Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is by the Persona team; it’s effectively a lighter-weight Persona game (plus a very light dusting of Fire Emblem), with an idol plot. And it is amazing.
I’m trying to remember what in the game first made me sit up and take notice. I have to think that it involved Kiria: maybe when she shows up and saves you at the end of the introductory dungeon, maybe when you see her first concert performance? The game characterizes her (initially) as the embodiment of cool; I’m not going to argue with that, but the message that I took from that was that this game takes a lot of care about style and presentation, with excellent results.
People who know me in person might be a little surprised to hear me say that I care about style and presentation: I am unstylish in a completely stereotypic white male programmer way, never deviating from my uniform of slightly shabby blue jeans and a solid-color shirt, with the extent of my color coordination being whether I wear a pink hairband (if my shirt is black/grey) or a black hairband (otherwise). And I’m sure that there were times in my life when I wouldn’t particularly have cared about the style that games present, when I might have even been actively disdainful towards it.
I’ve changed, though. My current attitude: style is a form of expressiveness, a form of art, and, as such, is a wonderful thing. It’s not an art form that I actively explore in my own personal life, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it: I don’t actively explore drawing or painting in my own personal life, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy going to art museums. It’s an art form / area of expression that I’m relatively ignorant about (which, actually, isn’t too different from painting, but at least with painting I have been to a decent number of art museums), but I’m at least aware enough to sit up and take notice when I see the way Tokyo Mirage Sessions uses music, dress, environmental design, Tokyo itself, and cel-shaded graphics. (And, incidentally: why isn’t cel-shading a lot more common than it is? I honestly don’t understand why some form of cel-shading isn’t the default for games that actively care about appearance.)
So yes: the most stylish game I’ve played in, uh, potentially ever? (Hmm, I guess Jet Set Radio and Katamari Damacy give it a run for its money, but still: there aren’t many games I’d compare to those two.) I would say that that level of style isn’t too surprising, given the game’s idol theme; but, comparing it to Love Live, another idol game, it’s like night and day: so much better done in Tokyo Mirage Sessions. But style isn’t the only thing going on here: the game is also grounded by an underpinning of joy.
The game thematizes that joy as cuteness (e.g. in Kiria’s evolution over the course of her side stories); certainly there’s cuteness present, and it’s well done. But there’s more to it than that. It’s the way that Mamori, as cute as she might be, is also fundamentally a good person who cares about others and who brings out a reaction of others to care about her; it’s about the way that Tsubasa leans into her insecurities, works to master whatever she’s afraid of, and burst out with a performance that is glorious partly in an expression of technique and style, but also partly in an expression of the joy of showing that you can do something, and also partly just the joy of being the good, shining person that Tsubasa is.
It’s the joy of the stickers; or, for that matter, the non-joyful range of emotions of the stickers. The game has a messaging platform that it uses to push the plot forward; like most modern messaging platforms, it has stickers. Which isn’t something that I’ve experinced personally: I’ve never used Line, and while I’m aware that iMessage has stickers these days, I’d never investigated them personally.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions has stickers; they are adorable, with the different characters having their own sets expressing their personalities. But they’re not just adorable, they really make a difference: seeing a conversation end with, say, the “Tiki is worried” sticker has an impact that words alone don’t.
This is, I’m sure, not a surprise to most people reading this: I realize that I’m behind the times in my use of messaging platforms, and that I also spend time in my own head in a way that makes me oriented towards words instead of pictures. (I appreciated the way Yashiro presents that sort of person in the game.) I’m a convert to stickers now though, or at least I’ve started using them some; sadly, there isn’t a Tokyo Mirage Sessions iMessage app, but it turns out that iMessage apps are really easy to write, so now I can send those stickers myself! (Sadly, they’re too small to work well as Slack custom emoji, even when jumbomoji…)
It’s even in the joy of the combat. The combat will be entirely familiar to any Persona player: they added in the Fire Emblem weapon triangle, and even the lead character only has access to one of the game’s equivalent of personas, but the individual combat is otherwise essentially the same, down to the names of spells. (And personally I think both of those changes are improvements over standard Persona combat.)
But the combat has a little more flair, a little more style: it’s thematized as taking place on a stage, with a cheering crowd and big pictures of your team on the side. And yes, a little more joy: there’s something something cheerful about the way that the team members do their attacks, especially the way that they do follow-up attacks.
I haven’t always been a fan of the way that, when JRPGs moved to the third dimension, they added in animations for attacks, potentially even rather lengthy ones for special attacks. But somehow Tokyo Mirage Sessions pulls this off in a way that kept me watching the animations until the very end of the game, even as the attacks get longer.
Because they really do get long: you unlock an ability for your team members to do follow-on “session” attacks if you attack an enemy’s vulnerability (which each team member can almost always do): so each attack quickly turns into a trio of attacks, and then, halfway through the game, non-primary party members can join in, so you get up to seven attacks. And then, as you complete side quests, every once in a while, two team members will put on a special joint performance, which will allow the chain to restart.
The game is reasonably thoughtful about this from a “waste of time” point of view: for most enemies, there just aren’t that many interesting choices, so having you defeat weak groups of enemies with a single attack plus a chain of followups jumping from enemy to enemy makes them less tedious, and having you defeat enemies that are just under your level with one attack plus a chain per enemy also works well. And that sort of respect for the player’s time is important: but equally important is the way the chains come off as a bunch of skilled performers who enjoy showing off their craft and riffing off each other. The joint performance animations really do take a little while, but they don’t show up that often, and they include some of the single cutest animations in the entire game.
Those chain attacks and joint attacks, in turn, point out the final aspect of the game that makes it so special: its focus on teamwork and companionship. When writing about Persona 4, I mentioned that one of the things that I liked about that game is that it presents your superpower is being a good friend and collecting good friends. And Tokyo Mirage Sessions does something very similar: you join a production company, and apparently you do get jobs as a singer / dancer / actor, but you’re never a star in that regard: your party members are the stars, they’re the ones whom you see in videos, on posters, on magazine covers.
But what you do is help them grow, help them become better. At the start, your role is more one of encouragement, of literally providing courage to Tsubasa. But, as the game goes on, you get deeper: you turn into a set of eyes that can coach people, and you even help your team members learn from each other as well.
I remember wondering halfway through the game when the protagonist would get his own music video, and then (once I thought about the question) realizing that the answer was “never”, because you’re not a star. But then, when the credits rolled around, I heard a song over them with an unexpected voice, and realized: finally it’s your turn.
Which made sense in so many ways. On a basic level, it makes sense to let the protagonist sing the last song that you hear, the one that brings the game to a close. On a thematic level, though: the song is playing over the credits, which means that, while you’re listening to it, you’re seeing the names of all of the people who worked together to bring the game into existence, so you want the singer who is the ultimate manifestation of teamwork. And, on a musical level: the voice isn’t the voice of a star, there’s nothing ostentatious about the song and it’s not clear that the singer would be well suited to a more ostentatious song. But it’s performed well, you have no trouble imagining it as being done by somebody who is professionally successful in a more background/supportive role.
And, emotionally: there’s something about that last performance that makes me just feel like I’m at home. I’ve listened to the soundtrack a bunch of times, I like all the songs on the soundtrack and I like some of them quite a bit, but much of the time I think that that last song is my favorite song on the soundtrack. It’s the one that lets me relax, feel like I’m part of the family, and just be happy.
This game and Persona 4 are my favorites from the games that I’ve played for the first time this year; Tokyo Mirage Sessions seems like it should be a minor side project, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s some of Persona Team’s best work, and I personally think it’s better than Persona 3. From a game mechanics point of view, they’ve made intelligent choices about what to keep and what to refine: I prefer this version of the dungeon exploration, the combat mechanics, and the leveling mechanics. The studio has always been stylish, and with Catherine we saw that perhaps starting to come to the fore a little more, but the evolution that Tokyo Mirage Sessions shows in that regard is significant. (And that combined with the footage I’ve seen of Persona 5 is making me very optimistic about that game!) Most importantly, the emotional grounding of this game is real and deep.
Having said that, Persona 4 (and Persona 3, for that matter) also has its own virtues that Tokyo Mirage Sessions doesn’t show as strongly. Those games are built around a calendar, with a corresponding focus on daily life and on small-scale, intimate situations. Not that the story missions in Tokyo Mirage Sessions don’t provide intimacy: on the contrary, they absolutely do present you with your team members in vulnerable, honest situations. But it’s different from seeing them in school day after day for month after month, from going to the same streets and stores over and over again. And, also: a game built around a team of idols is going to be different from a game whose heart is an elementary school student who has lost its mother.
So yeah, Tokyo Mirage Sessions doesn’t have the same type of emotional texture that Persona 4 does, and you could make a case that it loses something with its focus on a group of people who are larger than life. (Though that is only a difference compared to a Persona game: it’s entirely in character with the anointed-savior-of-the-world plot of most role-playing games out there!) But, if you accept that premise: it does what it does very well indeed, with flair and style, with joy, and, ultimately with love and caring.
This post has not been revised since publication.