When you hit the main menu of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE, there's no start button. Instead the bright, rainbow-coloured visuals invite the player to debut, a seemingly minor change of wording that nonetheless sets the tone for the entire game. In this candy-coated world heroes are showbiz sensations, dungeons are department stores, and songs save lives. You don't just step into battle - you take to the stage.
First announced way back in 2013, this crossover RPG between the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei series has been raising questions - and eyebrows - from day one. The reveal trailer was all visual flair with little to really grasp onto, while the sheer concept of mixing these franchises together was a shock in and of itself. With veteran developer Atlus at the helm, the end result is an addictive and enjoyable title that's bolstered by a fluid combat system and some stellar presentation.
From the get-go, Tokyo Mirage Sessions reveals itself to be utterly drenched in J-Pop culture, and wears a contemporary Japanese setting on its sequinned sleeve. While this isn't completely impenetrable for Western audiences, the glitz and glamour of show-business isn't merely background noise. Our heroes are right at the heart of the idol entertainment industry; all of them are either singers, actors and models that were recruited by Fortuna Entertainment - a production company with a twist. In secret, these young rising stars dedicate themselves to fighting back mysterious beings known as Mirages, and are paired up with familiar faces from the Fire Emblem series in order to do so.
This duality defines how the story is told, which splits the characters' time between advancing their careers and gearing up for battle when the Mirage forces strike. Playing as new recruit and young student Itsuki Aoi, you take on the role of a 'Mirage Master' to link up with a powerful warrior known as Chrom - straight out of Fire Emblem: Awakening. These Fire Emblem spirits manifest as special weapons in battle, with recent favourites like Tharja and Virion joining older heroes like Caeda. Some clear visual redesigns haven't changed their personalities either, which makes for plenty of fun moments where they clash with the modern-day setting. So don't worry; Tharja hasn't forgotten how to creepily stare and obsess over people from afar.
The main questline is broken up into chapters, with each one introducing a new dungeon to explore and advancing the plot as you progress. In between these chapters there are also Intermissions, which last as long as the player wants and allows ample time to fulfill side-quests or simply wander around Tokyo. There are several explorable regions, such as the fashionable Harajuku district and the bustling Shibuya station, and three different stores where you can buy items, accessories and outfits for your characters. A handy map allows you to jump around these locations at will, but the real action all takes place within the Idolosphere.
Entrances to this warped dimension appear all throughout Tokyo, often mimicking real-life locations or certain aspects of celebrity life. In true Shin Megami Tensei style you'll need to make it to the very center of these multi-layered mazes to challenge the boss, and there are plenty of treasures to find along the way. Each Idolosphere is a visually distinct labyrinth that revolves around a key gimmick, with an early example being cameras that zap your character back to the start of an area if you pass by them. While they never outstay their welcome, dungeons are actually designed to accommodate players who want to handle each one in chunks, with a variety of useful shortcuts and teleporters to take advantage of. Using these, navigation can be quick and painless, which gives incentive to take breaks and stock up on supplies for another big push forward. You're also encouraged to revisit previous dungeons in this way, as new enemies and optional missions pop up long after the boss has been defeated.
Another carryover from the Shin Megami Tensei series is that encounters aren't totally randomized, instead appearing as cloaked figures that roam dungeons and give chase on sight. Because of this, Itsuki can swat them away and mostly avoid combat altogether, but is also able to get the upper hand and avoid ambushes by striking first. Rare enemy encounters and Savage encounters offer a unique challenge when you encounter them, rewarding you with valuable loot or confronting you with higher-leveled enemy types respectively.
Rather than skipping encounters, it could be argued that the true strength of an RPG has much to do with its combat system, and here Tokyo Mirage Sessions really shines. Classic turn-based battles are shaken up by energetic camera angles and a wealth of different strategies to employ, leading to fun and dynamic combat that keeps you coming back for more. Using teams of three characters, players are rewarded for taking advantage of the famed Fire Emblem weapon triangle, as well as elemental resistances and weaknesses to gain the upper hand. Class types from Fire Emblem also carry over, although to better suit the modern setting mounted cavalry now ride motorcycles and dark mages wield microphones instead of staffs. A Master Seal can also be used to upgrade your Mirage and specialise their role in the team further.
Attacks are mostly based around skills, which are broken up into several distinct categories. Active skills form the bulk of your physical attacks and magic spells, while Passive skills grant specific buffs to your fighters and help tweak a character's build to your liking by altering their stats - this enables you to toughen up a vulnerable archer's defense, for example. While it's a little trial and error to start with - hitting enemies with different attacks and seeing what sticks - if you probe for weaknesses and choose your moves carefully combat quickly begins to flow together with a musical rhythm, and this is primarily due to 'Session' skills. These add an extra effect to your active attacks that can spur teammates into dealing damage even when it isn't their turn. Stringing these together can dispatch enemies with a satisfying flourish, and eventually even calls in non-active characters to fight momentarily. With limited slots for all skills, there are some tough decisions to be made in regards which you keep and which you replace, and all of this comes together to add plenty of depth to engagements.
Outside of standard skills, which consume energy points to use, there's also an SP meter that slowly builds up as you fight. Each time it fills you earn a point, to a maximum of three, and spending these allows the activation of hugely powerful attacks known as Special Performances. These can really turn the tide of battle, especially when a tough foe has your team on the defensive. Even more special abilities can be unlocked using a simplified version of the relationship system found in both series', and this is accomplished by completing side stories.
More entertaining, substantial, and a lot wackier than most other side quests, these special side story missions are fantastic at fleshing out the individual personalities of your friends, and helps to elevate them beyond some remarkably stereotypical anime archetypes. Whether it's crafting a magic hangover cure for your boozy boss, or learning why a promise to a young fan means so much to your actor buddy, these were some of our favourite moments in the game. Before you know it, your team are using Ad-Lib moves out of nowhere, powering up standard attacks and adding extra effects, or maybe even teaming up with friends in impressive Duo attacks. If you make sure each of your team members gets equal use, you'll find that you begin reaping the rewards of unlocking these side stories both in and out of battle. Unfortunately, all this character development leaves poor Itsuki in the lurch as pretty lifeless by comparison, but the player is frequently allowed to choose different responses during conversations to inject your own take on his personality. At the very least, he gives some amazing food and drink reviews when you purchase them, at one point describing a beverage as "art in liquid form."
This isn't even to mention Bloom Palace, a frustratingly small slice of the wider Fire Emblem world hidden away within the Fortuna Entertainment building. If you can withstand the crawling discomfort of her calling you "big brother", then the adorable Tiki will allow you to take advantage of the creative energy known as performa. Earned by defeating enemies, impressing the crowd by performing well in battles, or reaching emotional breakthroughs during the story - yes really - performa is essentially a type of crafting material that is used to create new weapons and very specific new abilities. Unfortunately, Bloom Palace is the only place where you'll be able to craft new weapons, and so you'll need to return here every single time. With an extra loading screen per trip, this can quickly become a bit of a chore when you're mid-dungeon, so feels like something of an oversight. Regardless, there are enough statistics and variables for players to mess around with for hours, and all without it ever feeling overwhelming. Since you can change difficulty levels at any time without penalty you can choose to have as much or as little control over your team as you like.
There isn't any off-screen play available, but this is for good reason. The Wii U GamePad is hard at work throughout, displaying helpful maps while also acting as a social hub where characters send and receive texts! Whenever Itsuki gets a message on his phone in-game, it will pop up on the GamePad screen for you to read. It's a great way for his friends to ask favours, send dumb emojis, or give their thoughts on what's been happening, even if they weren't directly involved. You can swap conversations, manage side quests, and act as a small part of a wider social network. As simple as it sounds, it's executed in such a way that we couldn't imagine the game without it, and actually wish there was even more.
The game's striking sense of style is undoubtedly one of its greatest strengths, with every aspect of its visual design firmly planted in the vibrant world of idol culture. Characters pop with endearing animations, particularly during dialogue scenes, while animated cutscenes accompany key moments and some of the game's eclectic songs. Even the interface labels the equipment menu as 'wardrobe', has you choose 'cast members' before a battle, and conveys a cutesy, glamorous atmosphere with aplomb. It's certainly limited in its scope; it never quite nails some of the darker dungeon designs and settles on invisible walls to cut the overworld up into manageable pieces, for example, but it feels like a true labour of love all the same.
A special mention must be given to the audio as well, particularly due to the notable absence of an English voice track. Cutscenes and in-game dialogue are performed in their original Japanese with English subtitles, and this is currently the only way to play the game. While we enjoyed the performances overall, an ongoing annoyance was the fact that no dialogue is subtitled while in battle, despite how much the characters actually speak during these sections. As such we were left pretty deflated when bosses spoke or characters shared quips that we couldn't understand. The environmental music is serviceable if forgettable, with all the focus seemingly put on a handful of more memorable songs for the stars themselves. On top of this, Fire Emblem jingles and even certain themes from the series are used throughout, but we wouldn't dream of spoiling those for you here.
It takes dozens of hours to reach the epilogue chapter, with side quests, a battle arena and in-game achievements to complete if you want more. Additionally, DLC will be available at launch, ranging from new outfits to some specialised dungeon crawling. It's worth mentioning that one particular piece of DLC, a brief parody scene centered around a hot spring, will not be released in the West. There are similar changes to be found in the main game as well, resulting in some minor outfit alterations and visual inconsistencies for its western release, but there have been no gameplay changes or any substantial changes to the story itself.
All in all, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is an RPG that's roughly 85% Shin Megami Tensei, 15% Fire Emblem, and somehow ends up feeling like something completely separate from either of the two. It strikes a middle ground that's rooted in the format of many modern role playing titles, boasting an energetic and dynamic combat system all wrapped up in a setting that takes J-Pop cheesiness to astral heights. While it's so extremely niche that we doubt it'll convert any nonbelievers in the slightest, there's a remarkably lengthy and enjoyable experience to be found here for anyone that doesn't already have stage-fright. Even if the idea of pop-star superheroes is an immediate turn off, a slew of rewarding mechanics might just be enough to pull you back in. Whether you ignore the silliness or embrace it, we'd dare say that any title featuring a rocket-powered cyborg pegasus is worth investigating.