Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
Yeah, I hear you. What the hell kinda title is that for a video game? It's like three nouns and an oddly punctuated acronym all smashed together. Let me see if I cannot assist somewhat in elucidating their obtuse etymology: Tokyo is the capital city of the island nation of Japan, a fictitious emulation of which serves as this game's setting. Mirage is the term the game employs to describe the phantom entities that are invading said setting from an alternate universe, against which it is your task to defend the unwitting citizens of Tokyo. Sessions are special chain attacks triggered in the game's combat system by targeting the physical or elemental weaknesses of an enemy. #FE is a subtle allusion to the game's tie-in with Nintendo's own popular SRPG franchise, Fire Emblem (the # is pronounced "sharp" by the by, as in the diacritic used to indicate the semitonal elevation of a musical note, not "hashtag," as in "Look at me! I'm a goddamned Millennial! The central processing unit in my skull possesses only enough RAM to process information in 140-byte chunks! Uh-derpy-derp-derp-durrrr!"). Put all these completely disparate things together, and what do you get? Turns out, a pretty awesome little JRPG with an awesomely ridiculous name.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions uses the entertainment industry as a backdrop for its story, which makes for a rather original and refreshingly light-hearted take on your usual apocalyptic JRPG plot. The game plays with the idea that all performing arts originated as a form of ancient spiritual ritual—an attempt to invoke the power of gods and spirits through song, dance, and theatrical flourish—and thus, creativity and artistic expression serve as our mortal means of connecting to the realm of the divine. It's a theme that speaks to me: as an insalvable introvert, I may not possess much affinity for the performing arts, but as a person who would like to boast of a certain predilection—and dare I pretend some small amount of inherent aptitude—for creative pursuits, and as someone who has wrestled on more than one occasion with writer's block, I can relate to a tale involving the creative potential of the human spirit (referred to in the game's nomenclature as Performa) being filched away for nefarious purposes by a host of surreptitious demonic entities (the eponymous Mirages).
The game presents a singular aesthetic, with numerous subtle, creative details that constantly contribute to the overall theme of entertainment and show business. The visual setting provided for all combat scenes is a stage surrounded by stadium seating, complete with a cheering throng of spectators and spotlights shining down to indicate which enemy or party member is being targeted by an action. Every character has his or her own wardrobe, the contents of which gradually unlock as each costume is revealed in the unfolding story's cutscenes, and the player is free to use the various outlandish ensembles to customize his party members' appearance in battle. Not unlike the extravagantly cinematic "Summon" spells first popularized in the PS1-era Final Fantasies, the battle animations that accompany some of the more powerful attacks (known as Special Performances) are a blast to watch, filled with some truly inventive song-and-dance routines. But the more basic attack animations are not without their subtle charms as well—I was especially amused by one character's habit of flourishing her mage's staff as if it were a mic stand.
"...as a person who would like to boast of a certain predilection—and dare I pretend some small amount of inherent aptitude—for creative pursuits, and as someone who has wrestled on more than one occasion with writer's block, I can relate to a tale involving the creative potential of the human spirit (referred to in the game's nomenclature as Performa) being filched away for nefarious purposes by a host of surreptitious demonic entities (the eponymous Mirages)."
Outside of battle, the game's fictitious representation of the city of Tokyo pops with a palette of bright candy-colored pastels, which serves to emphasize the more optimistic tone of the story. Sometimes, however, so much optimism has a tendency to verge on the obnoxiously naive, particularly in the messaging of some of the side stories, where the narrative focus narrows to emphasize a specific character's budding career in show business. Motivated by her songstress "oneesan," Ayaha, and the tragedy of her disappearance five years prior, Tsubasa Oribe wants to become a pop-star to inspire joy in people and help them overcome their own personal tragedies, which is certainly a noble enough aspiration. But how exactly is assuming a false flirtatious persona in a commercial designed to sell soft drinks inspiring to anyone? While struggling to find the right tone for her on-screen alter ego, she even says (paraphrasing here, since I cannot recall the exact words, and I'm too lazy to push through several hours of a new playthrough to return to the point in the story in question) that the key is knowing what your audience wants, but making sure not to give it to them completely, while at the same time avoiding any irreparable damage to their delusions of romantic potential. I don't claim to be an expert on what most people consider to be inspiring, but that sounds like a disingenuous manipulation of your audience rather than a heartfelt attempt to enchant and delight. Granted, this was all in the context of her researching a role, and she was not necessarily advocating the use of such "devilish charms" in any real-life situation, but neither did she suffer the least acknowledgment of her character's suspect morality for using them to peddle a stupid can of pop. Despite my appreciation for the game's cheerful themes and corresponding art direction, I sometimes wonder if it would not have played slightly better (at least to my own cynical tastes) as a satire of the entertainment industry, rather than an unironic panegyric.
Personally, as a lifelong Nintendo fan, who has had to deal with the whole "Why doesn't Nintendo make more games with mature themes instead of all that kiddie crap?" debate that has been ongoing since the SNES vs. Sega Genesis days, I feel that there is far too much societal pressure for people to abandon and discredit the simple joys of childlike play as they grow older. So, I could somewhat relate to Kiria's subplot, where she finds her secret fondness for things of a "kawaii" nature at odds with the cool image her pop-star persona is expected to foster. At the same time, I can see how it might be seen as slightly offensive toward women—as if all females must inherently possess an affinity for cute, frilly, "girly" things, and therefore any more tomboyish qualities or interests must merely be parts of a reluctantly manufactured facade. Then again, it might be equally offensive to view Kiria as nothing more than a broad stereotype meant to represent every instance of her gender, rather than an individual with her own unique set of virtues and hang-ups, thus foisting further societal pressure on her already clearly quite conflicted character. (Then yet again, Kiria is an imaginary person, and it's probably not conducive to my mental health to be thinking so hard about all this.)
Putting aside a few highly subjective criticisms of the game's superficial elements, Tokyo Mirage Sessions' gameplay is quite solid. Originally designed to be a pseudo-hybridization of Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei / Persona titles and Intelligent System's Fire Emblem franchise, the influence of the latter is, admittedly, somewhat minimalistic (I'm not quite sure how much of the former is fairly represented either, since I must shamefully admit to never having previously played any of the mainline or spinoff "MegaTen" games). Fire Emblem characters appear as friendly Mirages, but they don't have much of any interesting storyline associated with them compared to the cast of young humans they support; the well-known "leveling up" fanfare from IntSys' strategy series heralds the advancement of your characters in this game as well; and the uplifting Fire Emblem theme music underscores the cinematic scene that plays whenever you successfully forge a new "Unity" (a special bond between one of your human party members and their Mirage familiar that assumes the form of a weapon or passive ability).
At its core, however, Sessions is quite a different beast from what fans of the Fire Emblem franchise—or the entire strategy-RPG sub-genre in general—may be expecting. It is very much a traditional RPG, along the lines of your old-school Dragon Quests, Phantasy Stars, Final Fantasies, and the like. The basic gameplay loop involves the player exploring maze-like dungeons, triggering random encounters with enemies, and engaging in turn-based battles where actions are selected from a series of menus; there is no Chess-like positioning of units on a grid, nor any complex environmental conditions to factor into your strategic decision-making, though that is not to say that the combat is devoid of strategy. The one non-cosmetic contribution the Fire Emblem series has made to Sessions' gameplay is the rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle, where units wielding swords deal more damage to axe-wielders, axe-specialists hold the advantage over lance-bearers, and lancers trump swordsmen. Actually, it probably plays an even bigger part in combat here than it does in Fire Emblem, where it basically just accounts for an extra point of damage or 5% increase to hit percentage being added to the dominant unit. In this game's combat, attacking an enemy with a weapon or magic type to which it is weak triggers a Session Attack, wherein all characters in the player's party chain together multiple blows on a single enemy. EP, the currency used for executing skills (which I believe must stand for Energy Points), are only expended for the attack that triggered the Session, and each character is still allowed to conduct her own action (potentially triggering yet another Session Attack) when her official turn comes up later in the round.
The enemies can trigger their own Sessions also if they target one of your characters' weaknesses, so there's a good deal of defensive strategy to consider as well. To help the player maintain a fluid defense against the shifting stratagems of the enemy, the game allows you to swap party members in the midst of battle. Unfortunately, this ability does not apply to your main protagonist, Itsuki Aoi, who, as the party's leader and closest thing the game has to a Link-like player proxy, must apparently always be involved in the thick of the fray. I completely understand the implementation of this rule with regards to Itsuki's role in the story, as he is supposed to be the meek, affable leader—the unassuming glue that holds everything together and affords the firm foundation necessary to buttress his more ambitious companions' careers. Still, from a practical gameplay perspective, it can be rather frustrating, particularly when encountering a bevy of lance-wielding enemies in a boss fight, as such adversaries will inevitably trigger a Session Attack against Itsuki's weak sword-wielding ass, which will almost invariably decimate him (shameless boast disguised as helpful transparency: I played through the game in "Hard" mode, so it is entirely possible that such enemy Sessions could prove less fatal on a more forgiving difficulty setting). Even without the option to sub out Itsuki for a more advantageous axe-wielding character, however, the player still has other strategic recourse: he can simply concentrate his efforts on eliminating the weakest targets first, thus ensuring that fewer opponents will remain alive to contribute to the next Session; he can stack various evasive and defensive buffs on the party, which will hopefully be enough to activate a successful dodge and interrupt the enemies' chain; and there are even certain items and skills that can completely negate and even reflect the damage dealt by foes for a single round, which can be a godsend during certain phases of the game's more challenging encounters.
The opportunities for devising devastating strategies in combat really begin to open up around mid-game. This is approximately when you will start to acquire skills like "Charge" and "Concentrate," which more than double the effectiveness of not only your character's next attack, but all Session attacks chained to it. Each character will eventually learn the passive Radiant Unity "Open Audition," which allows them to contribute to Sessions even when they are not one of the three currently active party members (or "Main Cast," as the game stylistically dubs them). Also, upon the completion of certain side stories, you begin to unlock Duo Arts, which are super powerful attacks that have a random chance of triggering whenever a normal Session occurs. In addition to dealing enhanced damage and providing bonus effects, like healing the entire party or inflicting a charm debuff on all enemies, many of these Duo Arts trigger an additional Session upon their conclusion, allowing you to dole out eleven or twelve decimating blows in the space of one and, thus, shift the tide of battle dramatically in your favor.
Outside of combat, the player will be spending the majority of her time exploring dungeons, designated in the game's distinct nomenclature as Idolaspheres. These supernatural tears in the seams of our sublunary realm boast a fun, dark, trippy Alice's Adventures in Wonderland vibe. They might not possess quite the same degree of zany wit and charm as, say, the incursions into the fractured psyches of the characters from Double Fine's classic adventure-platformer Psychonauts, but I am a fan of much of Tim Schafer's work, and I always look for every opportunity to show off both my vast knowledge and superior taste in all things gaming-related, so I would like to maintain the aptness of my comparison all the same. Sessions' main story is divided into roughly six to eight chapters (depending on how you choose to tally the various logues, pro and epi), each one playing out in a somewhat predictable, dare I say even formulaic, manner: one of the characters in your "cast" of party members lands a new gig in his or her preferred field of entertainment; something goes awry with a member of the staff involved in this new project, and they become possessed by a Mirage and spirited away into a nearby Idolasphere; Itsuki and his gang must then navigate the twisting passages of this otherworldly labyrinth, contend with the uniquely themed gimmick that defines it puzzles, fight one or two mid-stage bosses, and finally square off against the head Mirage to free the possessed staff member of his curse.
It would be a tad hyperbolic to proclaim that the puzzles in any given Idolasphere are particularly ingenious, but they do well at sticking to their own unique theme. In one early-game dungeon, you must reposition the poses of various gigantic mannequins in order to clamber up their sleeves and reach different heights. In another that reflects the twisted mind of a deranged photographer, numerous cameras loom silently atop their tripods, like some strange species of mechanical cyclops, their vacuous lenses ominously gaping down otherworldly alleyways plastered with photos of random model shoots; you need to stay out of the cameras' line of sight to avoid triggering their flash, or else you'll be zapped back to the beginning of the dungeon. Maybe it's just the fact that my playthrough of Tokyo Mirage Sessions succeeded that of another oddly titled RPG, Bravely Second: End Layer, which, despite boasting a spectacular combat and job system, suffered from just about the most pedestrian ilk of level design an RPG could be bothered to muster—it was basically just one generic maze after another, with only the most minimal interactive elements tossed in to liven things up. Sessions' Idolaspheres, by contrast, boast clever and interesting themes, and their light puzzles engaged just enough of my cerebral cortex to keep me entertained and curious as to what the next dungeon had in store.
I might be remiss if I did not rattle off my laundry list of minor grievances with the game's UI and secondary systems. Aside from marking the position of the quest-giver on your map, the game does not have a dedicated menu for keeping tabs on requests (i.e., side-quests given to the player by random NPCs), so if you allow yourself a couple days' interlude from the game and forget what you are supposed to be doing, you need to physically return to the quest-giver's location to receive a fresh synopsis of your duties. The actual content of the requests can be sort of "fetch-questy" in nature, and by "sort of" I am politely implying their scrupulously exact accordance with the dictionary definition of a fetch quest: you need to find some item an NPC accidentally dropped (indicated in typical JRPG fashion by a generic shiny speck on the ground) or kill X number of Y enemy in one of the Idolaspheres. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise to fans of the genre, however, and I personally never found any particular quest to be too off-puttingly arduous: the combat system is fun enough to make killing random enemies not seem like a chore, and the quest-givers can often be cleverly subtle in the clues they provide for locating their misplaced belongings, requiring you to use your own recollection of the in-game locales to figure out where, for instance, there may be a place that sells magazines, or which Idolasphere contains a storefront entitled "Green Park."
In addition to displaying the stats of your party members in combat and the map of your immediate surroundings, the screen on the Wii U Gamepad is used to mimic the function of Itsuki's smartphone, which primarily serves as a social networking device to communicate with his companions. The messages posted here are meant to serve as a written record of your progress in the story, so that if you forget where you need to go next to achieve your current mission, you can simply scroll through the post history on your Gamepad to retrieve your bearings. Sometimes, however—usually after the achievement of a crucial milestone in your currently assigned task—your party members will wish to apprise you of their feelings regarding that last intense boss fight (complete with accompanying sticker emotes to serve as affirmation of their defining character traits), and you will be pestered with a new message nearly every time you transfer to another area or emerge from combat. I suppose I could have simply ignored these frequent pings from party members and continued playing, but I have certain obsessive compulsive tendencies that it seems the RPG genre bears no scruples against exacerbating, and after a while, reading the two or three lines of dialogue contained in each message felt more like clearing spam from my inbox than an enjoyable insight into my virtual companions' quirky personalities.
But like my objections to certain aspects of the game's story, these are minor, mostly superficial criticisms, for which the core systems of the game—its stylish, highly strategic combat and cleverly designed dungeons—afford more than adequate compensation. It was always going to be a niche game within a niche genre, regardless of the additional insurance provided by its inexplicably obtuse title, but unlike said title, Sessions' intrinsic appeal should be instantly apprehensible to any fan of JRPGs.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a good, quintessential turn-based JRPG. Aside from Xenoblade Chronicles X, which is really more a product of Western-style open-world game design married to an MMO-inspired real-time combat system, the RPG genre is not particularly well-represented on Nintendo's home console, so if you own a Wii U and are a fan of the genre, you probably do not need my recommendation to pick this one up. But you're getting it anyway—so there!
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!