Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #Fire Emblem (J-Pop Overkill for Wii U)

It is funny how almost every Westerner reacts with determined rejection at Japanese stuff. I am pretty sure it has something to do with cultural differences but when it gets too noisy and colorful, many people turn around in disgust.
Luckily, I was born without such a reflex and this puts me in the position to actually enjoy a game like this that revels in the Japanese culture. And trust me, you are missing out on something really good here.

Chrom and Itsuki from Tokyo Mirage doing a fistbump in heaven
Super Fist Bump in Heaven!

Game Title: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
Created by: Atlus
Genre: Turn-based RPG
Difficulty: Medium
Multiplayer: No

1. General setting: An overdose of Japanese pop culture

Did you play any of the bigger RPGs from Atlus? More specifically, one of the Persona games? If so, you got the setting covered pretty much as this game takes a huge chunk of inspiration from this series. On the surface, you lead your daily life in a rather peaceful version of Tokyo as a part of the entertainment industry. But when you´re not pursuing daily life activities, you enter bizarre nightmare versions of Tokyo to battle evil spirits/ghosts/whatever (this time they are called Mirages) in turn-based combat. Oh, and characters from the Fire Emblem make an appearance but the Persona portion of this supposed cross between Shin Megami and Fire Emblem clearly outweighs everything else.

Virion from Fire Emblem Awakening as he appears in Tokyo Mirage
This is supposed to be Virion from Fire Emblem Awakening.

Unlike the Persona games you don´t need to go to school and have no schedules so you are free to go wherever and when you like. I guess that the money you earn in the entertainment business is enough to never ever have to worry about education...
There is a whole lot of conversations going on and they look great with detailed character models and expressions. The game is also fully voiced, but they didn´t bother to translate it so you have to put up with the Japanese voices. My guess is that they didn´t expect it to sell well in the Western market so they didn´t even attempt.

Touma and Kiria from Tokyo Mirage looking shocked.
The dialogues are a joy to watch and... read because I don´t understand Japanese.

2. Combat: Turn-based perfection with a bit too many dice rolls

Combat in Tokyo Mirage Sessions feels like a J-Pop concert. The battle arena is even a stage and comes with a crowd that cheers you on frenetically. Combat animations are as flashy as it gets and it creates a wonderfully energetic feeling.
Just like in the Persona series, your main goal in combat is to exploit enemy weaknesses. The only difference here is the name change for the 4 types of physical damage. Instead of the rather vague bash, pierce etc. you get the weapon types from the Fire Emblem series together with its rock, paper, scissor gameplay (e.g. swords beat axes). This is much more intuitive since you can see your enemies wearing weapons and you can make an educated guess about their weaknesses.
Once you hit a weak spot, you initiate something that is called a "Session". Other characters with the appropriate passive skills will join your attack and deliver some free hits to the enemy. Later in the game this can get pretty ridiculous with Session hit counts of 15+. Of course, it means that you spend much time passively watching your characters pummel the enemy opposition. This has been a major point of criticism but for me it didn´t get old because of the nice animations and the chance to get additional goodies and skill points during Sessions. The option to speed them up a bit would still be welcome if they plan to do a sequel.

Touma from Tokyo Mirage doing a Session attack.
Session attacks are your bread and butter in combat.

Exploit enemy weaknesses and get 15 additional attacks? Sounds like a lot of damage in a single attack! And that is true. Like all Persona games, the nature of combat is very bursty. Especially since the enemies can also perform sessions, going from 100% health to almost dead in a single attack is no rare sight. This will keep you on your toes as a single wrongly prioritized action can have dire consequences. That is also a reason why Sessions remain exciting: you constantly think about whether the remaining attacks will be enough to finish the enemy. And once you realize it won´t be enough, you know that punishment is imminent.
To shake things up a bit, your characters will learn powerful Special Performances. Each character gets his own set with a huge variety of effects and powers. They can turn around a seemingly lost battle but their use is restricted as the special energy slowly builds up during combat.
Then there are the so called Ad-lib Performances and Duo Performances like this one:

Kiria from Toky Mirage Sessions performing an Ad-lib
Saved my sorry ass many times.

These can randomly trigger from your conventional actions and provide you with significant advantages. I can understand that these things keep combat fresh and engaging since you never know when one of them activates. But I dislike so much randomness in my combat since it takes away from the feeling that I outwitted my enemy. It also leads to a notable difficulty spike in chapter 2 where you simply lack other powerful means to keep your enemies in control. Curious to see the combat system in action? Why not check out my combat demonstration video:

3. Character growth: Learn from your weapons

Level ups and attribute growth are done automatically without input from your side. There is also an alternate level system called Stage Ranks. Each Stage Rank will give you access to new passive skills for that specific character and also unlock side-stories that will lead to unique new skills (Special Performances or Ad-libs). It helps greatly in diversifying your characters because when they start out there is little diffrence between them besides their elemental affinities.
Then there are your weapons. Each weapon holds a few skills (passive or active) that you will learn while you use the weapon in combat. Every character has a limited amount of slots where you can fit in these skills so you have to choose carefully which skills are the most beneficial. Learning a skill you already have will also allow you to upgrade that skill. For example, the spell cost of a healing spell may get reduced. As you might expect, crafting weapons with desired skills is a major factor in strengthening your characters.

Equipment selection for Itsuki in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
An ample weapon selection, available skills are listed in the bottom left.

It also completely replaces the demon fusing concept from the Persona / Shin Megami series. And I honestly like that since the system has been overused in the past. It may mean that your main character has to contend with a handful of weapons instead of hundreds of different demons, but what the main character lost in versatility was instead added to the other characters. They get their own array of weapons and skills instead of the fixed sequence in the Persona series. And since inactive party members eventually learn to participate in Sessions, you are encouraged to keep the whole cast in good fighting shape.

Menu screen from Tokyo Mirage Sessions
The most beautiful menu screen ever.

Character growth starts out pretty shallow but the game adds new features at a comforting pace (hint for Fire Emblem fans: class change is in here) and it even manages to keep this up to the very end of the game. At no time I had the feeling that the added features broke the balance (maybe a bit in chapter 2) because the enemies would soon catch up to my newfound powers. This delicate balance is by no means an easy feat for a game that takes roughly 70 hours to beat.

4. Exploration: Entertaining side-stories, good dungeon design

Well, there are side-quests in this game but they are forgettable and mundane. Luckily, the rewards are also forgettable so I accepted them but never went out of my way to complete them.
The side-stories play in a different league. A side-story revolves around one of your party members and will offer you some insight into their background and you will witness their personal growth. Sometimes you are even treated with anime clips that are reminiscent of music videos. Rewards include new powerful attacks that open up new opportunities in battle. While the tasks during side-stories remain a bit uninspired, it is clearly seen that a lot of effort went into the dialogues and rewards. The videos alone are a strong motivation to tackle these side-stories.

Side-story from Mamori in Tokyo Mirage Sessions
The events that unfold during side-stories are an interesting watch.

You will only visit a few small places in real-world Tokyo. Most of the action takes place in the Idolaspheres which are twisted versions of Tokyo and they act as the dungeons of this game. The dungeons have seen a major improvement over the previous Persona games. Instead of a random assortment of corridors and rooms, you get distinctly designed and cleverly structured dungeons with small puzzle elements. The enemy encounters are easily avoided so navigating the puzzles is not a pain in the ass.

Dungeon from Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Shibuya)
You may not believe it, but there is a method to this madness.


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Useful links:

Official Site
Wikipedia entry for Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE 

1 comment:

  1. I have had this game for almost two months, and I've still yet to play it! I guess I got it for free, so I can't really feel bad about wasting money, but I really need to sit down and give it a go. Nice post!

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