Ostensibly, if one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, one shouldn’t judge a game by its title. But Atlus and Intelligent Systems’s Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is one case where you might make an exception: If you can’t swallow that jumble of proper nouns—or, indeed, comprehend that both “T.M.S.” and “#FE” reference the two game franchises that spawned it—then it’s fair to say that you may have some background reading to do.
But such research may be well worth it. After all, Sessions is a crossover between two acclaimed Japanese RPG franchises: Shin Megami Tensei, whose trademark S.M.T. acronym is playfully inverted in this title, and the swords-and-strategy series Fire Emblem. Though the two series share high esteem in the Western world, their core mechanics differ considerably: Most S.M.T. games are traditional JRPGs noted for their rock-hard difficulty and heterodox storytelling, while Fire Emblem has more in common with Civilization than Final Fantasy. Though whatever concoction this fusion produced could certainly compel, it was always going to be a shot of one dropped into a glass of the other; in other words, one franchise had to overpower the other.
Considering that S.M.T. developer Atlus helmed this project from the start, it shouldn’t surprise that they ended up providing the base template for it. Still, even knowing that, it’s somewhat shocking how little of Fire Emblem managed to seep into the final product. In fact, for the first few hours of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, one could mistake the game for a spin-off of Atlus’s equally mammoth Persona series, whose third and fourth entries revitalized the genre both critically and commercially in the late aughts.
Even after the swath of Fire Emblem characters stroll onto the scene like celebrities at an awards show, everything about the game remains unmistakingly Persona-esque, from the premise on up. A handful of high school students stumble across a malevolent supernatural force that interfaces quite conveniently with their daily lives, and only they have the power to stop it from mucking everything up. In this case, that force is the titular Mirages, who are literally robbing pop idols of their ability to sing. You and your band of aspiring performing artists must delve into the “Idolasphere”—that is, dungeons—to stop them. Shenanigans ensue, accompanied by copious amounts of J-pop.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE might boast a roster of wannabe pop idols, but the battle system is the real star of the show—an S.M.T.-style three-person affair modified to suit a more strategic approach. While Persona puts an emphasis on resource management, this crossover focuses more on the interplay between characters. Like many JRPGs, such as Pokémon, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE features a system of opposed elements, such as fire and ice. Hit an opponent with an element they’re weak to, and your teammates can “session” off of the attack, dealing combo damage, provided that their “Session Skills” line up correctly. As you might expect, proper team composition is paramount—especially since the opponents can session off you too, usually killing the unfortunate recipient in one turn.
Though all this dungeon-diving can occasionally wear at one’s patience, great pains have been taken to make the experience friendly to those who don’t know their Bufu from their Zio. Most battles can be easily avoided with a deft sword slice, and optional slice-of-life side stories help fill out the mostly flat cast, as well as highlighting the game’s impressive recreations of Tokyo districts like Shibuya, sometimes referred to as Japan’s Silicon Valley.
This may all sound patently ridiculous to an outsider—and the good news is that the game knows this. Indeed, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE contains little of the psychological complexity and social critique that made Persona 3 and 4 such cult hits here in the West, settling instead for the usual crop of anime clichés that were codified by the likes of Final Fantasy and the Tales series. This is best represented by the charmless female lead, Tsubasa, who bungles every task on her road to pop stardom for the sake of “cuteness,” all while holding a torch for our clueless everyman protagonist.
While occasionally amusing, the vast majority of the material is weightless; like cotton candy, it melts in the mind, leaving no trace in its wake. Such could be said of the entirety of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. The game is thoroughly pleasant in the moment, at least for dedicated fans, but one gets the sense that, by the time Persona 5 comes around, no one will remember the plight of its particular band of bland archetypes.