Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is an unlikely candidate for mainstream success in the western market. The convoluted name alludes to the fact that it was conceived as a crossover between two obscure Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) and was originally released for that most unloved of consoles, the Wii U. But it is so endearing and well constructed that, once you start playing, you may well develop a mild obsession.
The narrative plays out just like an anime, via beautifully designed cut-scenes and quirky dialogue sequences that offer countless insights into Tokyo street culture. It follows the development of a band of youngsters bidding to become idols, who have signed up to a showbiz agency called Fortuna.
Ripe for obsession … Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore. Photograph: Nintendo
The protagonists are 18-year-old Tsubasa, working to overcome her gaucheness as she bids to become a J-pop star and actor, and her childhood friend Itsuki, a heroic type who isn’t quite sure where his talents lie. During the game, they are joined by a large cast of nicely defined and interestingly written characters, including agency boss Maiko (an ex-model partial to a drink or two), Kiria, a pop idol with a hidden soft centre, and Mamori, a kid with a hilarious, popular microwave-cookery show.
All of them turn out to be Mirage Masters: able to battle demon-like Mirages that keep appearing from another dimension to cause enormous disruption in the game’s (recognisable) version of Tokyo. The bulk of the gameplay resides in epic traverses through labyrinthine dungeons battling ever more powerful Mirages and a string of bosses and mini-bosses.
Although turn-based and saddled with bizarre terminology (as is de rigueur for any JRPG), Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ battle system is exemplary. It’s easy to understand, hugely tactical and incredibly satisfying. Its key element is the so-called Sessions: pick the right element-based magic attack for specific enemies, and the other participants of your three-strong team will jump in with a chain of attacks.
As you work through each character’s side-story, they develop the ability to jump into Sessions even if they aren’t in the main battle team, rendering the beautifully depicted battles even more epic, and providing the means to overcome seemingly impregnable enemies.
The characters’ side-stories are great, often playing out like mini-soap operas and cleverly reusing game areas that you have already negotiated. And the character development, while convoluted, is also compelling, enabling you to power up characters you find yourself really caring about. The game cleverly encourages you to keep swapping between them, although Itsuki, as the leader, is ever-present.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions may be the meatiest Switch game since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: it has well over 30 hours of gameplay, and considerably more if you take your time and really look around – which you’re likely to do, since it immerses you in an utterly enchanting world. The chance vicariously to live the lives of a bunch of Tokyo teens and twentysomethings – depicted in a fantasy style but surprisingly believable, thanks to snappy writing – proves incredibly moreish. One design decision taken by the game helped that aspect: the dialogue is spoken in the original Japanese, rather than the customary brattish American voiceovers.
Graphical quality is variable: the cut-scenes and battles look superb, but the story element rather betrays its Wii U origins, with questionable texture work and a lack of resolution. But that barely detracts from the overall experience.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is one of those rare games that appears unappealing on paper yet turns out to be a triumph. It operates as a sort of digital ambassador for the entire JRPG genre – which often suffers from a perception that it is old-fashioned, saddled with obscure gameplay and of interest only to those obsessed with Japanese culture. Plus, it shines an irresistible light on the eccentric, cute but endlessly beguiling nature of Japanese pop culture.
If you have a Switch, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is an essential purchase – and if you harbour a fondness for anime and its aesthetic, it is worth buying a Switch for. This is, simply, the first cult-classic game of 2020.