As multicoloured stars race across the screen and coloured confetti flutters to the ground, the camera spins round your J-pop idol characters clad in Fire Emblem armour. This is no rainbow-tinged daydream though, it’s Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore – the kitsch J-pop RPG you didn’t realise your Switch was crying out for. That is, of course, unless you were one of those ill-fated Wii U owners that picked it up four years ago, in which case this is all old news and you can go back to weeping into your woefully neglected gamepad.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions starts out idiosyncratically and only gets weirder from there, mashing the gaming landscapes of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei together with the real world of Japanese idols. Idols are, much like our own pop acts, manufactured in order to appeal to their audience, mostly by being exceptionally pleasant and attractive. Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ mish-mash of worlds and genres feels as though it’s been similarly manufactured to be the ultimate JRPG for Japan, but its still surprisingly heartfelt, fun and packed with depth.
The story follows the trials of Itsuki Aoi and Tsubasa Oribe and their supporting cast, as they’re swept up into a world of demonic possessions, modelling work and turn-based combat. While Itsuki is something of a blank canvas, those around him, particularly the adorably unsure Tsubasa and stunningly forthright Maiko, make for great companions as you journey around a snapshot rendition of Tokyo.
As members of the Fortuna Entertainment Agency, your day to day life is supposed to be filled with singing lessons, photo shoots and public appearances, but thanks to some sneaky demon types known as Mirages you actually find yourself running around elaborate dungeons in the Idolasphere. This alternative dimension is filled with bad things, and it’s up to you to battle and release people from the clutches of evil.
Luckily it turns out that you’re a Mirage Master; someone who’s capable of linking up with a Mirage and turning them to the light side. They in turn lend you their strength and a sweet set of threads for you to do battle in, all of which are taken from the Fire Emblem universe. Recognisable faces like Chrom, Caeda and Tiki are all on hand to assist you on your adventure, even if they only vaguely look like how you remember.
To be honest, you should probably forget about the Fire Emblem elements outside of the costumes your characters wear and the iconic horn trill as you level up. As much as it’s a Shin Megami Tensei title, its youthful cast, linked Mirages and surreal dungeons make Tokyo Mirage Sessions a Persona game through and through.
It’s been four years since I reviewed the Wii U edition of Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and time has been kind to this particular JRPG. Where I found the puzzle-esque dungeons fairly tiresome the first time around, this time out they felt characterful and consistent, and the game as a whole just made more sense.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ turn based combat is joyfully engaging, and while any RPG fan of the past few decades will recognise the setup, the ultimate aim is for your team to enter into a combo Session to deal extra damage. You do this initially by utilising attacks that an enemy is weak to, and if your teammates can follow it up they’ll dramatically leap in to pile on more damage. It’s an essential skill to learn, and as you progress you can tailor each of your characters’ skillsets to match up with their pals.
The loop of levelling up is similarly satisfying, as along with your characters’ standard level you’re also levelling up their weaponry. Each sword, lance or microphone stand – yes, really – gains levels as you earn experience, and each time you hit a new level you gain an additional skill. You eventually find yourself in a Pokémon-style position where you have to swap skills out for new ones, and it’s just as nerve-wracking trying to work out whether to hang onto an old favourite or leave it behind for something shiny and new.
Once you’ve mastered a weapon it’s time to move on to a new one, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions provides a steady stream of new pointy things to hack into bad guys throughout its runtime. There’s always something happening, which makes grinding feel much more progressive here than it can in some RPGs. It feels organic rather than forced, and that’s probably the hardest thing for any RPG to pull off.
In a game centred around its stars, it’s little surprise that the musical numbers and cutscenes that show them at their best are also the stars of the show. Yoshiaki Fujisawa’s songs and their accompanying animations are fantastic and lend a hefty dose of believability to the entire game’s narrative. You’ll come to believe in this world of popstars and demons in a way you probably didn’t think possible, and its easy to be swept up by it if you allow yourself to be.
I love that there isn’t an English dub of the game’s speech too. Tokyo Mirage Sessions, as its name implies, is a game so firmly rooted in Japan and Japanese idol culture that it would lose a huge dose of authenticity if it had Anglo-American voices slapped over the top of it. I’d normally decry the lack of the option, but on this occasion I’d say it’s actually a positive for the game’s world building.
Many of the problems I had with the game’s original release seem to have drifted away with time, but the one glaring oversight that remains is the lack of an autosave feature. Sessions will sometimes throw horribly overpowered enemies at you which can easily wipe out your team if you’re already a little beaten up, and if you’ve forgotten about saving you can lose – as I did – massive chunks of gameplay. You’ll eventually just end up saving after every encounter, which doesn’t feel particularly modern in 2020.