Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE feels like a great forty-five hour game that got stretched out into a pretty good sixty hour experience. What makes analyzing this difficult is that I’m not sure if this is the result of poor game design or just a difference in cultural preferences.
I had heard at one point that Japanese players appreciate grinding in games. I don’t want to say “enjoy”, but there is a satisfaction to be had in “training” your characters through tedious tasks in order to overcome future challenges. Or perhaps overcoming harder challenges early in the games allows you to reap the reward of future foes falling with ease. It’s an inverse property of more action-oriented game design. Instead of challenges increasing as you become more skilled, your increase in numeric skill-level decreases the challenge.
Unfortunately, I can find no translated evidence that this is how Japanese players feel. The topic pops up in forums and discussion boards but no journalist in recent years seems willing to truly explore the topic thoroughly. At most I can only find a variety of responses to Shigeru Miyamoto’s assertion that Japanese are impatient with action games, or 2chan’s offense taken by IGN’s insistence JRPG’s need to evolve. While these indicate a variety of tastes and that there are at least some behavioral similarities between America and Japan, it doesn’t shine any light into what the players actually prefer. Therefore, what I had once heard about Japanese players viewing grinding in a certain way could be a false assumption or bad conjecture.
If this perspective is accurate, however, then I can see how the final chapter of Tokyo Mirage Sessions is satisfying to a Japanese audience. For me, it’s where the game shifted away from an entertaining challenge and entered a realm of tedium.
There are two elements that kept those first forty-five hours great: the characters and the combat. Every character is an archetype of some sort, custom-designed to appeal to Otaku and Fujoshi alike, but Atlus does not sacrifice the charm. They are comical and sincere, and as a result it is easy to find a fondness for them.
Enjoying the characters and their growing camaraderie mechanically pays off in the form of improved teamwork in combat. As each chapter progresses, characters are able to not only chain two attacks together, but soon enough three, four, and so on. It’s all about exploiting enemy weaknesses and deciding which combo chains–referred to as sessions–will generate the most damage. For a long time the player is limited to only three-chain sessions, the number of characters you can actively have in your party. When characters outside of the party are first able to join in, the player is delighted not only in the increase in damage, but also the increase in options. Which attack or character is most likely to yield the best results?
Then everyone gains the ability to jump in from outside the active party. Now each attack is more than a minute long because every character’s combat animation must be cycled through. A top-tier session attack gains at least two seconds of animation time over a basic session attack. When multiples of these sessions are required to complete a single battle, each encounter becomes a longer and longer process. Not necessarily because the fights are longer, though due to the importance of overkills I’d imagine they certainly do become that. At the very least they feel longer. The amount of time between commands input increases, and by the final chapter you’ve seen the unskippable animations so often that combat loses its satisfaction.
The most enjoyable part of the game instead becomes tedious.
Theoretically the combat can be skipped. Enemies appear on the overworld rather than through random encounter, and their appearance or speed can be reduced through use of supportive spells. To avoid combat would greatly inhibit your characters’ strength, though. Not just in a lack of experience, which becomes less and less useful the higher in level you go. By the game’s final chapter the experience points gained is hardly worth writing home about. Instead, it’s in the necessary crafting resources you can only obtain through combat. If you do not keep fighting then you cannot craft new weapons which grant more skills, nor can you activate character-specific abilities.
If players wish to be prepared for the final battle, they must face off against these mob encounters.
Even though there aren’t a lot of dungeons in the game, they are each incredibly lengthy to progress through. A series of tasks unique to every dungeon is used to try and liven things up, to keep them from being too straight-forward, but not each task or obstacle is successfully engaging. Many are simply more time-consuming, feeling like little more than padding. Where some become fascinating puzzles of how to navigate the labyrinth, others simply become time-killing puzzles interrupted by combat.
When combat was enjoyable, this was less of a problem. Once it becomes tedious, the dungeon design becomes this malicious enemy fighting against your progress. No matter the design of the dungeon itself, each one feels at least a floor or phase too long.
Which perhaps wraps up my thoughts on Tokyo Mirage Sessions. Everything in this game works until it is stretched out just a bit too far. Stacking animation after animation into long session chains. The amount of time it takes to complete each dungeon. Even the final boss goes on a bit too long, shifting from an engaging phase filled with interesting decisions to a tedious whittling down of a health bar.
Would this game have been less satisfying to Japanese players if much of the additional fat was trimmed away? I don’t know. The game sold abysmally over there, meaning the whole question could be moot. I just know the amount of time spent in my initial run through left me feeling less satisfied than I felt in those first forty-five hours.
Even so, I enjoyed the experience enough that I’d go back to a New Game +. It was a good time, albeit one that needed a bit more restraint.