Did you know that SMT backwards is TMS?
On paper, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE sounds like something that was custom-made for people like me; it's a lengthy Japanese RPG that incorporates elements of Fire Emblem and Persona, packed with J-pop and J-rock topped by Hatsune Miku references. There are opportunities to experience everyday life in modern-day Tokyo and a whole lot of dungeon crawling with a dynamic combat system built on the foundation of the Shin Megami Tensei games. Now, it's been ported to Switch (hence "Encore") with extra content, opening this former Wii U exclusive from 2015-16 to a wider audience--including myself who'd previously only played through the prologue. But throughout my 15-ish hours so far, I keep wondering what it is I'm fighting for.
With the publishing help of Nintendo, Atlus took some of the building blocks of Megami Tensei, turned the diabolic slider all the way down, and put music and performing arts center stage as the supernatural power that can defeat demonic entities. TMS mostly revolves around two main characters, Itsuki Aoi and Tsubasa Oribe, who get wrapped up in a mystery of evil spirits (Mirages) from another dimension (the Idolasphere) taking over the souls (called Performa) of entertainers. It's laid clear enough in the prologue, and the duo's friends from within the music industry progressively join the cause as Itsuki and Tsubasa stumble their way through showbiz.
Now that's a premise I can get behind. But as much as I adore those concepts, the whole hasn't come together--the threads that tie its characters and story events feel hollow, and how the game moves on without much reflection makes it hard to care about the struggles at hand.
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I could forgive the early scene where Itsuki and Tsubasa suddenly know how to transform into their magical forms and harness the power of Mirages using glowing orbs that come out of their chests, despite them knowing nothing about the Idolasphere beforehand. However, as more narrative pieces begin to stack, TMS drops the ball while trying to connect its threads in a meaningful way. It's easy to appreciate the attempt at showing the effect of succumbing to the pressures of a front-facing industry, but the game doesn't take the necessary steps to establish itself. I keep thinking about how Tsubasa's sister Ayaha, who was a popular performer herself, disappeared for five years and is eventually saved by your party. Sure, there's a warm scene where they're happy to see each other again, but shortly after, Ayaha just kind of exists as an assistant for your agency. Five years she was gone, and you just keep it moving.
Although those are just a few examples, they're indicative of how the story has progressed so far. Things just kind of happen without much rhyme or reason in the moment, largely skipping the beats necessary for them to make sense in the context of TMS's world.
It probably sounds as if I'm having a bad time with TMS#FE Encore, but that's a bit far from the truth. For all the aforementioned gripes, I can't help but embrace some of the sugary pop music and incessant upbeat vibes, because it's often just plain fun. That especially applies to the incredible spectacle of combat, which takes place in front of a large otherworldly audience that's constantly cheering you on. Your party's costumes change as the power of your Mirages come forth in fights, which are directly drawn from Fire Emblem characters and classes. Layered systems make combat like a dynamic turn-based puzzle, and the unique loop of crafting equipment upgrades--which is tied to learning new skills/spells--is fantastic throughout.
If you've played an SMT or Persona game, you'll recognize the same names for spells and similar mechanics of exploiting elemental weaknesses, and that doing so lets you pile on extra attacks within the same turn. In TMS, that perk manifests as Session attacks, which play out like choreographing the perfect steps to a dance; when you hit a foe's weakness and have the right Session Skills set to your party members, one turn will blossom into a combo of subsequent attacks that unfolds in a stylish flurry dealing lots of damage.
Style may not account for substance, but it's the visual excitement that carries me through, in a way that you'll feel compelled to watch attacks play out rather than fast-forwarding past them. I know this'll sound ridiculous, given what I've said about nonsensical cheesiness, but when the random Extra Skills activate, and for some reason characters begin to sing, dance, and perform to cast a big spell, I'm obliged to shake my head in simultaneous bewilderment and enjoyment.
There are a bunch of neat references that'd put a smile on the face of those who love TMS's source material. A personal favorite is the Hee-Ho Mart sponsored by SMT mascot Jack Frost, and the clerk clearly resembles the recurring Fire Emblem character Anna who assumes her canonical role as a merchant. Instantly recognizing SMT spell names make combat feel right at home, and little things, like the level-up jingles from Fire Emblem, are a cool touch. Some good fan service never hurts.
At some point, you accept that TMS doesn't make too much sense, nor does it have to. Not every game needs to have a prevailing, grand message, but I still wrestle with the fact that TMS isn't mindful of coherent story arcs in the front 15 hours of the game. It assumes that I already care from the start and skipped all the necessary steps to get there. Don't get me wrong, TMS is a fun time that doesn't take itself too seriously. It has jams, slick style, and a great spin on the SMT combat system. And I'd be remiss not to mention the beautifully animated cutscenes, which rival the character performances you see in an anime like Love Live. However, if you have several 50-to-60-hour RPGs all vying for your time, I'm not sure I'd put TMS#FE Encore on the priority list right now.
I intend on seeing it through not just because of the Atlus name or that it directly draws from some of my favorite franchises, but also because I know what it's like to love a game and tell others that it "doesn't get good 'til hour [insert high number here]." TMS may or may not click when I wrap it up, but I'm glad that it's available on the Switch, giving us a great way to experience something that was likely overlooked in the recent past.