Review: Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore
As I sit down to write this review, I am mere moments past finishing my first playthrough of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore. I say first, but I would be lying if I said I was likely to play through it again — at least, not for a while, and not without good reason. Make no mistake, I am in no way calling Tokyo Mirage Sessions a bad game; at its best, it is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a JRPG in close to a decade. The problem with Tokyo Mirage Sessions is that it’s very rarely at its best, and even when it is, there’s seemingly always an annoyance right around the corner, ready to strike frustration, confusion, and anger into your very soul.
I mentioned in my preview of the game that Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore (referred to from here on as TMSE) is “niche on niche on niche.” It’s not difficult to see why; as a crossover between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, it’s a spinoff to both series that serves an incredibly small cross-section of the Venn diagram. Throw in a heavy dose of Japanese idol subculture, and the extremely limited audience of the Wii U, and it’s no surprise that it didn’t do spectacularly well when it originally released in 2015.
I do, however, think that it has more appeal than it initially seems. Rather than looking at the potential audience for TMSE as the tiny cross section of fans of very different types of media, I feel it’s important to instead see it as an experience that can be enjoyed by any of the groups it intends to service. That means fans of Fire Emblem, fans of Shin Megami Tensei, or fans of idol culture can all find something to enjoy, even if it doesn’t hit every single beat for every player.
So what exactly does TMSE take from each of its origins? Well, at its very core, it’s a Shin Megami Tensei game. Its battle system (much more on that later), progression, skills and abilities, and even its dungeon design (more on that, too) are ripped straight from Shin Megami Tensei and its spinoffs, for better and for worse. It’s a turn-based RPG with a focus on party mechanics, with every aspect of the game — from its story to its battle and progressions systems — tying into the dynamics of the team in some way.
What it takes from Fire Emblem is a little more complicated. I would say that it’s fairly light on Fire Emblem, but that’s not quite right, because it’s hard to spend more than a minute with TMSE without running into something FE-related. Instead, I would say TMSE is inspired by Fire Emblem, rather than influenced by it. It’s filled with FE characters, weapons, themes, and enemies, but few of these elements, if any, are related to their main game counterparts in any impactful way. None of the FE characters have their history attached, and none of the weapons or enemies have their context attached. If you handed TMSE to somebody who was in no way familiar with Fire Emblem, and didn’t tell them that these elements were taken from another game, it’s likely they’d assume they were original elements made specifically for this strange little game about idols.
And so we come to the last major element: the entire game is built on the back of Japanese idol subculture, and it’s likely to be a point of division amongst players going into TMSE blind. There’s a lot of singing, dancing, and acting, a lot of fancy, silly costumes, and a lot of “show business.” That’s in quotes because it’s not really anything like show business, at least not in my experience as a former live audio engineer. It’s an idealised version, which sounds pretty obvious given it’s a video game, but I think it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. If you’re averse to J-Pop and cutesy outfits, it might be worth just skipping this one altogether. I’ll touch more on this aspect of the game a little later in this review, but let me warn you now: it gets problematic, and it can be a bit much.
But first, let’s talk about the story. I don’t intend to go too in-depth on explanations here, there’s a lot of very Japenese, very anime-like nonsense going on, and without the slow-burning context of the rest of the game it’s just going to sound ridiculous. TMSE follows Itsuki Aoi, a high school boy and the player character, who finds himself caught up in the affairs of an entertainment production company called Fortuna, headed up by Maiko Shimazaki, whose character can best be summed up by the terms “busty” and “boozy.” Itsuki’s best friend Tsubasa — an occasional glasses-wearer with a penchant for frequently mentioning that she’s definitely 18 years old even though she’s definitely not — dreams of being an idol, and Itsuki does his best to support that dream of hers. In a twist of fate, Tsubasa disappears without a trace in the middle of a pageant-style stage show, and Itsuki is thrown into a mysterious realm where he’s teamed up with a demon version of Chrom from Fire Emblem Awakening, who turns into a sword for Itsuki to wield. I told you it gets a bit ridiculous. After saving Tsubasa, she also gains a demonic Fire Emblem character, this time Caeda from FE: Shadow Dragon, who can turn into a spear. The two of them join Fortuna, which is actually a secret investigative organisation specialising in teaming up with demon Fire Emblem heroes and protecting the world from evil beings, and the rest is history.
As you progress through TMSE, Itsuki and the crew at Fortuna split their time between training to become better idols in the entertainment industry, and crawling dungeons to find monsters to beat up with their hero-turned-demon-turned-weapon. And that’s pretty much it. It’s relatively light on story, with most of the progression coming from the growth of characters themselves, and their interactions with other members of Fortuna. Even then, much of this character development is surface-level at best, and there’s generally not a great deal of storytelling depth across the game’s six chapters. In this aspect, the game’s reliance on idol culture does a lot of heavy lifting — in lieu of actually giving any of the characters a meaningful motivation for more than a few minutes, the game expects that the allure of new performances will be enough to drive players to keep playing. And while those performances are good, they’re just not enough.
What little growth exists in the main cast feels a little unfocused at best, and downright ridiculous at worst, largely because none of the characters ever really learn anything. When a character is struggling to meet the requirements of whatever goal they’re trying to reach, the problem is almost always solved simply by running into a dungeon, defeating an enemy, and mashing its soul into the troubled character. And suddenly, they have the resolve to perform that song, the skills to act in that big scene, or the courage to hold that live performance. Thankfully, most of these characters are engaging and interesting enough to begin with, so there isn’t an explicit need for anything beyond showing them at their best, but it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Perhaps worse is the game’s completely nonchalant way of handling its subject matter, primarily the idol themes that run to its core. All of the performers at Fortuna are young, most of them are still in school in fact. And despite this, they’re thrown very much into the deep end of the industry, with little meaningful support from the adults that are supposed to be caring for them. The music coach that’s supposed to be training them is a creep, the agent that’s coordinating their career is an inappropriately flirty drunkard, and seemingly nobody in a position of power does anything in the best interest of these children. Instead, they’re pushed into uncomfortable situations, forced to participate in gigs that they absolutely don’t want to do, and get yelled at for not doing something perfectly.
It’s such a terrible situation that at one point, Tsubasa, in her pursuit of stardom, is pushed into a modelling gig that she does not want to do. The photographer ultimately ends up being a demon-possessed kidnapper, and you’d think, surely, at this point somebody would step in and act in Tsubasa’s best interest, getting her the hell away from this whole mess. But nobody does, and that’s somehow seen as a good thing. Instead, Tsubasa convinces herself, with the prodding of her teammates, that it’s her fault that the photographer is a kidnapper, and that to stop this terrible situation from unfolding she just needs to become a better model. It’s a situation ripe for a story of strong condemnation of the entertainment industry, where this kind of thing is sadly all too common… but it’s played off as a smart and sensible move from Tsubasa, and she’s applauded for coming to her senses and stepping into line. This is one example of many scattered throughout the game, and the experience as a whole left a sour taste in my mouth in just how absurd and inappropriate the scenario is.
And that’s to say nothing of the outright character assassination of Barry Goodman. Poor Barry Goodman. I’ll try to be brief here, but I’m deeply disappointed with the way this character was handled. Barry is the music coach mentioned above, the creep. But he didn’t need to be. When you’re first introduced to Barry, he’s shown to be a formerly world-famous metal guitarist, with a passion for magical girl anime. That’s dope! What a great idea for a character, breaking down tired stereotypes about who can and can’t enjoy particular media. They don’t stay broken down for long.
The first red flag is Barry’s character profile, which lists his weight as “immeasurable.” That’s a bit much, hey. He’s not even that much of a heavy guy, I’d say it’s more of buff dad bod than morbidly obese. His obsession with anime is shown to be a little full-on, but nothing that is particularly out of the ordinary for an avid hobbyist. And then we come to his relationship to Mamori. Mamori is an 11-year-old girl, and an up and coming idol under the guidance of Fortuna. Barry forces Mamori to call him “uncle Barry.” Barry gets jealous when Mamori hangs out with other people. Barry gets possessive and aggressive when Mamori — again, 11 years old — doesn’t respond to his texts right away. And his whole character arc ends with him putting on a dog costume and begging to become Mamori’s pet. It’s creepy, it’s wildly inappropriate, and not a single person comes anywhere near close to calling out his crappy, manipulative behaviour, often even encouraging and facilitating it. It didn’t need to be this way, Barry could’ve just been a cool uncle figure, a former metal guitarist with his head on straight that can teach these youth about the ins and outs of the industry, while also enjoying a bit of anime in his spare time. Instead, we get a character that makes me ashamed to say that I completed all of his side stories, a character who I worried about whenever he was on screen, because I was certain that he would be weird, inappropriate, and altogether creepy. And I was rarely proven wrong.
After all this, you might think I have nothing good to say about TMSE. Indeed, there’s a lot to criticise here, and I’ve been heavy-handed in my criticism of the game. But that’s only because there was so much potential here to be a fantastic game, and a lot of that comes down to the combat. To put it bluntly, the combat in this game is just about flawless. I’ve been a fan of turn-based RPGs for as long as I can remember, and out of the dozens, maybe even hundreds of them I’ve played, none of them come anywhere near close to being as good as TMSE in the combat department. It takes a lot of influence from Shin Megami Tensei, of course, particularly with its typing system, in which enemies are weak against or resistant to a litany of different weapons and elemental magic. But where it shines the most is its incredible Sessions system.
Hitting an enemy’s weakness activates a Session, which allows other members of the party to jump in for a chained attack. As you progress through the game, you’ll gain the ability for non-active party members to jump into these sessions too, and even non-combat characters like Barry, Maiko, and Tiki, creating longer and longer sessions. And it’s just… perfect. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. For most of the game, my battles were separated into two sections: scrambling to identify an enemy’s weakness, and then following it up with session after session after session. It’s weirdly addictive, and I found myself grinding out particular abilities and stats to make my sessions even longer, even stronger, even more ridiculous. At one point I hit a session that was 99 attacks long, and after the roughly minute or so of chain attack animations, the game crashed. In any other situation, I would have been annoyed, but here I was absolutely elated, and I can’t even really explain why. My addiction to sessions was so intense that I was happy to have one crash the game, and I spent a good 4 or 5 hours trying to recreate it because it was just… So. Damn. Fun. I will defend sessions as the best combat mechanic in a turn-based JRPG until the day I die. It’s that good.
What’s less good (I’m sorry, I have to be negative again, it’ll be over soon I promise) is TMSE’s dungeon design. Hoo boy. Look, Shin Megami Tensei and its spinoffs have never been great at dungeon design, and TMSE is no exception. The environmental “puzzles” aren’t interesting, they’re not clever, they don’t require you to think particularly deeply. They’re just… frustrating, more than anything else. Most of the time, the dungeons are just a sprawling labyrinth, filled with nothing in particular except traps that, usually, send you back to the beginning of the dungeon, force you to backtrack or otherwise impede your progress. All the while, you’re flooded with enemies, which you either spend the few minutes to defeat, or try to avoid. And while you can unlock skills that stop enemies from spawning, that only highlights just how insubstantial the dungeons are. At one point, I got so frustrated that I just gave up and tried to follow a guide… but again, this game is niche on niche on niche and performed super terribly, so my options for guides were a poorly translated Japanese guide, or an in-progress guide that hasn’t been updated since 2016. Ultimately, I just brute forced it, then put my Switch to sleep, tossed it across the room, and didn’t touch it for three days. Hopefully, if you decide to pick up the game, there’ll be better guides for you to follow than there were for me, because those dungeons are just not worth the trouble at all.
As for what makes the Switch version stand out from its Wii U counterpart, well, there’s not really a lot here. It looks wonderful and colourful, as it always did, and probably always will, and it runs absolutely flawlessly both in handheld and docked modes. In fact, the load times have been drastically reduced, thanks to the magic of flash memory carts. It’s still Japanese audio only, and unfortunately Atlus did not see fit to add subtitles to the in-battle quotes this time. But the songs sprinkled throughout the game are absolutely exceptional, if you’re a fan of the genre. And in terms of new content, there’s not a great deal of that, it’s a couple dungeons spread throughout the first half of the game, and a few costumes from other Atlus series like Persona and Etrian Odyssey, and Fire Emblem. Oh, and the ability for non-combat units to join in on Sessions, of course, which is probably the best part of the Switch version’s additions. It’s absolutely the definitive version of the game however, if only because it’s more accessible than ever before, and because you can play bite-sized pieces to break up the more frustrating, annoying, and infuriating parts.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore is a deeply fascinating game. On the one hand, it’s mechanically one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. On the other, its inability to appropriately handle serious issues, complete lack of character growth, and often downright creepy characterisation makes it a difficult game to recommend to anybody. It’s a divisive game, but it’s been given a second life on the Switch nonetheless. Whether or not that’s a good thing is still up for debate.
+ Looks and runs great
+ Some of the best combat mechanics in the genre
+ Seriously, sessions are insanely good
- Light on new content
- Dungeon design is abysmal
- Creepy moments are far too abundant