Sunday, June 7, 2020

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore - Review

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was an interesting Wii U title. It was originally announced as a Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem crossover, and was teased by showing still images of characters from both Fire Emblem Awakening, and Shin Megami Tensie IV. Back then no one really knew what to expect, but the final product was beyond everyone’s wildest imaginations. Instead of getting a Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem crossover, the final product was what could only be described as “Persona Emblem.” A game mixing Persona like themes, with Fire Emblem characters and systems, and then throwing in Japanese idols on top of the whole thing. It was a crazy idea, and not what many fans were hoping for, but hey? It worked! Despite all it’s strange mix of concepts, it was a solid RPG, and a great hold over for the then upcoming Persona 5.

Jump ahead a few years, and the Wii U is no more, the Nintendo Switch is Nintendo’s newest main console, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions has long since been forgotten. The game remained a Wii U exclusive, there has been no news on a possible sequel, and Persona 5 continues to steal the spot light every chance it gets. Things were looking pretty slim for this old niche RPG, but then one day something unexpected happened — Nintendo and Atlus made the announcement of the game’s return. Like many Wii U games before it, TMS would receive an enhanced Switch port, with brand new features. The game would be include the “Encore” sub title, and would be based off of the Western release (which did receive some slack due to censorship). This made a lot of fans happy, as things have actually changed a lot since the game’s original release. Back then both Shin Megami Tensei (and especially Persona), and Fire Emblem had a smaller core fan base, but now thanks to the popularity of recent titles, these series have both gained a lot more traction. With all of these new fans missing the original Wii U release, the new Switch version would be the perfect time to jump back in. But, should they? Or for that matter, should you returning fans? What exactly is Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore, and is it worth playing? Especially if you’ve finished the original release? Well, hopefully today I can answer that question for you.

The Story of TMS:

I’ll be very blunt. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is not as story focused as one might think. While there is an overall plot, the real focus here is on it’s characters, and the gameplay. That being said however, the core story is still interesting enough to keep you moving forward through the game.

The game begins with our young main character named Itsuki stopping by an audition for Japan’s next top idol. Unknown to him at the time, his best friend Tsubasa is there to audition, and has dreams of becoming a famous singer. When she was younger her sister vanished on stage right before her eyes, and Tsubasa both hopes to follow in her sister’s footsteps, and to get to the bottom of what happened to her. The strange incident was never explained, but unknown to her, simply being at this particular audition is going to help her get to the truth. During the audition something strange happens, and both Itsuki and Tsubasa find themselves in an unknown world. This is the world of the mirages.

As Itsuki explores this strange world, he eventually runs into a strange being that seemingly wants to kill him; however, instead of being slaughtered by this “monster,” Itsuki’s body naturally reacts, and by using his “performa” power, he’s able to restore the being to his normal state. This creature’s name is “Chrom” (yes, the main character of Fire Emblem Awakening), and he agrees to share his power with Itsuki so that he can protect Tsubasa from the “real” monsters of that world. Shortly after Itsuki and Tsubasa’s friend Touma also appears, and joins in the fight against the monsters. Tsubasa “teams up” with one of the strange people as well, so together the three take down the big bad monster that kidnapped them all in the first place. Sound confusing and rushed? That’s because it is. Basically Touma goes on to explain that there’s a secret world unknown to most people, and that the studio he works for actually secretly fights these monsters known as mirages. Meanwhile the human like mirages such as Chrom only want to return to their own world, and don’t want to be used by other people for evil deeds. So naturally Itsuki and Tsubasa join in on the fight, and Tsubasa takes her first steps to becoming an idol.

Overall, the plot really isn’t anything that special. It’s mostly focused on a group of friends, as they hang out and get to know their new teammates as they join, and then they spring into action to fight monsters when the need arises. Each chapter introduces a new “big bad” that the main characters need to stop, and that in return leads them into the alternate world filled with monsters. Although the plot never really evolves past this, the characters themselves are what help drive you forward with the story, while the gameplay is fun enough to stand on it’s own. This is the real reason to play TMS.

The Gameplay:

TMS is split into two parts. The first part of the game is the over world, and is very similar to what we’ve seen in past Persona games. You have a town map that lists everywhere you can go, and choosing an area will take you there to explore. Town areas have a fixed camera angle, and are loaded with NPCs to talk to, and shops to visit. Side quests and side stories can also be accessed by talking to the right people, and doing so will help you become closer to your teammates. The relationship system is something that becomes important early on, and it controls what side stories you can play, and when you can play them. It’s not the “dating sim” like system seen in Persona, but it does have a similar feel, with each character having a full side story to work through. These extra chapters usually come complete with new bosses to fight as well, so it’s more than just story cutscenes. Once you get into one of these stories, or continue with the main story however, then that’s when you come face to face with the game’s combat system — or in other words, the main part of the game.

Battles in TMS are turn based, and put your party of characters on a circular stage. The enemies are at the center of said stage, and the turn order is displayed at the top of the screen. Like your own party members, each enemy has their own weaknesses that you need to exploit to win, and they too will try to do the same to you. This is actually where the main “Fire Emblem” aspect of the game comes into play, as it uses a SMT style weakness system, but replaces it’s normal weaknesses with that of the Fire Emblem weapon triangle. In other words, swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. Then you have special cases like bows being strong against flying enemies, and magic just being crazy strong — except with SMT’s weakness system mixed in. While exploiting weaknesses gives you the standard bonus of “this attack hits harder if the enemy is weak to it,” there’s actually a second effect that kicks into play as well. Similar to the Turn Press system seen in SMT, or the standard Persona battle system — by hitting a weakness in TMS, you’re allowed to make follow up attacks. In the other games (SMT and Persona) you’re allowed to pick what move you do next, but in TMS you have something called a “session” attack instead. These are follow up skills that automatically play out if your other party members have the skill to do so. So for example, if one character has the skill “lance-electric,” then they’ll hit with an electrical combo attack whenever an enemy is hit by their lance weakness. This can then be extended by other characters, by having them equip with other combos — such as “electric-fire,” which will then follow that last electric based hit, with a fire attack. Basically as long as your party members have the required skills, then you can create massive combos that will deal massive damage. This system was upgraded for the Encore release, but I’ll be getting back to that later.

After you finish a battle, characters will gain EXP to level up, and you’ll be given the ability to customize them how you wish. Each character can only hold so many skills (and session attacks), so you have to think carefully about what you want them to learn. You do have the ability to recover skills you missed however, and you do have a lot more freedom with skills than one might think. Rather than just learning skills as you level up, the skills are actually transferred from the weapons your characters are holding, and the weapons can be upgraded and “recrafted” to go back and learn any skills you initially skipped. Weapons are crafted and upgraded by getting materials from the enemies you kill, and can be done back at the area that acts as your “main base.” Sadly this can become annoying pretty quick, as there are many times where you’ll finally get the required materials for a weapon in the middle of the dungeon, and you’ll have to leave and go all the way back to craft it... Only to then return to where you left off in a dungeon, possible 10-20 minutes later. Of course you could always go the route of “not upgrading and crafting new weapons” until you get to a good stopping point, but then you’ll be missing out on weapon EXP to learn the new skills. In other words, you’re hurting yourself if you don’t get your new weapon as soon as possible.

The skills and weapons themselves are very similar to other Shin Megami Tensei games. In fact, most of the very same abilities from those games have made it into TMS. Zio is your electrical attack for example, and it has multiple “evolved” forms. Some of these are multi target hitting attacks, while others are just upgrades to power. These “stronger spell” versions aren’t the only way to power them up however, as by relearning the exact same skill that you already have, you’ll upgrade it to a “plus” version. So if you have Zio learned already, and you equip a sword that also teaches you Zio, it will then be upgraded into Zio + 1. Thanks to the weapon upgrade system, you can actually keep crafting the same weapon over and over again, and eventually upgrade all your skills to their highest plus values. It’s quite the grind, but thankfully Encore introduced a way to speed this up.

Finally, the last major part of the gameplay is none other than the dungeons themselves. Dungeons are where you’ll spend most of your play time, and even outside of battle they will be taking up a lot of your time. Each dungeon has some sort of gimmick/puzzle for you to work through, and each one ends up being longer than the last. While none of these puzzles are actually “hard,” they are very time consuming, and often require a lot of back tracking. Really it’s to be expected, considering this is a dungeon crawler, but it could turn some people off. Especially if they don’t enjoy the gameplay enough to keep fighting.

The Additions to Encore:

Despite how it sounds, Encore is basically still the very same game that was released on the Wii U. The core game has not really been altered, with only a handful of things being added in to help “improve” the game. These additions are mostly in the form of a very short extra dungeon, and the cameo costumes that are unlocked by beating it. These costumes include Joker’s phantom thief outfit from Persona 5, as well as some other Shin Megami Tensei based outfits. None of this really adds much to the game, but it’s nice fan service for long time players. Other than this, there is one other addition that does actually help out a lot. The ability to skip session attacks!

As I said before, sessions are massive combos that’s deal a lot of damage to the enemies, and are key to making it through the game. You want to do these attacks as much as possible, and eventually you’ll reach the point where you are pretty much only using session attacks. The problem? The animations are very, VERY, long. Battles that should take seconds, can end up lasting for minutes, and longer fights against normal enemies can take up to 20 minutes or so. These session attacks take a long time to play out, and by the end of the game they’ll really drag on. Encore actually takes this a step further by introducing side characters to the mix These characters will join in on your session attacks, and will help you continue your combos by making them even longer. This means a lot more time wasted just watching the attack animations, and there’s no way to skip it. Oh wait, now there is!

Yep, while you couldn’t skip the animations in the Wii U release, that is no longer the case with Encore. While you still see the characters “hit” the enemy during their session attacks, you no longer actually have to watch the full animation. In other words, instead of waiting possibly five minutes for the attack to end, it’ll now be over in a matter of seconds. It’s a huge help, and prevents battles from dragging on longer than they need to be. This is the true “main” improvement made to encore, and the main reason to play this release over the original. Well, that and the fact that it also includes all of the DLC.

Along with that extra dungeon, you can also access grinding maps. These are areas where you can quickly get materials, and level up your characters and weapons in no time. It cuts down on the grinding by a lot, but it can also completely break the game by making it too easy. It’s something that shouldn’t be abused if you still want a challenge, but it also really helps save time when all you want to do is learn new skills for your new characters. Overall it’s not a huge addition to the game, but it’s still really nice.

The Good and the Bad:

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is a unique game. It mixes classic SMT dungeon crawling, with Fire Emblem systems, and puts it all to a music filled story. While it’s plot really isn’t it’s strong point, the characters are still fun and likable, and the gameplay is pretty solid. It’s nothing outstanding by any means, especially compared to other SMT titles, but it’s still good enough to stand on it’s own. It’s a great way for newcomers to get introduced to the series, and is something worth checking out if you are already a fan. While it might not blow you away, it’s still a fun ride from start to finish. That being said, the story itself really is it’s main shortcoming, and it’s actually a little bit on the short side. Rather than being a close to 100 hour adventure, this one clocks in more around the 40 hour mark — and that’s with grinding. The Fire Emblem aspects of the game are also mostly just “there,” with the characters mostly acting as armor for the “real” human main characters. They basically replace the Persona/Demons from the mainline games, and rely on player’s knowledge of who they actually are. Overall it’s not really an issue, but it might disappoint some Fire Emblem fans who were hoping for something more.

Putting this aside, the game’s a fun RPG adventure on the Switch, and one that’s worth at least giving a chance. (That’s assuming the pop idol themes don’t turn you off!)