What would you expect from a mix of Shin Megami Tensei, where demons battle for you, and Fire Emblem, where armies fight godly dragons? Idols. Riding pegasi. That fight demons for “Performa”, an essence abounding in talented humans.
Most probably not your first idea, but that's what Atlus and Nintendo thought when they crossed their two series in Genei Ibun Roku #FE, an RPG for the WiiU that will be known as Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE outside Japan.
The game's setting was met with criticism in the west, and I too was a little disapponted by it. After the initial moments, however, I did warm up to some of the characters and the lighthearted story strung the various chapters together in a pleasant way.
Story and characters are nothing original, and in some way it works in Genei Ibun Roku's favour: the protagonist, Itsuki Aoi, can be described as a perfectly normal person (ability to fight demons aside) and comes out as uninteresting. On the other hand Kyria, Eleonora, and Maiko, with their quirkier personalities are more likeable and interesting, though they never go past their stereotypical personalities seen in way too many animes.
Itsuki and crew fight demons thanks to the power that their Fire Emblem avatars, here called Mirages. Fire Emblem avatars only hail from Awakening and Shadow Dragon, with a relatively small spread of classes. As per Fire Emblem tradition Mirages can change class thanks to a Master Seal; the class tree isn't as complex as recent Fire Emblem games but allows two choices per Mirage.
Mirages' strength is represented by the weapon a character wields, and more powerful weapons can be obtained by slaying a certain type and number of enemies, then visiting Tiki in her temple found in the party's base, the Fortuna Entertainment talent agency. Chosen weapons not only affect raw attack power, but also elemental resistances and affinities, and the skills rewarded after battle.
Skills are divided into active, passive, and session. Active skills are physical attacks and spells, passive are various kinds of enhancements, and session skills determine which attacks a character can follow up and continue with during battle.
Battles are turn based, with three active members that can be swapped on the fly depending on the enemy at hand. The core of the system are session attacks: when using a special attack and striking an enemy's weakness other party members will follow the lead; at first follow ups are limited to just active party members, but are then expanded to reserve members. Enemies can take a lot of punishment, so a full attack session might be enough for just one opponent, but despite that combat remains fresh throughout the game, with dynamic camera angles and fast animations to keep the rhythm and player's interest up. At higher levels combat skills peak in Duo Arts, small musical numbers that translate into very powerful attacks.
All aspects of the combat are tied tightly together to form a well-thought-out system with a lot of variables that never weighs down on the player, also thanks to a shallow introduction curve and several interface hints to quickly highlight what will and won't work.
Interface hints not only include icons, but also audio and animation cues: hearing and seeing characters objecting to a possible command, cheering when they can take part in a session attack, reacting to a healing item, or introducing their turn with different animations, gives more life to the cast and makes the game more pleasant in its most repeated task.
Visual presentation is constant throughout the game, with the interface fully embracing the showbiz setting (the active members are “Main Cast”, the equipment screen is “Coordinate”, and so on), short videos for the various songs, and enjoyable animations for every single attack.
The audio department draws sound effects from both games, primarily Fire Emblem though, and of course the voice actors and actresses take the stage whenever their characters have to speak or sing. A lot of background tracks don't quite live up to the rest of the presentation though: they range from upbeat tracks when exploring Tokyo and heavier tunes when in a dungeon, but fail to strike much interest due to how generic they sound.
Another element that doesn't quite live up to the rest is dungeoneering: labyrinths are linear, each with their own gimmick and useful teleports when composed of multiple floors or boss encounters. Their representation is pretty basic, a far cry from the battle sequences, and they also do not have a particularly interesting layout.
Genei Ibun Roky #FE is a good JRPG, and even though it's not the most memorable one out there, it should be given a chance, even if you don't like its premise: combat and related mechanics are sure to draw in players thanks do their complexity and quality, overshadowing any perceived story or setting shortcomings.