When it was originally announced as Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem in January of 2013 via a Nintendo Direct, the now aforementioned Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE gave fans a different expectation than the finished product. When pictured together, the Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem franchises invoke simple ideas of how the themes or gameplay merged together would be. Most thought that the game would be a strategy RPG in the vein of Fire Emblem with either a grim post-apocalyptic setting like the SMT series, or just characters from both franchises mixed together. Three and a half years later, what ended up hitting store shelves is more of a mashup between Atlus’ other big franchise Persona, any mahou shoujo or magical girl series like Sailor Moon, and a J-Pop idol series ala Love Live! School Idol Project.
The drastic change from initial fan reaction to what the game actually was spurned some controversy amongst fans of both Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem. On the surface it can be seen why. It resembles an Atlus RPG in terms of mechanics and there are characters from Fire Emblem mixed in as Mirages, characters that grant powers to others and allow them to transform as Mirage Masters, but the game is a different beast than the original franchises it was based off of. It is also what makes the game great because it is not specifically just another game from either franchise and is its own entity entirely.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is first and foremost, fun. The battle mechanics are some of the best Atlus has done to date in a RPG. Despite only utilizing a three person party system with seven total playable characters, it is easy to utilize every character and their strengths to your advantage. As the game progresses, the player will gain the ability for out of combat characters to utilize follow up attacks when an enemy’s weakness is exploited and can also chain these together six times in one turn or longer if a special Session Attack is used as well which can extend the combo of follow up attacks. It is also very easy to switch between characters in the middle of battle and this can also be done as many times as needed in a single turn. The concept is similar to switching Personas in the later Persona games, but does not penalize you if you bring in a character that cannot help you. Having characters able to switch on the fly also makes keeping everyone at a similar level not as daunting of a task as in other RPGs. Tokyo Mirage Sessions makes the concept of grinding fun, which is certainly not an easy feat to accomplish.
While the main story of Tokyo Mirage Sessions is fine by itself, where it shines is when it dives into the characterization of each main character. The main protagonist Itsuki is better than your average silent protagonist, given he speaks, but he is mostly there to elevate the rest of the cast so they can be their brightest self. Each side story that the game provides for the members of Fortuna Entertainment deal not only with typical tropes such as the tough character who really likes cute things or rich person who has no idea how to deal with society, but also legitimate social issues. One side story sees Itsuki helping Tsubasa to try and work through her social anxiety in order to become a better idol. The solution to the problem leaves a lot to be desired since it is certainly not an easy solution to get rid of social anxiety, but it is rad that a game would actually address the problem as it is a legitimate one that people have. Another that deals more with Japanese culture that I found to be the most surprising was the side story featuring Eleonora. Eleonora is a half-white actress who is just starting to breakout in the Japanese television scene. One of her first side stories sees her talking to Itsuki about the uneasiness she feels when people look at her as either a freak show or put her on a pedestal due to her mixed racial features. Here is an actual social issue that is prevalent in Japanese culture being discussed in a game that is very Japanese in nature. It was certainly not at all what I would have expected from the game, but I am pleasantly surprised and glad Atlus went ahead and addressed it.
Given the way that the game celebrates and pushes how Japanese it is, there is no surprise that it eventually led to controversy in the run up to release. Localization of games coming over from Japan has been the subject of much debate over the past year. Whether or not these changes are worthwhile or problematic is another conversation, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions did see various changes in the localization of the game. Now, let’s be clear. Localizing anything from one language to another is immensely challenging. Translating straight from Japanese to English would not work as everything would be too direct or literal. That’s why localizers have the hard job of trying to make sure that everything can remain intact in terms of what the developers wanted, while also giving it enough flavor to keep its charm when being presented in a new language.
The main complaint people had surrounding the localized version was how Atlus changed various costumes to more accommodate the English speaking audience and culture as a whole. Now, is this censorship that outfits or the hot springs DLC were changed or cut? No. In fact, some of these alterations are actually better and fit more in line with how the characters are at a certain point in time. A good friend of mine, Anne, made note in her mini-review of the way the game handles these changes in the English release. “Given Tsubasa’s character, it didn’t make sense for her to debut in a tiny bikini top. The new design for her fit her a lot better, and it was a much cuter outfit. The same situation goes for the photography dungeon. As I understand, it was meant to be a sexy bikini shoot, but the outfit that they have Tsubasa in is my favorite of the game. For me, it was a major improvement to downplay the T&A of the game, as it fit the character and tone better.” She is right. If you play the game, Tsubasa would have not at all been comfortable wearing revealing outfits in her first video or photoshoot given how she acts during these chapters. Pushing fan service outfits onto her just for the sake of letting weirdos get their rocks off betrays everything you are trying to do with her character and the localization actually fixes that and makes the game better as a result.
Another game that I just finished recently was Final Fantasy X-2, the better of the Final Fantasy games with an X on it. Controversial opinions aside, Tokyo Mirage Sessions feels like a game that could have been largely inspired by the 2003 release. Final Fantasy X-2 was unfairly criticized for being the first major sequel in the Final Fantasy franchise, but also for being unabashedly feminine, having J-Pop influences, and the dressphere system which essentially makes the game fall into the mahou shoujo genre. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is not nearly as feminine as X-2 was but still brings forth J-Pop and mahou shoujo together in a mix of styles that works just as well as it did in X-2. The ideas of a game that blends these two genres together is much more accepted in 2016 than it was in 2003 given how much the video game industry has changed. It might be due to being older, but I can certainly appreciate games like X-2 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions more so than when I was 13 in 2003 where I would have written both off as dumb and girly since I did not know any better. Now, it is easy to look at both and think how fun and a great mashup of genres both games are. Perhaps if Final Fantasy X-2 did not exist, Tokyo Mirage Sessions would still exist in some form, but most likely not in how it ended up.
It is certainly worth noting that the soundtrack for Tokyo Mirage Sessions is very catchy. Each character has at least one full song that they perform within the game, given that they are all entertainers minus Itsuki, with each song being fun and enjoyable to listen to outside of the game. The way the songs are used in the actual game usually consists of 90 second anime cutscenes as either music videos or a live performance. They are also used in battle when a character can randomly have the chance to pull off a special attack or when two characters come together to perform a session attack. Each song also just fits how you would expect the characters to perform. Tsubasa’s gradual improvement from run of the mill Pop to making her own style, Kiria has an essence of cool in her songs, and each of the other characters has their style flow into the songs they perform. It is certainly worth seeking out the soundtrack from Japan that features all of the character performed songs as they will certainly be stuck in your head after playing.
2016 has been a good year for games to come out and surprise. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is yet another great example of this trend. The game may not have been what fans had initially hoped for, but I am much more pleased with the outcome. Considering that the Wii U is on its last legs with the NX or whatever that will end up being called coming out next year, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a great final hurrah to an underrated system and one of the best games you can pick up for the Wii U this year or possibly any console. It will not be for everyone, but if you are at all interested, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is definitely worth giving a shot.