We've all experienced those games. The ones that have the potential to be 8/10 or 9/10, but have just enough glaring flaws or overlooked details that hold them back from being that status. Enough that even a none game designer wonders 'How did they overlook this?'. Which serves the premise of this blog, and hopefully more to come. I, Torchman, will be taking a game I played to story completion, and pointing out what could've been done to make the game an overall better experience. For our first entry, we start with a newer title, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. The love child of Nintendo and Atlus. Or bastard step child depending on your point of view.
For me personally, TMS started out as an 8.5/10. It was fun, colorful, interesting, and its battle system was entertaining. However, as the game went on, its flaws became more and more apparent, resulting in the game slowly dropping down to a 7/10 once the final boss was said and done. What made it so hard to believe was that often times, these problems and issues were things that should have been caught, or were avoided in other SMT games.
Before I continue, some ground rules are going to be laid out. First, writing will not be brought up. Localization/translations may be brought up, but it's a no brainer that if you improve the writing, the game improves. In addition, censored content will not be brought up unless it's actual content that brought additional content to gameplay and characterization that was lost due to it. Not everyone cares for missing cosmetic content, and it doesn't necessarily improve the game overall. So without further adieu, let's get started.
It's also not necessarily something I expect to be patched in to the game. Hell, I may bring up games that may never see a sequel or the light of day again if I do another one of these. Were a sequel ever to happen by some miracle, or a fan mod, these are changes I'd expect to be made or attempted.
This is arguably one of, if not the, biggest pet peeves that anyone has gone through with this game will experience, especially for me as I was limited to weekends to try and power through it. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a game where back tracking is extremely common, due to one common reason. Bloom Palace, and travel in general.
Often times, both for story and side quest reasons, the game requires you to come back to Bloom Palace to create a required plot ability before proceeding. Bloom Palace is also the go to area for fusing Carnages, the games weapons, as well as gaining passive abilities and one other feature that I won't spoil. However, for whatever reason, there is no way to go directly to Bloom Palace. Bloom Palace, unlike the Velvet Room from the Persona series, can only be accessed from one location. Fortuna Office. There is no way to get directly at it. Warping abilities, items, the overworld map. All of them send you into Fortuna Office. At which point you must walk over to the door to Bloom Palace, and then be greeted by a loading screen.
Oh, and when you want to leave Bloom Palace? Have to go out the way you came in, meaning you'll be greeted by a loading screen. You'll then need to go to the exit of the office, pick a destination, and then get another loading screen. Oh, and if you're heading to a dungeon? Go to the entrance of said idolsphere, and then be treated with another loading screen.
To put that all in perspective. If you leave a dungeon in order to fuse some weapons and abilities, you're going to experience five loading screens in order to get to Bloom Palace and then back to the dungeon. For something that's basically mandatory for you to keep up with enemies growing stronger. In fact, TMS as a whole suffers from the problem of transit time. Only two areas in the game, Shibuya and Harajuku, allow you access to an overworld map with the simple press of a button. Shibuya itself is almost divided into sub-sections due to road crossings. In any other area, you need to manually move your character to a designated exit, because for some reason the rest of the areas have that button press disabled for no justifiable reason.
The whole issue of travel and the numerous loading screens isn't even that big of a deal to fix. To begin with, all areas, including Bloom Palace, should be accessible from the overworld map and should allow the player to access said map. Furthermore, linking the dungeons themselves to be enterable from said map would also speed things up, further eliminating transit time and a loading screen. The final solution would be some type of workaround that allows Bloom Palace to be accessed from more than one location, like how SMT IV had the fusion program, or in Persona 4 how the Velvet Room is in more than one location, even if it was just at the entrance of a dungeon. I'm sure the adjustments could be made to work, the game is not tied down to any previous mythos. This would cut down on travel and loading screens, resulting in backtracking that doesn't feel like a waste of time.
Sessions are a core concept of the game, a follow up attack so to speak. When an enemy is hit with an skill with an element it is weak to, or certain other skills, it will start with a chain of attacks executing by party members. As the game goes on, and party members join and gain certain skills, eventually you'll be regularly seeing 6 session follow up attacks after a single attack. There's nothing wrong with extra damage, that's always a good thing, however there's two problems with sessions skills.
There's no different animations. Meaning that every time a session happens, and say the bow session occurs, it will always be a jump to fire it off mid-air. No different camera angles, no minor differences to try and spice things up, nothing. These attacks also only go through a potentially single upgrade in game, which results in a needed change, but still suffers the same problems. This is only further made worse by the fact you cannot speed up nor skip sessions. At all. As a result, a large amount, arguably the majority, of your battle time will be spent watching these over, and over, and over again.
It's not even that hard or major of a fix. Either add in variation animations and lines to help reduce the monotone nature of it, or add in the option to skip the sessions as a whole. If one of them would have missed or caused the session to be interrupted, then quickly display the session attack order, with an X over the party member that caused it.
There are two visible meters on top of the experience bar in Tokyo Mirage Sessions, Skill meters and stage rank. Skill meters act as an experience bar of sorts for carnages(weapons), and every time it 'reaches a level' you'll gain a skill. Each carnage grants different skills in different orders. It levels up by earning skills points via battle. Meanwhile, stage rank is a separate level system for each character. There are 20 ranks for each character, and the rank increases as they participate in combat and sessions. Each rank grants a material for a specific passive ability, as well as unlocks side stories for them at certain ranks. There's no actual visible meter for stage rank.
Let that sink in for a moment. The only way to gain skills and abilities in any form outside of the main story plot, and you're not shown any tangible, visible amounts other than the Skill meter moving. Even then, sometimes the skill meter will fill up by a large amount, sometimes only a small amount, it's all over the place. As you can see in the above image, there's no actual markings or anything on the bar under 'Next Skill' to indicate how much more is needed for the next skill. As a result, you end up mindlessly grinding until you actually reach the next skill. That's not acceptable, as it helps feel like filler and no one enjoys mindless grinding. Especially when said grinding takes longer because of the previously mentioned session problems.
The way to improve would involve several steps. First, a visible meter for stage rank, so that it's possible to get a visual indication at the very least. Second, visual indicators of how many points you gained from a battle and how many points are needed to the next level/rank for each meter. Finally, explain to me how each of them work! Is it a set bonus for a party member being in battle, and then an extra bonus for each session they participate in for stage ranks? Does the member need to use a skill in order to up their skill meter? Why do party members not in the party gain some then? Like, right now I have a bare minimal understanding how either of these work because the game barely tells you, which means I have no idea how to make the grinding more efficient. It just feels like both systems were afterthoughts as a result. Grinding for unknown amounts with no way to make it more efficient is not fun. That needs to be fixed.
As the game progresses, and you gain stage ranks for each cast member, side stories unlock. Upon completion of certain side stories, you'll gain 'Ad-Lib Performances'. An Ad-Lib Performance is a stronger attack of a specific element instead of one selected, as well as ignoring immunities to elements/weapons. For instance, as seen above, every time Kiria uses an ice skill like Bufu, she has a chance of triggering her ice Ad-Lib Performance 'The Labyrinth' once it's learned. Key phrase here: A chance. We'll come back to that momentarily.
On top of the Ad-Lib Performances, you will also gain Duo Arts when the specific requirements for certain party members are met, which are powerful combination attacks. For instance, Touma and Ellie will gain a Duo Art involving both of them. Duo Arts however have a chance to trigger during sessions, and you are usually given a choice between two of them. Some duo arts have extra effects, such as a party heal or giving the enemy a status effect. They also have a chance to extend a session if they are the appropriate element, with a chance of another duo art happening. Notice that key phrase again: A chance.
Ad-Lib Performances and Duo Arts are all random. There is no way to modify your chances for those attacks to trigger. You can go through the rest of the game and never see them used as a result. Which is actually quite ironic when you consider the main games. During the development period of TMS, Fates, the next core Fire Emblem title, had come out, and had taken steps to reduce the RNG factor of numerous core gameplay elements. Meanwhile, it's first major spinoff, is giving out RNG based attacks as rewards for side stories. Literally night and day here, and for something that's supposed to be a spin off of a strategy game, it does a damn fine job of removing more and more of the strategy by adding in RNG and, now that I think about it, hiding information, the previously mentioned Stage Rank and Skill Meter, that's kind of important.
How would one go about fixing it without breaking it in the process however? A meter unique to each character. Every time a skill is used, it fills up. If a character joins in on a session, it will also increase by a smaller amount. Once the meter is full, the character can choose to deploy one of the two Ad-Lib Performances OR, if the corresponding party member also has a full meter and it's mid session, the duo attack. However, two steps would have to be taken to balance it out. First, the meters would be drained after a battle, so that the player can't stock up and abuse them on a boss. Second, because Mamori, the tank of the game, has duo attacks that don't involve other party members, she would have to fill up the equivalent of two meter to trigger it. To make up for the second meter, Mamori would be able to gain meter when she blocks an attack for another party member with her passive.
By doing this, it puts the two under the players control. By giving the player control over them, it adds a layer of strategy to them, allowing them to use the attacks when they see fit, not when RNG sees fit to give them the choice to use one of two randomly selected ones. You can never go wrong with giving the player more control so long as you work to balance it out.
TMS operates in a similar manner to other Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei games. Your allies can swap out, while your MC must stay in the battle. A game over in TMS however occurs only when all active members are dropped to 0 HP. However, this format becomes problematic fairly frequently for Itsuki until the second last party member, the previously mentioned Mamori, joins the group. Why you may ask? For two reasons.
The first is the general nature of TMS' combat setup. As you can tell in the above screenshots, there are only two other party members active in combat at any time and combat works on a round system. If a party member is KOed, then they cannot take an action until their slot in the next round. This means that enemies can potentially KO them before you can even get them swapped out, as you can only swap out a party member on their turn. This isn't helped by the fact enemies can also session, meaning it can only take one skill a that a party member is weak against to have them KOed. The larger the enemy group, the more the DPS/revival race goes in their favor.
This makes Itsuki a liability as a result. He has no way of adjusting his weaknesses mid battle like Chrom, Robin and Corrin in Fire Emblem and SMT&Spinoff protagonists like Yu Narukami. Meaning if there's something he's weak against and they target him before you can take them out? 9 times out of 10 he will be going down.
The second is the carnage system, and its failure to act as a proper replacement to the weapons/classes and ability acquisition of FE and SMT. Arguably the biggest thing that TMS did wrong was it downgraded the protagonist character from what the norm is in each of these games. In SMT and some of its spinoffs, often times the player can be creative in getting the skills they want, from fusing demons and reverse fusing them, and then sacrificing them or receiving them as a reward for bonding etc. This allows their character to become a jack of all trade, allowing them a myriad of options. An offensive monster with no weaknesses, a support with almighty capabilities, etc. Itsuki doesn't get that. Instead, Itsuki gets forced into a swordsman/electricity role, like Yu Narukami initially, with limited healing and support capabilities. It also means he doesn''t gain abilities to deal with weaknesses by default. Instead, he must use special skills that run off the 'session meter', which is a meter built up by doing damage and performing sessions, which he won't be able to do! God help Itsuki if the enemy can nullify his damage and guns for the party members that can help build the session meter.
This is further compounded by the weaknesses. See, while the carnages do alter slightly from one another in terms of elemental weakness, they do not change weapon weaknesses. Ever. Meaning if you have a lance weakness like Itsuki? It's staying the whole. damn. game. Which, to be frank, is incredibly stupid. Which is why it's a massive failure when you compare it to the 3 main protagonist units of Awakening and Fates. Robin and Corrin both wield swords, however, they can escape the weapon triangle system by switching to tomes and dragonstones, which aren't a part of the weapons triangle. Then there's Chrom, who happens to be the Mirage/FE character that Itsuki is paired with. While Chrom's base class in Awakening can only wield a sword, when he promotes to Great Lord he will gain the ability to switch to a lance. While switching to a lance puts him at risk to axe users, it allows him to escape the risk of lances as a result.
You know what Itsuki gets when he promotes to Great Lord? Some stat changes, and a couple of exclusive carnages and abilities. Except the exclusive carnages are all swords. Every. single. one. One of the entire points of promoting a class in FE is for the capabilities it opens up, and TMS literally threw away arguably the biggest reason to do that. This is also the case with every other character. No one gets to escape from their weapons, and the strengths and weaknesses they bring. No one gets a second weapon to switch to, they are all bound and stuck with these weaknesses.
Which is where Mamori comes in. You see folks, the game makes this weird design decision where it looks at the player and goes, 'Ya I'm not giving you a way to 100% deal with lance users until you get your sixth party member which is halfway through the game.'. That's right. The game makes Itsuki a liability. Any time a lance user appears, it has to be focused, otherwise Itsuki is going to be hit hard, as Mamori is the only axe user in the game. Meanwhile, the 7th character, Yashiro who is also a sword user, knows counter, meaning he can lame it out until the lance users are gone and even hurt them.
The whole design of Itsuki and the systems puts in this weird spot. He's supposed to be the leader, but plot wise, he's built up as this guy that's a jack of all trades, but not too amazing at everything. As a result, Itsuki comes off not as a leader in battle, but as a hassle. He doesn't come off as a jack of all trades, but into the same weapon/element/support stereotype that every single character falls into.
Which then brings up our final question. How do we fix this? How do we build Itsuki into a character that fits this description? To be blunt, it would be a reworking of the character and the carnage system for Itsuki exclusively.
For starters, Itsuki should be allowed to at least utilize lance carnages, and be able to switch to even at least one of them mid battle. This allows him to make up for not being able to swap out, while still leaving him vulnerable, as the skills a character has equipped doesn't change when they equip a carnage. This also fits in line with Chrom as his mirage. Next, when a character maxes out a carnage's skill meter, allow Itsuki to learn a skill from it by visiting the studio and paying a for a 'lesson', which will vary in price from skill to skill. However, do not allow him to learn passive skills that boost certain types of skills, or some of the stronger support/healing moves. This leaves Itsuki in the jack of all trades skillset that the plot makes him out to be, but at no point can he be stronger at any single type of offense, healing, or support than his party members. That just about resolves every single issue with Itsuki in terms of combat.
By changing how transit to and from Bloom Palace and the rest of the game world is handled, by reducing the length of battles via the option to skip watching sessions, showing information the player has a right to know, reducing the RNG factor and rewards of the game, as well as fixing the problems that plague the main character, Tokyo Mirage Sessions would easily be an 8/10 for me. A game is the sum of it's parts, the good and the bad, and the bad I listed were enough to hold it back from that 8. Perhaps that's just my own perspective however. If you have your own thoughts on what TMS needed to be a better game, or games that I've played that you'd like to see me examine like TMS, leave a comment below!