It was somewhere between rescuing a burly American moe-obsessive dressed like a Saturday morning cartoon version of a Gwar member and helping a friend audition for a role in a TV procedural about a magical sneezing detective directed by Kuen Taranchino that I realized something: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE shouldn't exist. Look at that title - it's a total mouthful, that 'pound' symbol pronounced as the 'sharp' in musical notation. The game itself is a concept so absurd it's almost alienating, as it combines elements from the relatively niche Shin Megami Tensei series, sprinkles in some Fire Emblem characters, and makes it all about a bunch of young teens trying to make it as J-Pop stars in modern-day Tokyo. But all of that works in its favor, as Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a fun, incredibly player-friendly romp that knows it shouldn't take itself too seriously.
Even the game’s set-up, which is rooted in tragedy, is immediately upended by its bubblegum-flavored tone. Five years ago, a paranormal event at an opera house caused the disappearance of everyone on stage and in attendance - except for a single girl. Fast forward to now: That girl is now a young adult, and she wants to be a J-Pop idol so she can find out what happened to her sister, a famed pop star who disappeared during that disaster. And so Tsubasa, along with her friend and protagonist, Itsuki Aoi, stumble into the Idolasphere, a mysterious place filled with Mirages (aka demons/this game's version of Personas) out to steal Performa (aka creative energy) from unsuspecting humans. You both search deep within yourselves and discover the ability to control specific Mirages, and with the power of song and friendship, you band together to save Tokyo from this new menace. It's so incredibly goofy and sincere that you can't help but smile the whole time you're playing. This isn't like other Shin Megami Tensei/Persona stories - yes, bad things are happening, but everything is bright, cheerful, and tongue is firmly in cheek even when things are at their most dour. I mean, there are mid-dungeon song-and-dance routines to fake anime theme songs. It's incredible.
That sense of levity and buoyancy extends right into its gameplay, which will be immediately familiar to Shin Megami Tensei fans, albeit incredibly streamlined. Instead of collecting a menagerie of monsters to do your bidding, each party member has one Mirage to control, each one resembling various heroes from throughout the Fire Emblem timeline. Individual battles hinge on being able to figure out and exploit enemy weaknesses, and then chaining attacks with your other party members for additional free hits. Throw a Bufu spell at an enemy with an ice weakness, and if your other teammates have abilities which combine with that attack, they'll get a hit in too without wasting any energy points.
Everything about Tokyo Mirage Sessions' interface facilitates exploitation of this system, too. A list of stats hovers over the currently selected enemy, complete with strengths and weaknesses; an exclamation point appears when your selected attack will do extra damage; and gigantic character portraits in the background show whether your selected party members' additional attacks will be effective or not. It may seem like the game's doing you perhaps too many favors, but you'll need every advantage you can get - especially when later enemies start exploiting your weaknesses, and get four, five, six, additional hits on you in a turn.
It's a combat system that feels simultaneously brisk yet full of depth and strategy, and it's just one of the ways that Tokyo Mirage Sessions gets a lot of the bullshit out of the way to keep things fun and as grind-free as possible. Instead of cultivating, leveling up, and fusing a roster of hundreds of Persona, you only have to worry about crafting tiny subset of weapons for each character, effectively producing a similar level of customizability without much of the frustration. You can save anywhere you want, dungeon warp points are plentiful, you can switch out party members mid-battle, and you can teleport back to your home base from anywhere in the game. Heck, you can change the difficulty at any point without penalty if you're just having too hard a time against a particularly tricky boss. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is easily one of the friendliest entries I've played in the Shin Megami Tensei series, but there's enough challenge here that none of these concessions feel like it's dumbing itself down - all of it just fits with the goofy and vibrant tone of its story.
There are still a few relics from the series which hold it back a bit, though. For one, each character can only hold six combat skills at a time, and if you end up learning a seventh, you're forced to either forget one of the skills you already have or forgo learning it entirely. It made sense in Persona, when you had dozens of monsters to switch out depending on the situation, but it really sucks to not know whether you'll end up needing that defensive buff more than that sword attack further down the line.
There's also a ton of backtracking, too. Dungeons themselves are relatively small, full of interesting puzzles and obstacles to break up the monotony of random battles, but you're constantly encouraged to teleport back to your base to craft new weapons (so you can learn the skills imbued on them) or unlock new Radiant Unity skills (which offer permanent stat boosts and other helpful abilities). A run through a chapter will typically go something like this: Make a little headway, master the skills on your equipped weapons, teleport back to base, fuse more weapons, head back into the dungeon, push a little further, master your skills, teleport back, and on, and on. At first, it's not so bad because your loadout is pretty limited, but once you get a few party members on your team and it starts getting more difficult to craft more than an extra weapon or two at a time, that back and forth can turn into a bit of a slog.
Even with some pacing issues, there's no hiding that Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (no, I still cannot get over that name) isn't afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. It's unabashedly weird, but it totally owns it, and uses its ridiculous concept to craft a solid, surprisingly engrossing JRPG framework that's impossible to resist.
This game was reviewed on Wii U.