Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE oozes style but lacks substance0 Comments
Over the past week, I've been making my way through the strange new Wii U JRPG, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. I'm sure many of you have already experienced your fair share of criticism surrounding this game, particularly concerning its incredibly silly censorship. I don't want to delve into that topic here, though. Instead, I'd like to talk about how this good game could have been great.
While many were hoping for a game that meshed the demonic themes of Shin Megami Tensei titles with the gameplay of the acclaimed strategy series Fire Emblem, what we actually ended up with is a game that feels more inspired by later Persona entries. As someone with a deep love for Persona, this was by no means a disappointing direction for the developers to take, but the end result comes off as a less intriguing imitation. I can appreciate wanting to bring a new take on that excellent formula, but it feels as if, in its ambition, it overlooked what made Persona so enticing for audiences, even those outside of Japan.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions follows a group of Japanese teenagers who are each up-and-coming idols, and it's not difficult to see how this premise alone relegated the game to being a very niche title from its inception. This is a game that is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, with a heavy focus on that country's music, entertainment, and “jack of all trades” idols. These are all core parts of the story for TMS, so it would be silly to bring them up as parts that held back the game. If this is the sort of story that the developers wanted to tell, then we're better served looking at how this idea could have still worked within a deeper experience.
If we're continuing with the Persona comparison, then the most obvious oversight on TMS' part is character depth — in that there's very little here. One of the biggest selling points for the Persona series — if not the biggest selling point — is its characters and how wonderfully relatable they are. These are characters that frequently suffer from very down-to-Earth, human problems. They're uncomfortable with their masculinity, their gender, their innate selfishness. All of the more fantastical elements of those games spawn from these very real emotions that the characters feel. You, as the player, become invested in these characters because you can understand where they're coming from, and that feeling is only strengthened by the fact that you must live your day-to-day lives with them in the game.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions features a variety of characters, but fails to give you much reason to become invested in them. It presents its characters in a similar way to Persona, within a game that follows a similar formula, but lacks the vast majority of the emotional depth that connects you to them. The whole experience of TMS feels like someone looked at Persona and misinterpreted it as a dungeon-crawling series that happened to have characters that you became friends with in it. It feels like so much of its focus went into making its dungeons and combat system as flashy as possible — which isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you — that they've overlooked the best part of their inspiration.
I realize that much of this could come off as me wanting this game to simply be Persona, but the issues I'm trying to highlight are issues that I feel would hold back just about any game. The fact that this game has so many parallels to Persona merely shines a brighter spotlight on them. Even Fire Emblem Awakening and Fates do a better job of making me care about their characters than this. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to just talk down on the game. I actually quite enjoyed my time with Tokyo Mirage Sessions for the most part, but that doesn't keep me from seeing the cracks. With that in mind, let's stray away from the Persona comparisons and look at what else could have been improved.
As an overall experience, Tokyo Mirage Sessions feels very style-over-substance. The game practically oozes style, from its visuals and effects to its level-up screens and menus, the latter of which could be some of the best I've seen in a JRPG. That style should help highlight the gameplay though, not come at its expense.
Dungeon-crawling, for instance, has never been a particularly strong element of Shin Megami Tensei titles, or even in most JRPGs that feature it, I'd argue. Tokyo Mirage Sessions makes the smart choice to try to improve on that by making the dungeons visually stimulating and adding puzzles to them, rather than leaving them as simple mazes. Unfortunately, these puzzles can barely be called such, as most leave you with no way you could possibly screw up. They never require you to actually think, content to just be something you waste a bit of time on. It's a solid idea that lacks substance.
Similarly, TMS' combat system is one of its strengths, but serves as an equally flashy distraction that doesn't require much thought. For example: possibly TMS' most interesting feature is a combat mechanic called Sessions. Each party member can learn up to six Session abilities, which trigger automatically off of certain types of attacks and follow up with preset reactions. If my main character hits an enemy's lightning weakness, then one of my other characters will automatically follow up with a bow attack, and then a different party member will follow that up with a fire attack, and so on and so forth.
It's a very visually satisfying mechanic to pull off, but has absolutely zero depth to it. All but the initiating move are pulled off by the AI without you having to participate at all, and the only thing you need to do to initiate is to choose the ability from your arsenal that prompts an exclamation mark over the enemy, meaning you'll hit that enemy's weak point. This very cool idea could easily be salvaged by you having to choose who follows up which attacks, leaving how successful the Session ends up being entirely in your hands, rather than the AI choosing the best combination for you at the time.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions' best parts are its dungeons and combat, and even those lack the depth they deserve. The “real life” bits in-between end up feeling so streamlined and throwaway that it's difficult to become truly invested in the game's world or characters. I'm not saying that this is a bad game. In fact, I'd say it's an enjoyable time overall, and if you're looking for a JRPG to hold you over, then you could certainly do worse. There's just so much potential here and I feel like it could have been better realized, even with its wacky concept.
At the end of the day, it doesn't need to be a Persona game any more than it needs to be a Shin Megami Tensei game or a Fire Emblem game. With Persona 5 and SMTIV: Apocalypse both on the way and Fire Emblem Fates having released earlier this year, it's not as if the fans of either are being left without something new to play. It just feels like this strange new title could have learned some valuable lessons from its sources.