Coming at the tail end of the Wii U’s short-lived time in the spotlight, it’s fair to say that “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE” didn’t make the biggest splash when it first hit the North American market in mid-2016. While both the “Fire Emblem” and “Shin Megami Tensei” series had been gaining popularity in the west, a crossover between the two would’ve still been considered a largely niche product at the time. However, this is exactly what Nintendo and Atlus decided to serve up. In the end, players were greeted with a product that carried the overall style and feel of a “Shin Megami Tensei”/”Persona” game while incorporating fan favorite characters from Nintendo’s “Fire Emblem.” Despite the companies’ best efforts, the game was met with about as much hype as you would expect a JRPG on the Wii U in 2016 to get (read: little to none).
Now, this overlooked effort has, like many other Wii U exclusives, been given a second chance at finding an audience on Nintendo Switch. Packing visual updates, bonus content, additional characters and more, “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” aims to give fans of more recent games like “Persona 5” and “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” a second chance at seeing what exactly this crossover has to offer. As for my personal history, I have never played a “Fire Emblem” game, and I have never played a “Shin Megami Tensei” game, so I’m obviously the perfect candidate to judge a crossover between the two! Joking aside, I actually took on this review primarily because I found my position so interesting. Yes, I may not have much knowledge of either of the worlds that this game seeks to merge together, but I am a fan of RPGs as a whole, and I’m more than willing to get familiar with a new world and characters if the gameplay is strong enough to keep me around. So, without further ado, let’s step into the spotlight and see what this JRPG mashup has in store.
Our story picks up with a high school student named Itsuki. He and his friend Tsubasa (okay, mainly Tsubasa) have dreams of becoming superstars in the Japanese entertainment industry. Singing, dancing, acting, these kids want to do it all; they’re simply waiting for an opportunity to open up. However, things quickly turn south when other-worldly creatures called Mirages begin terrorizing the city of Shibuya. You see, in this world, every person is born with a sort of life force known as Performa. Those select few who can learn how to properly control and channel their Performa can use it for incredibly impressive performances, and usually become famous entertainers. However, the aforementioned Mirages also enjoy preying on the Performa of unsuspecting humans, which can quickly turn deadly. As the attacks begin to get worse and worse, Itsuki and Tsubasa learn that they both hold a special and unique power. While many Mirages simply want to absorb Performa, no matter what damage they may cause doing so, there are certain Mirages who see the error of this, and seek to help make things right between the Mirages and the Humans. It turns out that our main characters can communicate with these friendly Mirages, and even have them come to their aid in battle.
This is, in essence, what most of the game’s plot revolves around. After befriending their first two Mirages (who just so happen to take the form of Chrom and Ceada from the “Fire Emblem” games), Itsuki and Tsubasa decide to join a small but capable force known as the “Mirage Masters” in order to put a stop to the attacks once and for all. The rest of the game sees players going around Shibuya investigating any odd occurrences that may suggest Mirage interference and laying down some pain on the field of battle when necessary, all while searching for any other potential Mirage Masters along the way.
As players progress, your available party of Mirage Masters will continue to grow and change. However, one thing that remains wonderfully consistent is the game’s fantastic writing. In fact, the worldbuilding and storytelling here are what I would consider to be some of the game’s greatest strengths. “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” managed to introduce me to a wide array of brand new and pre-established characters and made me genuinely enjoy reading what all of them had to say. Now, I say “reading” because, while the game is fully voiced, this is only available in the game’s native Japanese, as no English dub was ever created. However, every bit of dialogue in the game’s cutscenes is accompanied (thankfully) by very professionally translated English subtitles, so no one has to worry about picking up an extra foreign language class just to follow along with the plot. The characters themselves, meanwhile, are all wonderfully written and have fantastic personalities. Characters will often have unique and interesting motivations for the actions that they take, and each member of the Mirage Masters comes with their own personality traits and flaws, making them feel surprisingly real given the absurdity of some of the situations the team finds themselves in. Yes, while players are expected to take certain story beats seriously, the game also has a more lighthearted, humorous side, and these two extremes are balanced almost masterfully throughout the game’s various chapters.
Continuing with the positives, the exploration segments and especially the combat system work wonders to make the experience almost instantly engaging for the player. Gameplay mainly consists of what many would consider your typical RPG fare. Players are tasked with navigating their way through various overworld dungeons, solving light environmental puzzles and fighting enemies along the way. Combat takes the form of a fairly standard turn-based battle system, but with one key twist. Many enemies in this game will have weaknesses to various weapon types and elemental attacks. One enemy may be weak to sword attacks, and another to lighting or fire spells. This is nothing new, of course, but the twist comes with the introduction of the “Session” system. Hitting an enemy with their weakness will temporarily stun them and allow for other team members to come in with attacks of their own, starting a Session combo. These combos are executed automatically, and allow for attacks to be chained together by multiple party members, all without using up their respective turns. This essentially allows for a team of just three characters to dish out anywhere from 10 to 20+ attacks per turn. However, enemy mirages are capable of these Sessions as well, so players have to keep on their toes if they find themselves fighting an enemy capable of inflicting the right type of damage. It makes for a fairly risky yet incredibly satisfying battle system in which the bulk of the strategy comes from determining which moves will let you chain together the highest session combo. As the game progresses, players will be able to unlock new weapons, spells, special attacks and other various skills and perks to help them out on the battlefield. Enemies in this game are no slouches though, and getting too complacent can see you quickly end up on the receiving end of a Session combo that is just as deadly as your own.
Put simply, “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” has what is, at least for me, one of the most satisfying RPG battle systems in recent memory. Trying to link together your teammates’ abilities in order to set up for massive, 10+ attack Sessions feels insanely rewarding to pull off. In addition to this, the game is constantly rewarding players with new skills, both for use in battle and passively during exploration. The exploration itself may be fairly basic, as many of the game’s dungeons are rather linear and confined, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the various areas are at least kept very visually interesting and unique from one another.
Speaking of visuals, the presentation on display here is perhaps the game’s single strongest point, as every area simply oozes charm and personality. For starters, the game’s actual visual fidelity is fairly high considering that it started life as a Wii U title, and it by no means looks out of place in the 2020 gaming space. Colors are bright and vibrant, the city of Shibuya is bustling and lively (albeit with a vast majority of the NPCs being stylized, flat-shaded characters), and the animations for party members and enemies alike are wonderfully expressive. While there are definitely nitpicks to be found, such as the odd low-res texture or outdated looking model, the world that the game attempts to paint comes together wonderfully 99% of the time, and while holding its target frame rate flawlessly to boot. The music, while not particularly memorable, is also perfectly fine background noise, and the bubbly, J-pop style tracks and calming melodies that play when moving about the city serve as a great contrast to the darker, almost industrial beats that accompany players in the game’s dungeon segments. Again, I never played the Wii U original, so I’m not entirely sure what parts of the game’s presentation have seen updates or improvements. What I can say with certainty though is that the game looks and sounds great, and it feels perfectly at home on Nintendo Switch.
Aside from the visuals, this enhanced release also includes several content updates over the original Wii U version. The biggest addition in terms of actual gameplay is the inclusion of a brand new dungeon in which a new “EX” story chapter takes place. Comparing it to the dungeons already present within the main story, the EX area is nothing mind-blowing, but it’s enjoyable enough to be worth a playthrough for sure, and completion of this area even allows players to access new costumes and character skills that also weren’t present in the 2016 original. Besides these new costumes, players are also given the ability to let several characters who previously served as simple NPCs participate in battles through the use of brand new Session skills. While none of these additions are particularly Earth-shattering, all of the costumes, side stories (well, kinda, but I’ll get to that soon enough) and session skills that are new to this release do at least give a little extra service to those who may have already played the original, which is always nice to see.
So, it’s clear that “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” succeeds in quite a bit of what it sets out to do. However, while I really like the world and story this game goes for, and I fell in love with the battle system almost immediately, there are some major, MAJOR, flaws holding the game back.
First of all, while I mentioned earlier that the game’s presentation and themes make it feel decidedly modern, many of the systems in place can feel like they’ve been ripped straight out of 1994, and I mean that in the worst way possible. This outdated feeling manifests itself in a number of ways throughout the game, not the least of which is the horrendous menu system. Performing a task as simple as changing a character’s equipment or checking their progress towards gaining a new skill can often mean wrestling your way through an absolute sea of information and screen after screen of options before finally finding the one menu that you’re actually looking for. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg in completely backwards design choices. Saving, for instance, is completely manual in this game, and it isn’t exactly easy either, requiring players to go through multiple menus every single time they want to create a save. However, you’re going to want to make a habit of doing this, as the game can be absolutely ruthless towards anyone who may forget to save. Game Overs are the biggest offenders here by far, as losing any battle at all simply boots players back to the game’s title screen. The game gives no option to restart from the beginning of the battle or even the beginning of the dungeon, just a hard reset. This means that if you happen to lose a battle after not saving for an hour or more, you can kiss all of that progress goodbye. Put simply, the systems in this game feel so outdated simply because they don’t respect the players time in the slightest, which is something that has become an absolute necessity in the modern gaming market.
However, the biggest offender in terms of this game mocking the very idea of convenience is the Bloom Palace, an area which every single player of “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” is sure to despise within just a few hours of play. Many key aspects of the game’s character progression (such as equipping new weapons, learning new skills and changing a character’s class) can only be performed by actually dropping whatever you’re in the middle of and trudging your way back to the Bloom Palace. For example, say you’re going through a dungeon and you happen to find the materials necessary to craft a powerful new weapon. Rather than simply opening an inventory menu and crafting it on the spot, you instead have to leave the dungeon and go to the Bloom Palace manually. Once there, you can then craft and equip the weapon, after which you have to once again physically go back to the dungeon you were in and play back up to the point where you were before. While some dungeons have warp points that connect back to the entrance, giving players a way of skipping certain parts of the area, this does little to alleviate the absolute slog of leaving the dungeon over and over again just to make sure your party stays properly equipped. Sure, you can just ignore this process and try to only make party upgrades when you are in-between dungeons naturally, but doing this will invariably lead to a much tougher combat experience, as enemies are constantly growing in level and having optimal equipment is darn near essential to keep up.
One last low point that certainly bears mentioning is the fact that most of the side content in this game is, quite frankly, just terrible. This isn’t so much due to writing or characterization, but is more so an issue of design once again. While completing side quests will usually reward players with worthwhile prizes for their efforts (be that in the form of extra world building, abilities, weapons or other rewards) the actual quests themselves are simply a confusing and frustrating mess. Not only do many of the side quests amount to nothing more than fetch-quests or item hunts, but it often feels like searching for a needle in a haystack. Quest-important items are usually given out by nameless NPCs who are simply scattered around the overworld, without any indication that there is something unique about them. The fact that several NPCs who play integral roles in side quests don’t even have names, and are simply referred to by phrases like “High School Student” and “Cafe Worker,” should tell you everything you need to know about how directionless and obtuse these errands can be.
Despite all of these flaws, there are parts of this game that are genuinely fantastic. I was almost immediately captivated by the upbeat, J-pop fueled world that “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” presented to me. Additionally, I really cannot overstate just how enthralling the battle system is, as pulling off the perfect Session combo for the situation is just as satisfying the thousandth time as it is the first. However, the battle system and storytelling were ultimately just barely enough to keep me playing through some of the utterly abysmal design choices that plague this game from start to end. Navigating the cumbersome pause menus just to make a manual save is only slightly annoying the first ten times you have to do it, but by the 200th time, it becomes absolutely infuriating. Other design missteps such as the awful side quests and incredibly steep punishments for dying only add to the frustration, and they’re sure to bring many players closer and closer to simply giving up. This is a huge shame, as anyone who does succumb to the poor design quirks will be missing out on a wonderfully realized world and story, not to mention one of the best battle systems in recent memory. However, at the end of the day, “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: Encore” is a game that demands an insane amount of patience from its players, not to mention a willingness to overlook some outright baffling design choices. This game was so close to being a real hidden gem, but unfortunately the myriad of flaws leave it as an experience where the good just barely outweighs the bad.