocked by leveling characters up and progressing through the story, these short quests provide the opportunity for the protagonist to help his friends advance their careers and improve themselves. They're usually fairly straightforward tasks solicited through the in-game LINE-like messenger app — complete with stickers and the occasional snapshot of your best friend's crepe lunch — that lead to a face-to-face meeting with the (beautifully rendered and well-animated) anime pal in question. Side stories are easily completed in "Intermission" periods between story chapters, and in addition to providing a fair bit of XP and unique character abilities, nearly every one ends with a performance.

Sometimes that performance is a soda commercial that aspiring idol Tsubasa was cast in, or sometimes it's a fully animated promotional music video, or sometimes it's the stoic loner co-starring on an adorable microwave cooking show. They're all excellent little moments on their own that sell the game's theme exceptionally well, but many of them also become powerful "Ad-Lib" performances that will be spontaneously reprised in battle, much like Duo Arts. Ask Kiria to do a single-target ice spell and there's a chance she'll trigger an Ad-Lib instead, strutting up in a change of costume, delivering a verse of her latest chart-topper and decimating the entire cluster of enemies for no added cost.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions review screenshot
every time I sat down with Tokyo Mirage Sessions it felt like a treat

Tokyo Mirage Sessions does occasionally gesture toward some of the more serious concerns facing young people in the entertainment industry. One character is unhappy about the way her biracial features set her apart as a novelty in Japan, while another struggles with the fact that her own tastes don't align with the image that made her successful. Unfortunately, these topics aren't handled in any real depth, and as interesting as it is to see something other than blinding, unflinching positivity in a game about idol culture (which absolutely has its dark side), these topics are all handled gently and resolved easily. Remember when I invoked Sailor Moon? Spoilers, but the answer is friendship. The answer is always friendship.

Sometimes Tokyo Mirage Sessions is obviously playing it safe. It's fundamentally a feel-good summer-season anime as much as it is a game, and in that sense, for every pleasant surprise, there was also something I definitely saw coming. But a degree of predictability isn't always a flaw. Good pop music can hold your attention and your interest even when it's following a clear formula. It hooks you and keeps you listening even if the lyrics are a little trite or the melody a bit predictable, because it's still catchy as hell. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is much the same. It's undeniable that there are elements of it that wouldn't have blown me away on their own, but the package they're wrapped up in is just so damn good that the occasional middling note is easily forgiven.

Let me be candid for a moment: Sometimes writing about games is not at all fun. Sometimes you want a night off, but you just have to put five hours into your review game or you'll blow your deadline. Sometimes you've had a long day, and lord, you are not in the mood to grind or take on that one tedious boss. Sometimes even an otherwise decent game can feel like an absolute chore. But every time I sat down with Tokyo Mirage Sessions it felt like a treat. It felt like the thing I'd let myself do for an hour before bed only after playing something far less fun all evening. It was always more like a reward, and that feeling never left me. It never even dimmed.

Wrap Up:

Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a spirited, fun blend of two great RPG series

It's been ages since I've had as much fun with an RPG as I did with Tokyo Mirage Sessions. Specifically, I can't remember the last one that was quite so spirited, or that hooked me quite so firmly from start to finish. It revels in the lighthearted and bubbly world of lighthearted and bubbly idols, and that attitude is contagious. Though I went into it skeptical about how well a popstar-themed blend of both the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei series might work, Tokyo Mirage Sessions never misses a beat.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was reviewed using an advance retail copy provided by Nintendo. You can find more information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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9.5 Wii U