Please note that this article contains distinct spoilers regarding Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE. You have been warned!
There’s this moment in Dragon Ball Z at the end of the first significant story arc when Goku uses the Spirit Bomb. At this point, Goku has died, ventured through the afterlife, and returned from the grave when needed most to utilize a technique he could only learn from a nigh-god in another dimension. This attack, the Spirit Bomb, drains a tiny portion of power (“power” being vaguely nebulous in this case) from every living being on the planet, and combines all that strength into one focused “bomb” that he can hurl at his opponent, a giant monkey that is threatening everyone on Goku’s adopted planet (which is also Earth. You live there). In the grand scheme of narrative conceits, this is meant to be an important moment for Goku: he is the undisputed lead, the hero of this tale, but he cannot solve this problem with his own power. There is no solution here where Goku alone wins, so he must use this sacred technique, and, with the assistance of everyone on Earth, he can snatch victory from the hairy jaws of defeat. He can save the world thanks to the world. If this overarching metaphor isn’t obvious enough, Goku even whiffs his chance at pegging his opponent with this spirit ball, and requires another assist from another two fighters (one of which is best known for his propensity toward dying). Goku’s (currently) hated enemy is ultimately defeated by this spirit bomb, proving that it was not the super powerful Goku that was required to save the planet, but the strength of every person. Don’t put all of your faith in one “savior”, believe in the power of not one, but everyone.
And then Goku goes on to defeat every other opponent through hours and hours of one-on-one grunting ‘n punching. Goku is our Superman. Goku is our Jesus. All hail Goku, the guy that singlehandedly saved the world over and over again!
This happens often in fiction: the hero is the hero, and while there might be some moment or technique that uses “everyone’s power”, it all seems to come back to the one and only luminary. This is even more prevalent in videogames, as they are single-person experiences. Everyone in the party is working together to defeat the evil god du jour, but it all comes back to you, the exceptional player, making decisions, so the moral is muddied. And when you have RPGs that all but require the player to be the center of the universe, it gets even worse. That town lives or dies according to what sidequests you choose to complete, so it’s pretty obvious the world revolves around only you. Give me a moral about teamwork or whatever, fine, but in the end you intrinsically know that you are the only person that matters.
So you can imagine my surprise when Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE actually pulled off a “spirit bomb” finale without making its main character the center of the universe.
And this from the combination of two of the most “you are the best person in the world” franchises on the planet. Not bad!
Look, the Persona franchise from Persona 3 on knows exactly what it is doing. If you do not play these games with a guarded, critical mind, you will absolutely be sucked into the worlds of Persona’s Inaba, Iwatodai, or Tokyo. You are supposed to. You are supposed to play these games, play the role of the protagonist, and feel a genuine connection with the collections of pixels that become your friends. I personally was shocked the first time I played through Persona 3, and had genuine feelings of affection for my fake, digital girlfriend. I wasn’t rushing out to buy a Chihiro body pillow, but it surprised me when I realized I was hurrying through the “real game” dungeons so I could make more time to participate in these social link scenarios with the student council treasurer. And, again, that’s the whole appeal of the Persona titles. You’re supposed to have affection for these portions of the game, and the writing, staging, and rewards you receive for such are all carefully engineered to make you happy with your “friends”. Maybe you’re just in it to fuse the biggest and baddest persona (Lord knows that’s why I pursued the Star Arcana), but the sheer popularity of the franchise since Persona 3 seems to indicate that these interactions are truly resonating with a great number of gamers.
Unfortunately, the downside to all this is that it creates a great number of digital relationships that are… unbalanced. Aside from the game-based benefits, the true benefit to all of these social links is that they generate precious dopamine in your brain. They make you happy. And, since a happy player is a player that is likely to keep playing for literally hundreds of hours, every social link-based character ultimately exists to make the player happy. And that leads to a number of conversations where the smartest girl in school tells you you’re so smart, the most artistic boy tells you you’re the best at aesthetics ever (whatever that means), and your homeroom teacher is somehow supplicating herself before you in a maid costume. And never mind the romance options! Your Persona protagonist can date literally the entire female cast for the better part of a year, and the only downside is that you’ll have to experience a comical scene where a few uppity broads get mad like they synced up their periods or something. You’re a real man! You don’t have to worry about their problems! You’re the king of the harem, and never mind the fact that literally the first conflict in Persona 5 is with a guy that wants exactly that, and is mind-killed for such a transgression. It’s okay when you do it!
And the Fire Emblem franchise of late has not been much better. As ever, my direct experience with Fire Emblem is limited, but my understanding is that Fire Emblem: Awakening started the trend of Fire Emblem being an official “big deal” in the West… and it’s likely not a coincidence that that game features “the (player) avatar” that is widely regarded as a strategic genius regardless of whether or not that player gets a whole squad slaughtered every other battle. This has seemingly escalated to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, where the latest “avatar” is the best teacher ever despite canonically living in some cabin in the woods for twenty years and now leading students only after experiencing about seventeen hundred soft tutorials. “Good morning students, ten minutes ago I learned which end of the sword goes in the bandit, and today I’m going to share that knowledge with all of you.” Teacher of the year. And, look, we’re all very happy there was a time skip and everyone is wearing big boy pants to their epic death battles, but could we maybe not celebrate the whole “teacher in love with former student” trope so much? The only reason that is normalized is because the writing of Fire Emblem: Three Houses (and other FE games!) make these relationships seem incredibly normal, when, in fact, the slightest examination of these affairs reveals more than a few unbalanced power structures. Yes, I know that she’s the unholy emperor of an entire warring nation, but she needs to sit down and find a mate that isn’t some manner of goddess cipher. It’s for her own good!
That’s really the crux of it: in both Fire Emblem and Persona titles of late, the player is not asked to consider what is for “the good” of any character other than your own. It doesn’t matter that Claude would be in a bad situation if he started a relationship with his teacher, because you want to see it happen. Yukiko would probably be happier with a mate that isn’t dating seven other women, but you want that achievement, so get the romance going. And this is all before we get into how a solid two Fire Emblem games were all about better living through eugenics. Over and over again, these games produce relatable, “real” characters with clear personalities, motivations, and goals, and then the player is tasked with controlling the entire trajectory of their lives while being praised for every totalitarian decision.
It initially seems comparable In Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE: the characters in the player’s party are all connected to their own unique sidequests. From a game perspective, some of these quests are little more than dialogue trees, while other quests are more “find an item in a dungeon” or “fight ten of this one monster”. In all of these cases, the player is rewarded with some new attack, treasure, or ability at the completion of the quest. If you finish all of the quests, a different ending may be earned. Pretty typical videogame stuff, and the dialogue involved is often very similar to what you would see in the Social Links of Persona or Support Conversations of Fire Emblem. But there is one important difference here: everybody has their own goals, and you’re only helping.
All of your friends in Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE are also actors, singers, or performers of other varieties. And, given you all work for a very popular talent agency, all of these characters are literal stars. And your avatar in this case is, at best, a fledgling talent manager. And that’s a very important job in the entertainment business… but you don’t see Entertainment Tonight covering all the news on the latest agents. Your friends are the stars of the show (literally), and you’re only helping them along to be better stars. Yes, you benefit from their success in the usual videogame ways, and you might even enjoy the fact that more than a few sidequests are topped off with music videos or other “shows” to entertain the player, but it’s clear that you’re not the center of the universe. There is no subplot about your avatar, Itsuki Aoi, being some secret genius controlling all of the good entertainment in Tokyo, or a prophecy about the end of the world hinging completely on his decisions; “you” are just a dude that is helping people with more marketable talent. Sometimes you go venturing around magical dungeons slicing up dragons (and you’re great at that!), but, most of the time, you’re just the dude that remembers to tell the girl that is conquering the top of the iTunes charts that she is doing great.
Which brings us back to that “spirit bomb”. Aside from the absolute finale when Itsuki Aoi literally dons the guise of Fire Emblem’s vaunted hero (and that’s a moment that is a little too… literal to be taken seriously), this is Itsuki’s greatest moment to shine. He’s gathering power from others, but he doesn’t do it to throw a “bomb” at the main villain. No, in this case, he is working with the strength of his team to transform the feelings of longing and revenge belonging to another supporting character, and using that power to save the soul of that character’s father. This has the benefit of wresting power away from the antagonist, but the side effect of also helping and healing one of Itsuki’s allies. Or was that the point all along? It’s debatable which consequence was more intended, and that’s appropriate for TMS♯FE’s hero. Helping his friends and saving the world are two actions that go hand in hand, and it’s impossible to claim Itsuki is doing this for selfish reasons. He doesn’t live for the fight. He’s not trying to save the world to be the biggest hero he can be. He is helping his friends and helping his world, and doing it with a humility that is wholly absent from other games. It’s a great move not only for Itsuki, but a moment that should be remembered by players of Persona and Fire Emblem titles alike.
So don’t worry, dear Nintendo Switch owners, you got the best Persona game on the Switch. And maybe the best Dragon Ball Z game, too.
Or at least the one that should be the best remembered…
FGC #497.2 Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE
- System: The Switch version lets you have an extra dungeon, and orders up some mirages for the supporting cast. That is important, but you can still play the WiiU version if you want. You can see I did.
- Number of players: One man with all his dear friends (who are rockstars).
- So Stylish: The aesthetics of this title are just amazing. I could spend a week just starring at the menus,. Be glad I don’t know art words, because otherwise there would be another couple thousand words simply about the battle screen.
- Say something mean: My playthrough was WiiU-based, so I don’t know if this was modified for the Switch version, but the cell phone conceit with everyone texting you every 15 minutes is true to life and extremely annoying. I am trying to navigate my way around a very exasperating dungeon right now, Barry, I will get to your sidequest when I have a moment. Yes, I am going to feel bad if I don’t switch off the map and address your inane txt, thank you for asking.
- Yeah, how about those dungeons: I do not care for them. I don’t know what staff was involved where, but this does feel like the middle point between Persona 4’s randomly generated hallways and Persona 5’s sublime “puzzle dungeons” that require hiding around corners and carefully ambushing your enemies. What we have here are actually properly designed “levels”, but the enemy encounters are seemingly random and play poorly with the traps and tricks around. Ultimately, it feels like battles are a distraction from the puzzles of the dungeons (or vice versa) , and switching between both rapidly over the course of a dungeon can be frustrating. Particularly so when you’re trying to clear a sidequest, and it just winds up reminding me of another bad experience.
- Did you know? If I could transfer my new game plus from the WiiU to the Nintendo Switch version, I would download the remake right now.
- Would I play again: I will probably try the Switch version again after some time and a price drop (both. I need both). I’m a little Tokyo’ed out right now, but this is a very good game that should be revisited in the future (after all, it’s not like we’ll see a sequel).
What’s next? Crossovers are officially over, so we’re back to randomness. Hooray! And Random ROB has chosen… DK: King of Swing for the Gameboy Advance! Swing it my friend! Please look forward to it!