One of the prevailing narratives around the Nintendo Switch is its ability to breathe new life into games which originally gave an underwhelming performance on the Wii U. For many of these ports, their time on the Switch has been far more productive, allowing them to reach a grander audience and drawing a whole new group of excited fans into their worlds. At the time of writing Tokyo Mirage Sessions is the most recent Wii U game to have received this treatment, and I personally wasted no time in jumping into the game. But I had the benefit of having personal connections with people who already experienced the game to help me understand why I wanted to play it – for many, I think the true appeal of what this game is remains hidden behind layers of other things.
When I would search for Tokyo Mirage Sessions online looking for tips on side quests or researching the best methods for farming specific items, the first articles that would bombard me were all about the censorship of the game. Even if you haven’t read specifically about Tokyo Mirage Sessions there’s a chance that you saw the memes about it – I had a moment of surprise when I realized that the infamous “they removed her vagina bones” picture came from this game. Whether you saw only the jokes, only the complaints, or both, chances are good that if you haven’t played the game this negative press is about the only thing you may know about Tokyo Mirage Sessions.
When I first heard about Tokyo Mirage Sessions, I got only certain pieces of information. “It’s a crossover of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei.” Sure, okay, I know what half of that means. “It’s set in modern times and has a story focused around Japanese pop idol culture.” Wow, a thing I am totally unfamiliar with and honestly would not be that interested in, cool. The information I received about the game from the world at large wasn’t the information I needed to hear in order to help me understand that in reality, Tokyo Mirage Sessions was a game that would be right up my alley. I didn’t know that while the crossover was technically inspired by Shin Megami Tensei, the game actually took more cues from the Persona series. I didn’t know that the gameplay featured dungeons with unique puzzle mechanics or that there was a focus on developing friendships with the characters in your party. Tokyo Mirage Sessions turned out to be very much my type of game, and I think that statement could be true for quite a few RPG fans if a different set of words were used to talk about the game. That’s my goal today – to share with you an article that gets past surface layer marketing as well as the backlash of a partial cross-section of the fanbase to look at what Tokyo Mirage Sessions really and truly has to offer.
Let’s dig into some of the comparisons first. What does it mean to say that Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a crossover of Fire Emblem and Persona? The basic premise of the game is that beings from another world – called Mirages – begin to appear in Japan with the purpose of stealing artistic potential from human beings. Called Performa, this energy encapsulates the talent used to sing, act, dance, cook, and in general just create things. Since their inception humans have used the arts to communicate with gods or spirits; it is this untapped spiritual power that the Mirages seek. A group of kids at a pop idol audition get caught up in the mess and when the dust settles, they join an entertainment company whose secret purpose is to investigate and stop Mirage-related disasters. The Fire Emblem influence comes in with the game’s Mirages – the Mirages that accompany the main cast of characters as well as those that serve as boss enemies are characters from Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon. Where Persona draws its mythos from literary legends, the common source material behind Tokyo Mirage Sessions is the universe of Fire Emblem.
Structurally, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is broken into six chapters, a prologue and epilogue, and intermissions between the core chapters of the game. During a chapter your group of heroes will learn about a mirage threat, investigate the Idolosphere where the threat manifested (this is essentially a lengthy dungeon), and defeat the threat in a boss battle. Intermissions are a time when there are no main story events going on, giving you the perfect opportunity to focus on side missions relating to the various characters in your party. This structure has great built-in stopping points for taking short breaks after a major event, and having a designated time for side content versus main story creates a pacing that keeps you involved in a variety of different tasks, never engaging one aspect of the game for too long of a time.
So what is gameplay like in Tokyo Mirage Sessions? Like most turn-based RPGs there are two distinct phases of play: overworld exploration and combat. In the overworld you walk around as protagonist Itsuki Aoi, where you speak with other characters as well as interact with elements in the environment. But even the overworld itself has distinct differences between exploring Tokyo and exploring the Idolosphere. Tokyo is a series of distinct locations connected by a world map where you can interact with NPCs to complete quests as well as buying items. A character with a request with have a marker above them to show that they want something from you. Doing what they ask you could involve anything from bringing a certain item to finding a missing person to accomplishing a specific task in the Idolosphere. Completing these requests nets you small rewards like consumable items, making them a diversion that you can engage as much or as little as you wish.
While Tokyo is a safe environment to explore and there are no environmental puzzles stopping your progress, the Idolosphere functions as a series of unique dungeons. I say unique because each dungeon has its own set of mechanisms around which the puzzles are based. One early game dungeon has a series of large dresses on mannequins where Itsuki can crawl through the arms of the dress as a sort of makeshift tunnel. There are various points in the environment where you can shift the lights in a storefront to emphasize a different mannequin pose, altering the positions of the giant dresses so that Itsuki can crawl through to different places. Another Idolosphere is a music venue, classical Japanese architecture by a beautiful pond where you have to assist the director with various tasks to prepare for the concert. Learning to navigate each environment and solving the puzzles there is part of the thrill of the game, and there are achievements for fully mapping and completely looting each Idolosphere. But be wary, because it is in the Idolosphere that enemy Mirages can attack you. If you see a floating cloaked figure, a press of the X button will swing Itsuki’s sword to stun the enemy. Making contact with a monster stunned in this way increases the chances of a surprise attack against the enemy. If instead the enemy gets the jump on you, you’ll jump right into the heat of battle with no advantages.
Combat in Tokyo Mirage Sessions takes place on a stage where up to three of your characters face off against a party of enemy Mirages. Combat is turn-based using the speed stat of each unit on the field to determine turn order. The order is displayed at the top of the screen so you can see when each of your characters will act as well as when the enemy units will act both for the current round and for the round about to follow. On your turn, characters can make a basic attack with their weapon, use a skill, use an item, take a defensive position, switch out with another character, or try to flee the battle. Offensive skills in the game all have an affinity with one of eleven different elements. If you hit your target with an element that they are weak to, your allies will jump in for an attack called a “session” which is essentially a large combo of free attacks from the other characters in your party. Hitting weak points to trigger sessions is the core combat element of Tokyo Mirage Sessions – the more your allies can pummel an enemy with extra attacks, the quicker you win the battle. Plus, every hit in a session after the second grants a small reward like money or a crafting item, making long sessions the most effective way to get money and materials for your party.
“Wait, did you say crafting?” Sure did, adventurers! Combat has a simple premise but there are lots of skills that your characters can bring to bear, and you learn those skills by bringing Performa found during exploration and combat to your base in order to perform “unity.” There are two types of unity: carnage and radiant. Carnage unity focuses on your Mirage allies and gives them new weapon forms they can transform in to. Each weapon form teaches different skills to your characters as you practice with the weapon and learn what it has to teach. Weapons get experience when you use them in battle, so the best way to learn new skills for your character is to make lots of new weapons and master them all through repeated battles. Radiant unity focuses on the human half of the Mirage-master relationship and unlock useful passive abilities or field skills.
So then, exploring an Idolosphere will generally go something like this. You find out about a Mirage disaster and begin the dungeon. As you explore, you’re picking up new performa that will unlock possibilities for carnage unity. When you reach a meaningful checkpoint in the dungeon, you take the opportunity to return to your base and make all the new carnage you unlocked. You then return to the dungeon and explore deeper, mastering the new carnage to unlock new skills for your characters to use in combat. You’ll continue this pattern throughout the dungeon, making it deeper and deeper inside with small delves and then leaving to spend your rewards on upgrading your characters before returning to push farther with your newfound abilities. It’s a simple but satisfying structure, one that allows you to slowly work your way through a dungeon while growing your abilities until you finally beat the boss and bring the chapter to an end.
Once a chapter closes, the intermission begins. It is during this time that the requests you didn’t complete during the story mission – or new side missions that weren’t unlocked at the time – can become your core focus. The requests or side missions may require you to make short trips into different Idolospheres, but these will be locations you have explored already and so can navigate more quickly thanks to warp points and an experienced understanding of how the puzzles work. Side missions are special because they focus on a specific character in your party and reveal to you more about that character’s personality and history. Each character has multiple side stories that all build up into one coherent narrative that you experience with that person over the course of the game. For each side story segment you complete, you get a reward with that character, generally an ad-lib skill that can activate randomly during battle or perhaps a duo skill they can use with another cast member that gets involved in the story. Both Persona and Fire Emblem feature systems which mechanize your friendships with other characters – Tokyo Mirage Sessions honors that through its side stories, but also goes about it in a way that has a unique flavor for this game.
Flavor is so key when discussing Tokyo Mirage Sessions because the game has a distinct style and tone. The pop idol setting creates a world that is stylish and dramatic, endearing in its genuine dedication to positivity and hope. There will be some players – particularly those with very western sensibilities which demand a sort of dispassionate coolness and cynicism – who might find Tokyo Mirage Sessions to be “cringey” in its unwavering dedication to characters who are striving so passionately for their goals. Make no mistake, there is no nuance or complexity to the story of Tokyo Mirage Sessions. You will not be sidelined by a brilliant plot twist, or particularly interested in the generic motivations of a copy-pasted Fire Emblem antagonist. But if you take a moment to set aside how “edgy” and “mature” you are and to recognize that these characters are kids – for whom every desire has impossibly high stakes and urgency – then you find in this game a story about determination and perseverance in the face of seemingly unstoppable adversity. It’s campy and over-the-top but dammit it’s fun, and it feels great to step away from a game that put a smile on my face instead of making me shake my head at the depravity or hopelessness of humanity.
These themes come through most strongly during the game’s musical performances. As a title about the spiritual power of performance that’s focused around a group of aspiring idols, of course you can anticipate some music videos as part of your experience. For folks who play games for sensation – sensory satisfaction through strong visuals, great music, or satisfying tactile feedback – these sequences will likely be right up your alley. From the sensational costumes to the choreographed dances to the catchy vocals, there’s a lot to love about the musical numbers if you’re a fan of pop music as a genre. Now if you’re like me and generally don’t care for pop songs, you’ll be glad to know that the rest of the game’s music is more likely to tickle your fancy and the pop scenes – while certainly significant – don’t dominate the entire game. If you consider that a music video is generally going to be between 1-2 minutes and that there are maybe like ten of them across a sixty hour game…I really wouldn’t let a dislike of pop turn you off to Tokyo Mirage Sessions. I scoff at pop music with the best of them and still found so much to love about the game.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions has been described as a lot of things, but when you boil it down to its core essentials, it is a hopeful and wholesome RPG with exciting combat and fun puzzle-dungeons. If you’re a player who enjoys mastering the mechanisms of a complex skill system, investigating every nook and cranny of a dungeon, and watching the interactions of a group of young characters trying to make their mark on the world, there is a lot to love in Tokyo Mirage Sessions. If you’ve never taken the game seriously before and anything in this review resonated with you, I would encourage you to give the game a try. You may very well be surprised by what it has to offer!