In 2013, JRPG fans were caught completely by surprise when Nintendo announced via a Nintendo Direct that beloved genre titans Intelligent Systems and Atlus would be bringing their respective Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei franchises together for a collaborative project. Under the working title ‘Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem’, the title was going to bring the franchise back to Nintendo home consoles since Fire Emblem’s Wii title ‘Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn’ and Atlus’s ‘Shin Megami Tensei If…’for Super Nintendo. When the title was re-revealed during spring 2015, it was certainly not what fans of either franchise were expecting. What was initially teased as a dark merging of two very mature JRPG franchises had reemerged as something that was about as lighthearted as an RPG can get: an RPG following a group of J-pop idols that bore striking resemblance to Shin Megami Tensei’s Persona spin-off series. When the title launched in 2016, it met the Wii U at the tail end of its lifespan, and despite receiving mild critical success, it certainly didn’t catch audiences the way Persona 5 would go on to following it in 2017. Continuing Atlus’s obsession with bringing all of their previous-generation titles to current gen consoles and adding in a few extra features (see Catherine: Full Body and the upcoming Persona 5 Royal) and Nintendo’s need to leave no game stranded on Wii U, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is back in the form of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore for Nintendo Switch.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore starts Tsubasa Oriba, or at least it feels as though it should because the actual ‘protagonist’ that player controls, Itsuki Aoi, feels like such a shell of a character that perhaps he should have just been left as a silent protagonist, a-la Atlus’s Persona series (if you’re not ready for the Persona comparisons the rest of this review will contain, I suggest you stop reading here). Itsuki’s entire purpose in the story is to motivate Tsubasa Oribe, a young Japanese girl who, after a traumatic experience from her childhood, seeks to become an idol. After an attack on a talent audition Tsubasa is taking part in, her and Itsuki awaken their ‘Performa’ (not even the slightest bit subtle). Itsuki awakens the ability to control the Mirage ‘Chrom’ (from Fire Emblem: Awakening), while Tsubasa awakens the ability to control ‘Caeda’ (from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon or the original Fire Emblem for Famicom). These allow the pair to fight against Mirages, mysterious entities that are attacking places and people tied to the entertainment industry. As the story continues, the pair are brought into Fortuna Entertainment, where Tsubasa is able to follow her dream to become an idol and is also joined by Itsuki’s friend, Touma, a major pop idol named Kiria and other new party members.
Depending on what you want out of it, the main flaw with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore’s story is that there are really no stakes whatsoever. Due to the game’s pulsating and lighthearted tone, the story is framed in such a way that there is absolutely no tension whatsoever to any of the major story sequences. Contrast this to Atlus’s Persona 4, a game people frequently pass off as overtly lighthearted despite its very mature subplots and character writing, it’s proof that a balance can be struck here. Fortunately, many may find Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ more laid back approach to JRPG writing refreshing given the amount of ‘save the world’ scenarios the genre has made itself known for (even if, ultimately, the game still ends up there anyway); however, when playing a JRPG like this, it’s hard to grow too attached to anything that’s going on because of the lack of any sort of real conflict, and in the end, I honestly found myself struggling to care for the plotline or any of the one-dimensional feeling characters embodying it.
One thing you can always count on with Atlus is for them to at least deliver an engaging combat system, and that mostly finds its way into Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore. While the game does utilize a traditional turn-based combat system with up to 3 party members running off a timeline seen on the top of the combat menu, it branches out of Shin Megami Tensei series tradition by ditching the press-turn system introduced in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and instead turns it on its head with ‘Session Attacks’, a system where, depending on the attack, if the player attacks an enemy’s weakness, a party member will immediately follow up with a similar attack, and these can be chained together over multiple party members and multiple attacks. Also brought over from Shin Megami Tensei is the usual task of finding and exploiting an enemy’s elemental weakness, which again, triggers these Session Attacks. However, brought over this time from Fire Emblem is that series’ traditional weapons triangle system in which different melee attacks are weak to other corresponding physical attacks. Utilizing Mirages, the player can also engage in Duo Attacks, which are triggered by using SP points gained gradually over the course of multiple battles. These essentially act as super attacks that all enemies are weak to and can also be used to continue Session Attack combos.
While this battle system with all of its unique elements certainly helped set Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE apart back in 2016 on Wii U (late 2015 in Japan), I can’t help but wonder how many will view the battle system four years after its initial release, especially with all of the vast improvements Persona 5 would bring not too long after, incorporating all of the bare essentials of this battle system on top of the already robust and far more complex press-turn system of the Persona series. This isn’t even the end of the Persona comparisons either as I haven’t even mentioned the Unity system, where players enter a special area called the ‘Bloom Palace’ where Fire Emblem mainstay Tiki can create new weapons (essentially acting as Persona or Demon fusion) or unlock new special or duo attacks in party members depending on plot progression, the Bloom Palace itself essentially boiling down to nothing more than a blatant equivalent to Persona’s Velvet Room.
While outside of the main dungeons, the player can take requests for random NPCs sprinkled around Tokyo, which can include returning to past dungeons to find certain items or defeat enemies in reward for EXP or special items. In between main story chapters, the game also sets aside some free time for the player to do story-based side missions for the rest of the party members to help flesh them out, with some of these newly added to account for this version’s ‘Encore’ branding, offering some new (if painfully easy) dungeons so that the player can acquire new cosmetic outfits, including a costume based off the protagonist from Persona 5’s ‘Joker’ Phantom Thief outfit.
As for improvements over the Wii U version, other than those previously mentioned, they’re very hard to come by. Session Attacks in battles can be sped up slightly to make sitting through combos less time-consuming, and loading screens have been vastly reduced coming from the Wii U original, accounting for way more convenience in booting the game up and getting things going. As for visuals, there are absolutely no changes from Wii U, not even a bump from 720p to 1080p while docked or from 30fps to 60fps. Assets and character models remain exactly the same, making the ‘Encore’ rebranding and full price tag feel a little redundant in the face of the aforementioned Catherine: Full Body and Persona 5 Royal Atlus has been working on. Even in the face of the likes of Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita, this still comes up looking like a very underwhelming culmination of four years away from Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.
The more unpolished, low-budget look of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE does feel more at home on a handheld-hybrid such as Nintendo Switch, though since, especially on Wii U, the title never looked like it had the most financial backing from Nintendo outside of its gorgeous CGI cutscenes (which Fire Emblem fans should be plenty familiar with by now). In-game character models look fine and animate well in battle; however, in certain cutscenes, the lower budget feel makes it more reminiscent of something like Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel games for PlayStation Vita, not exactly something I feel confident saying about a game on the same system as Bayonetta 2. A lot has been said in the past few months on the game’s censorship from the original Japanese version to the English Wii U release that has now found its way into all versions of this release. While I really don’t mind the removal of content that sexualised minors, I do find it strange that even after so much content was stripped out, cutscenes exhibit exaggerated breast movement physics on certain female characters, which seems very out of place.
On the audio side, while the J-pop stuff isn’t my cup of tea, and I struggle to remember any of the major battle music on the whole, the major disappointment with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, both on Wii U and now especially on Nintendo Switch, is the complete lack of English audio. While the argument has been made for the headaches translating the music into English would bring with it, many anime and video game dubs leaving Japanese vocals untouched during music sequences has become commonplace, and there is simply no excuse anymore as to why this game is lacking a dub the second time around, especially almost four years after its initial English release and with this brand new ‘Encore’ branding. I am all for playing games in Japanese with English subtitles though as even as SEGA continues to experiment with dubbing newer Yakuza titles, I still commit to playing them subbed, yet I cannot stress enough how poorly exaggerated I find some of the voice acting to be in this game, especially with Tsubasa.
While those looking for a lighthearted, laid-back RPG adventure may find something to latch onto with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore, the whole package ultimately ends up feeling like it lacked vision from the start, be it this port or the game itself. While it feels wrong making so many comparisons towards this and Atlus’s Persona games, #FE clearly took a lot of inspiration from it, even despite its original Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem working title. What could have been an excellent marriage of two JRPG juggernauts instead turned out to be an awkward game, half afraid to be its own while also half afraid of straying away from what made its inspirations great in the first place.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 17th January 2020