Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore review

I wish more crossover games took the Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE approach. Typically, when a game wants to blend multiple different properties, there’s some sort of very contrived incident that quickly smashes two universes together so that we can get as quickly as possible to the fan-service that arises from “what if Wolverine from X-Men and Ryu from Street Fighter had a fight?”.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE—and, by extension, the enhanced version for Nintendo Switch, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore—is a bit different. It’s a crossover between Atlus Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series and Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, but you probably wouldn’t guess that at a glance. With a story focused on a group of idols in modern-day Tokyo who moonlight as monster hunters in an alternate dimension, it bears a resemblance to SMT-offshoot Persona, but it’s certainly not the grim post-apocalypse of SMT proper or the epic fantasy of Fire Emblem. Indeed, through the first few chapters, the influence of Fire Emblem in particular feels almost non-existent, beyond the names and (heavily altered) likenesses of a few characters who assist the main party in combat.

But that’s because rather than simply being a framework for the hype of seeing two universes collide, Tokyo Mirage Sessions‘ crossover aspect is all about using the influence of all its disparate source material in service of a single, coherent theme: the corruptible power of entertainment.

First and foremost, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a story about Japan’s idol industry, both the good and the bad. Japanese idols are more than just pop stars; they’re all-around entertainers, heavily manufactured and commercialised with a goal of appearing as relatable and approachable as possible to their fans. They’re seen as role models and sources of inspiration, and there’s a lot of good that comes with that, but there are stark downsides too: idols exist for their fans, and tend to have their personal lives heavily controlled to ensure their public image doesn’t get tarnished; idol culture is a breeding ground for obsessive fandom; and the sheer amount of work that goes into being an idol can be intense.

True to its Persona heritage, Tokyo Mirage Sessions tackles this through a story about otherwise regular young people—well, as “regular” as idols can be—balancing their everyday lives with protecting the world from otherworldly invaders called “Mirages”. These demonic creatures feed on people’s creative energy, and in some cases, even possess humans and draw out the worst aspects of their creativity. The stars of Fortuna Entertainment are able to fight back by crossing the barrier between the real world and the “Idolasphere”, assisted by Mirages of their very own: amnesiac heroes from a handful of different Fire Emblem titles.

Each new dungeon within the Idolasphere is themed around some aspect or another of the idol industry, which feeds into both the aesthetic design and puzzles. One sees you climbing a towering, multi-floor department store by way of giant mannequins that are limited to a select few rigid poses. Another has you running around the (beautiful) set of a period film completing seemingly pointless tasks at the behest of an stressed-out director. Another involves navigating a photo gallery with modelling pictures plastered all over the place, while trying to avoid the flashing lights of giant cameras.

These dungeons are clearly designed to criticise the aspects of idol culture that they parody in a very fantastical way, but there’s plenty of more grounded critique to be found outside the Idolasphere, too. Each member of Fortuna Entertainment has their own struggles that they’re working through, but they all have a common theme of trying to find a place in an industry where people are productised to a fault.

At the same time, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is quick to acknowledge the good that can come with an idol’s influence, when it’s not abused. There’s a lot of attention given the simple joy that an energetic musical performance can give to its audience, while certain subplots get much more personal—like looking at how superhero shows helped someone get through an especially difficult time in their childhood.

This kind of psychological exploration and social commentary is the bread and butter of Persona, but Fire Emblem‘s role  is far from superficial—though there isn’t a lot I can say without delving into some major late-game plot points. Suffice to say that through Fire Emblem, Tokyo Mirage Sessions draws a thread about the role that performance plays in any culture. Modern-day entertainment idols couldn’t be more different from the folk performances and religious rituals one might expect from a setting like that of Fire Emblem, but the roles they play in their respective societies is more than a little similar.

The idol theme carries through the rest of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE too. The battle system largely follows turn-based JRPG convention, but each encounter is presented like a performance: your party and your foes all sharing a stage, surrounded by a screaming audience of mirages. The Fortuna idols cast spells not by incantation, but by painting their signature into the air in front of them, and each character has a handful of special performances they can put on to attack foes or bolster allies. Even the main menu keeps this going, with options like “Wardrobe” and “Casting” instead of the standard “Equipment” and “Party” functions.

The most unique part of Tokyo Mirage Sessions‘ battle system is its Sessions—again, keeping with the idea of performance. As well as their normal, selectable combat abilities, each character can learn an array of “Session Skills”, each one with two connected elements or weapon properties (like “Elec-Wind” or “Wind-Slash”). Whenever anyone attacks an enemy’s weakness, if any allies have a corresponding Session Skill, it’ll spark a follow-up attack, which can then lead to further attacks. As in a music session, it’s all about coordination and complementing one another—and with the right party setup, you can build some impressive Sessions indeed.

In the original release of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE on Wii U, this was a bit of a double edged sword, because there was no way to speed up Session animations, leading to a lot of downtime in battle. One of the most welcome improvements in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is an option to skip the bulk of those animations, letting even the most lengthy Sessions play out in a matter of seconds. That isn’t to say that the animations themselves aren’t worthwhile—they are—but when you’ve seen them a few times already, sitting through upwards of 10 different attack animations, back to back, could get annoying. In Encore, that’s much less of an issue.

The Switch version also adds a mini-map, reducing the need to constantly be pulling up the full map when you’re exploring Tokyo Mirage Sessions‘ relatively complicated dungeons. The lack of a mini-map wasn’t a dealbreaker in the original, but it’s certainly a welcome addition here. 

Finally, Encore includes all the DLC that was released for the Wii U version, as well a new three-part EX Story that explores the relationship between two of Fortuna’s stars in a little bit more depth. None of this is particularly groundbreaking, but it’s nice to have all the same—the DLC covers a variety of different costumes and some extra dungeons to help with levelling, while the EX Story is a neat little addendum to the main narrative, with some nice new costumes and a new dungeon to go with it.

But it’s that main story and the themes it explores that are real draw in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore, especially for people who missed out on playing the original. It’s a clever, insightful reflection on society, with all the style that we’ve come to expect from the people behind Persona, with a layer of Fire Emblem to help contextualise those themes. It might not be what people would expect from a “Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem” game, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is brilliant in the way it uses the crossover to underscore a message about the power of entertainment to change lives, for better and for worse.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.