Idol, Never Idle: Getting Back to Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

I started playing Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE a couple years ago and found it to be charming and fun overall. The Wii U was in dire need of RPGs (or quality games in general), and even though the second-screen utilization was a little weak, I was having a good time. Then Shaun’s system became a hub for people playing Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart and Smash Bros., and the game was put on the back burner for a bit.

After we moved to the new house, the Wii U was sitting in a drawer, unused and unloved. And even though I haven’t played Breath of the Wild yet (and I’m not really sure why I’m not more eager to jump in?), I decided the time was ripe to finish off my story of the Idolasphere and how Performa can guide the planet.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a quirky blend of Shin Megami Tensai-esque battle mechanics and Fire Emblem summons, all wrapped in a J-pop outer shell. A lot of the benchmarks you’d expect from a JRPG are here: hopelessly boring blank-slate main character, female party members who can’t help but get a little twitterpated around said protagonist, vibrant colors and a catchy soundtrack, and sections of the game where belief in yourself is the strongest force in the universe.

But what really works for me is the aesthetic. TMS recognizes that its premise is a little silly on the surface, but makes up for it by committing completely. Battles take place in an arena with an audience that cheers when their favorite idols grace the stage. Random characters on the street just get colorful outlines, and only the meaningful NPCs pop out of the crowd. Special attacks and ad-lib performances are just references of earlier concerts and shows that the party members have appeared in. Even regular moves pop up on the screen with the attacker listed as the “artist” and spells are cast with the performer signing their name in the air.

I also appreciate the level of detail in some design choices that are sadly uncommon these days. For example, battles are quick and always evolving. In the early game you only have access to a handful of moves and can barely chain them together; as the game progresses, reserve members jump into the fray when you expose an enemy’s weakness, special team-up attacks can trigger at various times and everything is bright and flashy and feels good. Coupled with an equipment system that rewards crafting and doubling back to old weapons, Tokyo Mirage Sessions does a great job of keeping the player engaged.

There are also plenty of costumes to unlock for every character, many of which are available in-game for regular currency (which flows to you like manna from heaven). Sure, there are still some DLC options, but I’m not a crazy person — that part of the industry isn’t going anywhere. But too many series have stuffed their content behind a paywall with limited built-in options. After seeing Tales and Trails and others fall into this trap, being able to dress up my party as I pleased was a welcome change.

The game received some deserved criticism for being pretty heavily censored for its Western release, as well as the decision not to dub it. Even though I’m a huge dub advocate, I understand the decision not to go down that road with heavily Japanese offerings like this and Yakuza — the localization would be a nightmare. But the censorship was over the top. Entire costumes have disappeared, several others have been covered up, and even a few cutscenes were altered just to get rid of that pesky cleavage that might offend some poor, sensitive eyes. I don’t necessarily agree with the folks that boycotted the game because of these decisions, but I understand the sentiment.

Hopefully the game will get ported to the Switch at some point and join the other JRPG releases that are phenomenal for portable gaming. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE was a bit slept on, but I’m glad I took the time to go back and finish it.

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