Every time I say the Wii U is toast, Nintendo localizes another strange, amazing game for it that makes me wish it would stick around just a little longer. Last year’s Xenoblade Chronicles X was absolutely fantastic and absolutely exclusive to a system that few people own and fewer expect to remain on the market. This year we’ve got Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, a crossover between Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei from Atlus (and published by Nintendo) that’s exclusive to the Wii U.
It’s amazing and, sadly, not likely to get the kind of attention it deserves…but it’s here, and if you own a Wii U and love JRPGs, you’re going to want to check it out.
If you’re familiar with the Persona series, you might have an idea of what you’re in for here. In this case, though, rather than calling on historical and mythological figures, your characters summon Mirages, represented by iconic characters from the Fire Emblem franchise. Yes, it’s kind of weird, but it works; the SMT-style redesigns those characters receive certainly don’t hurt either, helping them fit into an aesthetic that’s drastically different from their home series. Other Fire Emblem staples show up as cameos and boss battles throughout the game. It’s a bizarre choice of crossovers but it’s one that works, and familiarity with either side of the crossover will result in catching plenty of in-jokes and references.
Battles borrow from Shin Megami Tensei side, with a strong focus on learning and exploiting enemy weaknesses while finding ways to cover for your own. The gimmick here is that striking an enemy weakness will open them up to Session attacks from your other party members, essentially freebie strikes. These Session attacks can link between one another, leading to further freebies and extensive chain combos. Sessions are so important that long combos even earn you money and item rewards, so setting up and executing effective Session combos is vital to success. The system is further complicated by attacks that can Session enemies based on their type rather than weaknesses, a nod to the game’s Fire Emblem side that, for example, allows spearmen to Session cavalry without being concerned about the elements at play.
This is an SMT game, of course, so the difficulty is no joke. You’ve got a regenerating meter that allows you to active super moves known as Special Performances, and these are best saved for the most difficult battles. Even with that in mind, grinding your characters’ levels and skills might be enough to get you by most of the time, but bosses and special random encounters will expect a little more in terms of your skill setup and Sessions. Skills can be learned through the weapons you craft and equip, as well as from your Mirages themselves; the latter can even change class as the game progresses. You’ve got a surprising amount of control over your heroes’ development that’s not immediately obvious at first, but as you play the game opens up and also ramps up the challenge. By the time you’re able to effectively use a game system, you can bet that you’re going to need it.
The gameplay here is solid, but in the end it’s almost a side attraction to the game’s unique aesthetic and presentation. As it turns out, this long-awaited collaboration between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem is all about…idols? Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ theme revolves around Japanese performing arts culture; your hero, Itsuki, essentially takes a back seat to his friend Tsubasa’s journey to become an idol, and another friend Touma wants to become the next sentai hero. Later party members even include an established idol singer. It’s unlike pretty much anything else out there, but the focus on fashion and performance fits nicely with the Shin Megami Tensei series.
This extends to every aspect of the game. Tokyo Mirage Sessions owns its weirdness and completely immerses the player in it. Weapon and skill crafting is done using Performa, essentially the crystallized essence of the creative spark, and it’s explained that one’s mastery of the performing arts is directly correlated to the power of one’s Mirage. Dungeons include film sets, fashion malls and other showbiz-themed locales. Characters are referred to as “cast members,” you equip them via the “wardrobe,” and attacks in battle are presented as track names with the character performing the attack listed as the “artist.” Even the menu looks like an album cover that gradually expands as you progress through the story. The story presents an interesting Eastern take on what it means to be a performer, a view that you’re just not going to get in the West most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to this kind of thing. It’s a fascinating look at a business that’s practically unheard of here in the West, so much so even the game’s more realistic nods at idol culture can seem completely alien. It just begs the question as to why this game was localized at all; it’s a fantastic game and has reviewed extremely well, but it’s also a JRPG (strike one) with an extremely niche plot (strike two) that’s exclusive to a console that sold poorly and is unquestionably on its way out (strike three). I’ve never claimed to understand Nintendo’s business decisions, but the localization of games like this and Xenoblade Chronicles X make even less sense than usual. Is someone over there familiar with how great these things are, so they’re being localized based on quality? Who knows?
Regardless, it’s here and it looks and plays great. This is one of the best looking games on the Wii U thanks to its timeless anime art style. Characters’ facial expressions can dip a little far into the uncanny valley at times, but that’s a minor quibble at best; the game’s animation in general is stellar, and we’ve seen worse-looking games on much more powerful consoles. Unsurprisingly, sound design and music are excellent as well; one would expect nothing less from a game that’s all about singers, after all. Voice acting insofar as I can tell is solid, but there’s no English voice track so it’s all subs, all the time; this leads to an unfortunate situation where the characters’ lines in battle are left entirely untranslated and unsubtitled, so players without any Japanese experience won’t be able to understand them.
Honestly, if you’re even interested enough in this kind of game to even be reading a review for it, you can’t really go wrong with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. It’s a beautiful game that takes an unusual concept and runs with it; that’s unusual given the risk-averse modern games industry, even for heavy-hitters like Atlus and Nintendo. I doubt it’s going to sell, and I can’t even begin to fathom Nintendo’s intentions in localizing it, but I’m glad it’s here and I’m sure you will be too.