Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, the long-awaited mashup between Shin Megami Tensei developer Atlus and the Fire Emblem creators at Intelligent Systems, occasionally feels a bit too ambitious for the amount of boxes it's trying to tick. It's the plot of an SMT game--demons invade from another realm and attempt to control our world--with Fire Emblem characters portraying said demons, veneered with the color palette of a Lisa Frank folder and a J-pop-centric story. The relationship-building and demon-recruiting elements of SMT and its spin-off Persona series are present, but the rest is unmistakably Fire Emblem: the weapon and skill upgrades system, mastering and changing classes, the rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle. It's not that there is an overwhelming amount of things you need to complete in Tokyo Mirage Sessions; other than the main story and a handful of side quests, there isn't much to explore. But the tasks it does ask you to accomplish are challenging (and silly) enough to hold your interest.
The story itself is a bit of a cheesy mess, but it commits to itself so seriously it's difficult not to get wrapped up in the drama. Teens Itsuki and Tsubasa find themselves pulled up in an otherworldly war. Fire Emblem heroes and enemies appear as otherworldly beings called Mirages, who are stealing people's Performa--the creative spirit that resides in singers, actors, and other entertainers--and collecting it in a bid to take over the world. Shibuya, Tokyo is rife with these beings, and those who can control Mirages are called Mirage Masters. Itsuki and his gang recruit the likes of Chrom (Fire Emblem: Awakening), Caeda (or Shiida from Shadow Dragon), Tharja (Awakening), and Tiki (a recurring series character) to help them defeat the evil Mirages and save Shibuya from certain destruction.
At first glance the Fire Emblem characters, redesigned with much darker looks (just see what they did to Chrom), seem a bit out of place in the technicolor-pop world of #FE's Shibuya. But rather than simply shoehorn their appearances in, the game uses them in the same way demons and Personas are used in the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona franchises. Each Mirage is attached to one character, and the pair level up alongside each other through combat. Antagonists from the Fire Emblem series show up as enemy boss fights, including Aversa and Gangrel from Fire Emblem: Awakening, and even side characters like Anna make brief appearances as Shibuya shop clerks. The way the Fire Emblem cast is used is creative, and after a while you'll be able to look past the twisted, dark art style that characterizes their looks for #FE.
The majority of your time in #FE is spent in dungeons. Each takes on a unique appearance--one is the set of a Japanese culture film, another an eerie television studio--and features its own twist on environmental puzzles. One area requests you find and help small groups of Mirages by lighting lamps in their dressing rooms; another is more complicated, requiring you crack a numerical code to determine which doors in a given area will let you advance. All of these tasks might be completed while fielding off random encounters, as enemy Mirages will appear and attack without warning.
These dungeon puzzles can take some time to unpack and require you to pay close attention to your surroundings. At first I was frustrated with the difficulty of some of them, writing them off as tedious since they require a lot of backtracking through areas on foot. There is very little direction on where to find things, like hidden walls to new areas, and although this wandering is required it's refreshing in that at no point does the game hold your hand. The deeper I went into the game, the more challenging the puzzles became, and in the end I enjoyed their trials almost as much as I enjoyed combat.
But Tokyo Mirage Sessions' gorgeously-animated turn-based battles are where the game really shines; it's a delight to watch Tsubasa, clad in her Pegasus Knight getup, backflip into the arena and stab an opponent before Kiria preps an ice spell and blasts the enemy into oblivion. Fights are fun to watch, as our heroes and enemies dance in a flurry of attacks around each fighting arena. Some special attacks can trigger a Session, which essentially allows you extra turns as each hero character gets in an extra hit on an enemy. The way battles are set up, with difficulty scaling up the deeper you get into the game, encourages you to take your time in seeking out attacks that trigger a Session. This, coupled with elemental weaknesses and resistance in some enemy types, creates layers to each battle requires you take time to carefully plan out attacks two or three turns ahead. It's a strategy-oriented battle system, and feels like Fire Emblem in that you have to to consider both hero and enemy placement as well as what weapons and magic your team currently has at their disposal.
Sometimes, however, boss battles feel more like a war of attrition than a fair fight. Even when I was overleveled, I had difficulty with some late-game battles involving a boss that continuously multiplied himself or another that required me to kill three creatures at the exact same time or they would keep reviving. Other bosses just had a stupidly high amount of health and no real attack pattern, and dragging out a fight with such dull rules doesn't making overcoming the conflict rewarding.
Outside of dungeons, you can take time to upgrade your passive skills--called Radiant--and weapons--called Carnage. Both are upgraded by collecting Performa and detritus from the enemies you defeat. Many special skills are tied to the narrative and require characters to meet certain level or story-focused milestones before they become available, but weapons can be levelled up through regular combat. Each weapon, once mastered, will grant the character access to new skills, and you are encouraged to swap to a new weapon immediately after mastering an old one since you can now move on and diversify your skillset with another weapon. This system isn't complex but it is rich, as each weapon can imbue a character with new or more powerful healing or elemental abilities, depending on your choosing. For example, I made sure to equip Tsubasa with spears that taught advanced healing and elemental spells, and by the end of the game she was a caster to be reckoned with. You can pick and choose which skills to learn and which to forget, allowing for a range of customization in each character's repertoire.
Mirages, too, can change their class using a Master Seal, and upgrading a Mirage class affects the power of the user. For example, upgrading Chrom to a Great Lord class heightens Itsuki's attack power and unlocks new, more powerful special abilities. Levelling up Mirages, unlocking and crafting new weapons, and cherry picking what skills to learn is all ripped from the Fire Emblem series, and it is expertly grafted onto Tokyo Mirage Sessions. Juggling all this requires some careful planning, but the payoff in battle is truly satisfying.
And when you're not in battle or running around dungeons, you're spending time with your comrades in Shibuya. The city isn't as open-world as perhaps you'd like, with traversal between buildings in the city relegated to fast travel. You can explore Central Shibuya on foot, but there are unfortunately few NPCs to interact with and you are stuck on the sidewalk, navigating the spaces between item shops. Tokyo Mirage Sessions uses the Wii U GamePad like a cell phone, where text messages from your companions will occasionally appear. Sometimes these texts will indicate a new side quest, where you can strengthen your relationship with your friends similar to the Social Link from the Persona games. Side stories typically involve some running around Shibuya with one companion, followed by brief dungeon time and a mini boss battle. These quests add depth to Tokyo Mirage Session's story, and give you additional chances to level up your Mirages and gear.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #Fe is gorgeous, fun, and a smart collaboration all around. Backtracking through dungeons and running up against tedious bosses can bring the momentum down, but overall the game is something worth exploring. After a few dozen hours the semi-ludicrous story and systems set in front of you feel so comfortable together that this mashup of developer Atlus' most popular franchise and Intelligent Systems' beloved strategy RPG seems like it was destined to be.