When Nintendo first announced that they would be collaborating with ATLUS on a crossover of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei, I felt uneasy. I love the Fire Emblem series, of course, but I had never played SMT. My experience with ATLUS titles was limited in the sense that I bounced off of every game I tried by them; I found them all to be obtuse and disappointing. My hope was that the game would be a Fire Emblem title in all but name. When the game was revealed to have the Fire Emblem characters as little more than the spirits supporting a cast of original characters in a setting focused around Japenese pop, I was livid. (it didn’t really matter if I was livid or not because I didn’t own a Wii U anyway, but HoW dArE aTlUs RuIn mY fAvOrItE FrAnChIse.) I wished that no such collaboration would happen ever again and swore that if I ever got a Wii U, I would stay far away from this game.
Then I discovered Persona.
While I didn’t play Persona 5 myself, I watched one of my favorite content creators stream the game and break it down from the perspective of someone educated about game design. I was immediately taken in by the fantastic style and presentation of the game, the catchy tunes and the brilliant colors that brought the world to life. Most ATLUS games I had tried out myself introduced too much too fast and didn’t give you enough information about the mechanical tools of the game. Persona didn’t seem to suffer from this problem but it still offered a complex roleplaying game experience with battles focused around cleverly managing elemental weaknesses and changing fighting styles to suit the situation. The next time I saw mention of Tokyo Mirage Sessions, it hit me that ATLUS had taken a lot more cues from Persona than from SMT when designing the game and that was enough to get me interested. It certainly helped that everyone I heard talk about the game had nothing but good things to say about it.
With the title porting to the Switch featuring new content, this seemed like the perfect time to scoop up the game and finally experience it for myself. This first impressions article is based on roughly two hours of play, which was enough for me to navigate the game’s introductory dungeon, experience a single boss battle, and meet a new character who unlocked a key piece of the game’s character progression system. My thoughts will be focused primarily on the combat system, the story concept and characters, and the incorporation of Fire Emblem elements into the game.
Let’s start with the concept of the game. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is set in the Japanese city of Tokyo (whoa) where, five years prior to the events of the game, a massive disappearance took place at an opera. Everyone in the audience and onstage disappeared with the exception of one young girl, the sister of the female lead in the production. That girl is Tsubasa Oribe, who is now a high school student interested in becoming an idol to bring happiness to those who are suffering. You play as Itsuki Aoi, who not only is one half of the championship team from the 2019 Blogger Blitz (shoutout to pix1001 at Shoot the Rookie) but is also best friends with Tsubasa. As her emotional rock, Itsuki supported her through her sister’s disappearance and continues to support her as horrifying monsters appear out of a magical rift and kidnap her after sucking the life force out of everyone in the auditorium at her audition. You know, typical Tuesday in Tokyo.
Turns out that the world is in danger from mysterious forces called Mirages, which are beings of an unknown origin who threaten to steal Performa from human beings. Performa is the artistic potential of a person and, on a grander scale, it represents how the arts connect us to a greater spiritual power. Mirages want that spiritual power and it’s easy for them to take it because humans have no means to stop them. Only Mirages can defeat Mirages, so humans fight back with the help of human Mirage Masters who can command Mirages to do their bidding. Itsuki and Tsubasa both turn out to be Masters, and together they join an entertainment company that operates as a front for a group of Masters determined to find the truth behind the mass disappearances and save Tokyo from disaster.
While the premise isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, the emphasis on J-Pop culture which serves as the backdrop for the story brings a unique element to the game that helps the plot to feel fresh. That aesthetic influences every aspect of the game and Tokyo Mirage Sessions carries that charm in every menu, every battle, and every conversation. Style is the name of the game here and every aesthetic choice feels very intentional and very fun. The characters are your classic tropes but they are acted impeccably (the game is fully voiced in Japanese with English subtitles) and skillfully animated in ways that convey colorful personalities. Tsubasa in particular has a lot of character as she is as awkward as she is earnest. And of course two hours in there are already implications of a romantic connection between the leading man and the leading lady, a connection which is blatantly obvious to everyone but Itsuki. A trope? Absolutely. Am I eating it up? Absolutely.
The #FE part of the game’s title is a reference to the inspiration that the game takes from Fire Emblem, and while Tokyo Mirage Sessions is very much its own game that can be appreciated by those with no knowledge of the series, knowing your Fire Emblem lore really brings an extra layer of appreciation to the game. So far the game seems to be referencing two particular Fire Emblem titles: the original and Awakening. I’m not sure if that will continue to hold true throughout. For me, all of these characters are familiar, so seeing Caeda mostly looking like herself but Chrom looking like the edgy remake version of himself is an interesting experience. The actual classes of the FE characters are referenced in their descriptions but they don’t necessarily influence the stats of the characters as significantly as they would in a typical Fire Emblem game. Tsubasa, for example, is not significantly faster than everyone else despite fusing with the Pegasus Knight Caeda, and Itsuki has magical abilities in his repertoire despite Chrom (and lords in general) being wholly ungifted with magic. The inspiration seems to focus more on weapon choice and aesthetic, and the fused forms of the characters (called “carnage forms,” for some reason) are fun re-imaginings of what the characters are like in their original game. Cain riding a motorcycle designed vaguely to look like a horse, for example, is totally perfect.
A few Fire Emblem touches are incorporated into the game’s mechanisms in the form of stats and elemental abilities. The core statistics that make up characters in their carnage form are strength, magic, skill, speed, defense, and resistance. These largely function similarly to the FE counterparts although speed now has more to do with turn order than it does the number of attacks you execute, making it a bit less useful than it is in the world of Fire Emblem. Each character has a primary weapon that’s aligned with one of the core FE weapons: sword, lance, or axe. These don’t necessarily function as a rock-paper-scissors style triangle as in other games in the Fire Emblem series, but they are key pieces of the game’s weakness system. The other elements that characters can bring to bear – things like fire, wind, and lightning – are all anima spells in the world of Fire Emblem.
Perhaps my favorite element of Fire Emblem to see worked into the game are the sounds. Fire Emblem is a series with plenty of solid music to enjoy, and hearing some familiar melodies remixed for a modern Japan is a fun aspect of this game. I also enjoy the small touches like hearing the same sound effect for level up bonuses that they use in Awakening. While I don’t know if they used the same voice actors for the FE cast and wouldn’t recognize them if they did, the characters are still written in a way that is true to their portrayal in previous titles. Literally the first word out of Chrom’s mouth when he awakens as a Mirage is “gods!” and that moment earned a big chuckle from me when it came about. I’m excited to see more familiar characters come into play and to see how they are portrayed.
Mechanically, Tokyo Mirage Sessions takes a lot of cues from how Persona works. During combat a meter at the top of the screen indicates the current turn order so you can plan your moves to a degree. On your character’s turn you can make a basic attack with your equipped weapon, use a skill, use an item, or run away from combat. Your basic attack has an elemental alignment based on the weapon your character wields (sword and lance are two examples from the early game) and hitting an enemy weak to that weapon will deal extra damage. Skills cost energy points to use but are more powerful than basic attacks and may have a different element, or draw on the magic stat instead of the strength stat. The most important aspect of skills, though, is that they create the opportunity to execute what is called a session. Sessions are key to victory in combat – when an ally has a session move that is triggered by your skill and your skill hits a weak point, they’ll break turn order and perform a follow-up attack immediately. If another ally then has a session move triggered by that attack, you’ll get three hits for the price of one. This is the most effective way to quickly capitalize on a foe’s weakness and to build significant damage in a short period of time.
Characters learn different skills based on the current weapon they have equipped. Weapons level up based on actions taken in battle, and when a weapon improves your character learns one of the skills it has to teach. Skills can be active skills like casting a fire spell or using a powerful sword attack; passive skills that give a boost to a stat such as strength; or session skills, which chain off of active skills that allies use in battle. Once a weapon is mastered and has nothing more to teach, it is ideal to switch to a new weapon and begin learning skills from that. New weapons are crafted through what is called the Unity system, which is effectively fusing the essence of enemy Mirages along with loot dropped by those Mirages with your Mirage in order to create a new weapon.
Combat in Tokyo Mirage Sessions feels great. The battles are flashy and fun thanks to the pop idol aesthetic – every fight takes place on a stage with a cheering audience, plenty of screens providing close ups of characters as they act, and flashy explosions as characters take their actions. Session moves in particular make battles flow quickly because you’re essentially getting two attacks in a single turn. It’s no wonder that session is in the title of the game – it is the combat mechanic that I can imagine building my strategy around the most, and it’s the one that is the most fun to execute skillfully. I can see myself choosing weapons based on what sessions they can teach my characters, and I imagine as you progress further in the game that a key element of the strategy is to swap out party members based on whose sessions compliment one another the best in order to form long-running combos.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a game full of spirit and personality in its early hours. The combat system is punchy but still strategic, and it’s easy to see how it will grow more complex over time. The characters are archetypal but well-written and well-acted, and for a Fire Emblem veteran there are lots of small and subtle nods to be appreciated as you experience the game. I’m excited to dive even deeper into the title and I’m so glad that my first impressions of the game way back when were simply the foolish dismissals of a close-minded guy who needed to chill out a little. Tsubasa and her friends have set out with a mission to make the world happy, and I think if the rest of the game stays this strong they’ll have plenty of luck doing just that.