If there’s one viewpoint which has been shared by many in anticipation of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE’s European launch this week, it’s that the game’s genre is mysterious. Is it an RPG, some ask? An adventure? Even suggestions that it’s of the rhythm genre has been given plausible backing; after all, that # in the title is indeed a sharp (of the musical note kind).
In truth, this is an RPG with a heck of a lot of story text to cycle through and animations to sit through. There’s a lot of three-person battling techniques to master, and a lot of experience points and other levels to build. It would be fair to say that TMS #FE’s style can’t be neatly categorised under one particular genre, but that is unlikely to help it appeal to anyone beyond the usual JRPG gang. It doesn’t play much like Fire Emblem, that’s for sure – developers Atlus have largely stuck to what they know best. To be honest, it is a bit of a shame that more hasn’t been made of the Fire Emblem tie-in.
It takes a good half an hour minimum to get through the opening prologue, and of that time, about twenty minutes is spent sifting through loads of dialogue, with very, very short playable bits where you can take three steps forward before the next cut-scene or dialogue essay kicks in. It’s not really the speedy start that you’d be looking for if you were being introduced to the series, or to JRPGs, for the first time. That’s something which continues beyond the early stages, too – there are plenty of sections where you’ll feel compelled to hold down the X button to fast-forward text which could take as long as five minutes to sift through otherwise.
The normal difficulty setting does the bare minimum by way of helping you along, which really isn’t what you’re looking for when the game tells you that it’s the ideal mode for beginners. Getting through the prologue is simple enough, but as soon as you reach the opening dungeon, you’ll be dying left, right and centre. There’s just nowhere near enough tutorial to get you through the details of special attacks and to explain Performa and type advantages – you have to chance your luck over and over before you strike gold on the winning tactics. A big advantage, then, to be familiar with Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei.
There are a lot of stats to stay on top of here - a cast member’s Stage Rank increases the more they participate in combat, plus you can perform longer Session (combo attacks which see characters with similar abilities strike one after the other for much heavier damage) chains, and over time new Performa will be born within them. Still with us? You needn’t worry – in the game’s two easiest difficulty settings, all of this is present, but you only really need to worry about your HP running out. Each of the three lead characters – Itsuki, Tsubasa and Touma – has their own partner mirage (the Fire Emblem bit), lending a hand with attacks in combat. The issue here is that enemies can also perform Sessions of their own, which can be bloody frustrating when you’re getting constantly bludgeoned by an already-superior opponent and you haven’t saved your progress before the battle. Yes – saving is crucial in this game; while you can save at any time, it’s a bit of a chore to constantly do so, and you can quite easily get beaten if you make any wrong moves in battle as early as the first dungeon.
It’s a shame that the ins and outs of the gameplay are so dense and obtuse to novices, because the story starts at a quick pace and gets you on board once you’re through with the slightly-tedious opening. There’s a gauge bar at the top of the battle screen which is never really explained, and you’ll have to spend some time on the internet working out just what everything is supposed to do before you can truly get stuck in to the meat of the gameplay. It would be a lot more difficult to come into this with no prior experience of Fire Emblem or Shin Megami Tensei, but sticking with it on the easier modes is just about likely to pay off. Using items in battles is only really needed for healing or reviving members of your party, or to restore a character’s EP, and that’s all that most players are going to be worrying about anyway – but spending most of some boss battles spamming healing moves does get tedious after a short amount of time.
Once you get the hang of timing a push of the X button to avoid a battle, navigating the dungeons is pretty smooth, if sometimes a little repetitive. There’s a number of puzzles which take some thinking about as you look to progress, with switches opening up new areas and closing others. You really have to think about the area as a whole in order to know which switch will get you where you need to be, but these puzzles aren’t so difficult that they’d put you off.
Visually, it’s spectacular, particularly in the anime cutscenes. TMS has a striking colour scheme and a unique art style, with all the colours of the rainbow used to fill in silhouettes and make areas seem busy. It works, and it definitely looks fresh and vibrant. The music is bright and in-keeping with the genre, as you’d expect, and it’s great – all voiceovers in the game remain in Japanese with added English subtitles, but the songs especially will stick in your head. The song Reincarnation is a highlight, and as the Fortissimo Special Edition of the game comes with a soundtrack CD, you’ve made a good decision in bettering your experience if you plumped for the now sold-out pre-order that hit the Nintendo store a number of months ago.
The gamepad use is neat, if a little underused. In your hands you’ll have what is basically a mobile phone, exchanging messages with the other characters which point you along in the direction that you need to go. Messages are divided up into those associated with the main story and those with sub-stories, with intermittent messages from certain characters popping through if you dawdle for too long. The side-quests can lead to new abilities if you persevere. Itsuki sometimes gets dialogue options, but they all tend to lead in the same direction, and don’t particularly affect the story or gameplay. There’s also a map function here, but this isn’t particularly useful – there’s no objective marker on it, and you can’t use it to warp; warping can only be done by reaching the far ends of any open area or the entrances of dungeons.
It’s a minor annoyance that there’s no Gamepad-only play. There aren’t too many Wii U games which aren’t willing to ditch the TV, and given that the Gamepad-to-TV interaction doesn’t ever require both to do different things at once, it feels like a missed opportunity that the Gamepad hasn’t been trusted to handle the lot.
Now, we cannot possibly go through this whole review without passing over the much-talked-about localisation issues which have appalled European and American gamers alike. Characters’ ages have been raised to make some topics and costumes more suitable for a Western audience – three characters have gone from seventeen to eighteen years old, and their lines have even been redubbed in order to facilitate this. Of course, this has been done to stop anyone of accusing the developers of over-sexualising underage characters, and this is by no means a slight on the game. But the changes don’t stop there – character designs have been altered to cover up skin in places where there was a lot on show.
Why is this necessary, when the characters are of an adult age? Should this wouldn’t be a key issue for the Western player, especially considering that the core audience for the game would be a fan of Japanese anime in general and would therefore have an expectation that they should be getting a game as close as possible to the original? It can’t be explained, other than by being placed in the overly-PC category, but you really have to wonder what the real need for all that extra time in the developers’ office. Bikini models are on posters in real-life all over Europe and America – why would their appearance suddenly become offensive in a game? It gets worse – in places, Tsubasa’s UPPER ARMS get covered up. Really? It would be an over exaggeration to say that the game is made worse for this oversensitivity, but it’s something people will pick up on.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE isn’t a game that you’d do yourself an injustice by missing. What it is, though, is a game that does a lot of things right. Design is great in most places - apart from in some of the boss battles – music, animation and character development are all excellent, and battling is done well as far as genre enthusiasts will be concerned. It isn’t a system-seller in the west by any means, but it’s a strong first Wii U effort from Atlus. The storyline and character-building make the game a must for fans of the series involved, but it’s certainly one of the better recent RPGs to be found on a Nintendo console. + Oliver Roderick
Review copy provided by Nintendo
If there’s one viewpoint which has been shared by many in anticipation of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ...