Bucketlog December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: Beyond Oasis (MD)August: Two Worlds II (X360)September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru (GB)
October: Arc the Lad (PS1)November: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: ♯FE (Wii U)

December

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Well, we made it to the end of the year and I'm happy (?) to say that I've yet to kick the proverbial bucket after which this feature is named, so we might see more long-awaited (by me at least) playthroughs in the years to come. The last entry for 2019 is also where I finally say goodbye to a much-maligned console - the Nintendo Wii U - as this was the last system exclusive I was interested in. I still some affection for its Fisher Price tablet and teal game boxes, but it did have a relatively weak showing in terms of a library, which is really the worst quality a console can have. It doesn't help that almost all its best games have since emigrated to the Switch (a superior platform in more than just technological metrics) with this month's entry, Atlus's odd hybrid between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem set in the entirely-separate-from-both universe of the Japanese entertainment industry, soon joining them with its Encore remaster. Still, that remaster's not out yet (as of writing), and that gives me an opportunity to take the original out of mothballs and give it a spin just a little bit of ahead of its rediscovery by the gaming world zeitgeist.

Talking of ghosts with Germanic names, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is about a successful a merging of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei as you're likely to find. Well, if you don't include games like Devil Survivor with its SRPG grids; TMS is wholly a turn-based RPG closer to the classic SMT games (and Persona in particular) that largely only uses Fire Emblem iconography and characters as supernatural flourishes. It helps that, despite their different genre structures, the two games already share a lot in common, most particularly a heavy emphasis on elemental types: a Fire Emblem campaign lives and dies (literally, with permadeath) on the player's understanding of type dominance (keep Pegasus Knights away from Archers, for instance), while every SMT game has you exploiting the elemental weaknesses of enemies while covering your own. Most of TMS's best mechanics, however, are entirely unique to the game: they weren't so much inspired by SMT/Persona or Fire Emblem at all, but part of its own identity. Most overt of which is the story: set in various famous parts of Tokyo, Shibuya most prominently, the entire cast are rising stars of the entertainment industry - singers, models, actors, TV show presenters, and idols which are a combination thereof - brought together by their Persona-like ability to see another world full of hostile "Mirages": creatures from another universe capable of draining a human's creative energy for their sustenance. It's a familiar framework to Persona fans; you're often having to save someone with the potential to become a Mirage Master, as they're called, who then subsequently joins the team and becomes your next playable character. However, this particular setting and the value of "Performa" - the name of this aforementioned creative energy, and a cute little localization joke - means there's a few more avenues that have opened up for the game's mechanics to explore.

Sessions are the best. See below for why. Also Ellie is Franziska von Karma with a bow and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.
Sessions are the best. See below for why. Also Ellie is Franziska von Karma with a bow and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.

All right, so here I go gushing over smart JRPG mechanics. I honestly live for this shit though, so this is where my creative energies are going. First, Performa can crystallize into various forms based on a person's determination, and can be found after the death of an enemy Mirage or borne from the protagonists directly. These two Performa types, respectively, are then used to create new weapons and "Radiant" skills: the latter of these are passive boosts that might be as quotidian as a fixed percentage HP boost or as game-changing as the ability to use "sessions" from outside the active party. Sessions, perhaps the game's best invention, are how the game exploits weaknesses; instead of having an enemy knocked down and the active PC gain another turn like in regular SMT, a weakness will cause every other PC to get a free attack on the same enemy, provided they have a compatible session skill. So for example if Itsuki's best bud Touma has a "sword-to-spear" session skill, that means if Itsuki's sword skill hits an enemy weak to swords it will prompt Touma to follow it up with a spear attack, which then might trigger others following that. My characters are at the point now where a six-person session is possible, and I have the skill that allows a session chain to bounce from enemy to enemy if they should die in the process, so they're very powerful. Better yet, as session chains increase, so too do the rewards: you get way more Performa and consumable drops by using this feature to its fullest. Third, and this isn't unique to this game but is a progression mechanic I always like to see, is the Skill Inheritance system: by wielding weapons with attached skills often enough, you eventually acquire those skills permanently even after you've changed equipment - this is combined with SMT/Persona's stringent limits on acquired skills, meaning you have to carefully consider which skills to keep and which to discard based on your party's composition - making Itsuki a back-up healer is wise, but you'd also be forgiven for making him a pure damage-dealer. (Also, if you acquire the same skill twice, it powers it up which is rad.) Finally, one of the few Fire Emblem mechanics to carry over is a class change system: every class has two superior classes they can progress up to, though you need a rare and valuable resource to enact the switch. These new classes have access to unique weapons and skills, as well as higher stats in general, so they're instrumental for the late-game.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions can be alternatively too easy and too difficult with all these character building mechanics. Too easy because most encounters can be defeated with one or two sessions-heavy skills, but too tough because of the Savage Enemies. The bane of Etrian Odyssey players, Savage Enemy encounters can occur randomly and invariably drop you into a fight with enemies several levels ahead of you. This applies to going back to early dungeons full of weak enemies: a Savage Enemy will always kick your ass unless you go all out offensive early enough to clear some of their number, or turtle up with Rakukaja/Tarunda type skills. If your party is iced by one of these encounters, that's it; you're back to whenever you last remembered to save. Fortunately, the game isn't picky about save points: you can save whenever you want, besides battles and cutscenes. You can also bounce from dungeons whenever you want - there's no calendar system that causes time to move forward after leaving a dungeon like there is in Persona - and restoring the party and getting some crafting business done with the synthesis vendor (who is also a vocaloid, because Japan) before hopping back in is a cinch. Warp points in dungeons make it easy to continue where you left off, though I usually try to tough it out until I've activated a new one to minimize backtracking. It's a very accommodating game, all told, and that's something I always appreciate in JRPGs that are already asking for a major time investment; a fifty-hour long campaign is fine if it doesn't also involve an additional ten hours repeating large swathes of a dungeon because of a tactical miscalculation or two.

So the deal with this TV dungeon is that these ten monitors represent ten rooms in the large maze-like area through a door that Itsuki's buttsuki is obscuring. That
So the deal with this TV dungeon is that these ten monitors represent ten rooms in the large maze-like area through a door that Itsuki's buttsuki is obscuring. That "Episode 1" on monitor two is where I'm supposed to head next, but the "sponsored by Treasure Stash" on monitor one leads to a secret area full of loot.

Another point in the game's favor is how much it commits to its pop star aesthetic. Dungeons have specific themes that determine not only their look but the puzzle "gimmick" of that dungeon: an early case involves chasing after a possessed photographer that uses his camera to literally capture models, and the dungeon's walls are plastered with glamor shots of those he has taken. (On revisits, after you've saved the models, these photos have all been replaced with landscapes, which is a nice touch.) Likewise, the dungeon is littered with cameras that you send you back to the last checkpoint if you cross their line of sight: the goal is to weave between them, or pick alternative routes if the way forward passes directly beneath their watchful eyes. The dungeons are designed like those in Persona 5 (or maybe it'd be more accurate to say Persona 5's dungeons are based on TMS's, given the order the games came out) in that the geography is fixed and so are the enemy encounters for the most part; if you're coming back to look for a certain enemy's drops, it's not hard to zero in on where they're most commonly found.

I'm not kidding when I say TMS is probably the MegaTen-adjacent game I've enjoyed the most in terms of pure mechanics. However, the plot and characters are a little more rote and beholden to standard anime conventions than the more nuanced story beats and personalities of the Persona games, though the localization does its best to rise the clichéd material up, and the less said about the dry, milquetoast protagonist and the harem of beautiful starlets who inevitably find themselves in his orbit the better. The game lacks any social links and romance options which further distances the player from this cast, though you still have three "side-stories" which each major character through which to get to know them better. The story might still appeal to those way into the "A Star is Born" narrative with all its concomitant tropes, maybe via the likes of Idolm@ster or Love Live!, but despite a few highlights I didn't really find myself as attached to this group as I was with, say, the Inaba Investigation Team or the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. It does mean we get a few animated musical numbers though, and they're generally well done - and even factor into the combat in some clever ways (i.e. an "ad-lib" performance, which infrequently replaces a normal skill with a much more powerful variant, is accompanied by a small sample of the active character's singing/acting ability).

Stop me if you've heard this one: the moody emo singer has a soft spot for cute things and she hates it. Also, poor Touma?
Stop me if you've heard this one: the moody emo singer has a soft spot for cute things and she hates it. Also, poor Touma?

On the whole I think Tokyo Mirage Sessions is spectacular, and it's not so much the showbiz flashiness which draws my attention than it is all the intelligent features and systems under the hood. An SMT game isn't shy when it comes to elaborate character building and tough combat that draws on all the player's resourcefulness, and while the Fire Emblem contribution is somewhat muted by comparison - the player's allied Mirages are modeled on famous Fire Emblem characters, and the aforementioned class change system - there's enough small references and allusions to Intelligent Systems's massive SRPG franchise to appease its fanbase. I'm presently partway through Chapter 4, which I think is just past the midway point of the game, and it's still introducing new characters and systems. I've only just accessed the class change system, for instance, and now I can strengthen older weapons by essentially recrafting them if I wanted to spend the time farming the resources to do so. It'll keep me busy for a week or two more at least, I suspect.

That's going to do it for the 2019 Bucketlog, and for this year's blogging content from yours truly. My thanks as always for anyone who spent moments of precious gaming and/or Giant Bomb video watching time perusing my stream of consciousness ramblings, and I hope to produce many more insights in 2020. (You know, "2020," "in-sight," perfect vision, etc.? Yeah, get to used to seeing that wordplay for a while.)

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