A study of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE; a cautionary tale of expectations and withholding information.

#Fe cross.png

There appears to have been a fusion accident.

(In classic fashion, we here at Culling and Co. productions like to strike while the iron is completely frozen over, by talking about a game that came out into international territories over a year ago, and over two years ago in Japan. Still, I like to think all this time has allowed me to disconnect to the sheer emotional side of my reactions to the game, and will hopefully allow us to get some objective perspective on the game.)

The Fire Emblem series and the Shin Megami Tensei series are two very different kettle of fish. The former is a turn-based tactics series that emphasises positioning and exploiting a rock-paper-scissors style strength and weakness system, whose story tends to favour optimistic themes of comradeship and overcoming evil. The latter may also be turn based, but it’s gameplay focuses on a more traditional system that has a huge amount of customisation and insanely in depth and challenging battles. Likewise, the stories in the games tend to be about the constant struggle humanity has to face between Order and Chaos, made worse by the fact that the world is usually on the brink of ending (if it isn’t already dead or dying).

Both series are great fun in their own kind of ways, but what if you combined the two? What would happen if you took the tactical action and grand adventure of Fire Emblem and joined it with the challenge and grit of the Shin Megami Tensei’s grim world? It sounds like an idea that two slightly drunk friends might come up with, right after debating if Master Chief could win in a fight against the Doom Marine. However, against all odds, an official, full cross-over game was actually announced and holy hell. Can we talk about this announcement trailer?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK5-EIzDtKo

It’s incredibly simple, and only serves to announce the game is actually being made, but it captures the feeling of each game rather well, and joins the concepts pretty decently. SMT has foreboding music following its characters appearing on screen, who flicker into existence through a haze of static, as if the video itself is only just able to render them. The foreboding drums of the SMT segment flow almost seamlessly into the FE portion of video, however. The uplifting score of the FE series is all the more pronounced thanks to what preceded it, and the FE characters soon dwarf the effect of fire on the screen. The two styles definitely differ from each other, but they each draw out the other’s strengths: SMT’s gritty and serious aspect comes out in full force when placed next to more fantastical FE, who’s triumphant and grand size is made all the more clear when placed next to the more sombre SMT. It’s the very final few seconds of the trailer that really catch the eye, however. We’re given a view of a city bathed in a blood-red light over an eerie body of water. The moon looms large over the city, the light reflecting from it almost coming off as harsh and glaring. Something resembling embers seem to be flying from the city, directly up to the moon, before the ‘camera’ shorts out and everything is replaced with blackness.

So, we have a trailer that doesn’t give away much, but its last few moments create a strong impression. Considering SMT’s signature mature tone, and the fact that FE isn’t exactly free from having the occasional tragedy striking, popular speculation places the tone as somewhat more serious and dark. Basically closer to SMT’s usual tone, or at least a little bit darker set of events than is usual for FE. And honestly, who could blame them for that idea? Even at its lightest, FE stories always take place in on-going wars, where all the magic and Pegasus (Pegasai? Pegal? Whatever) in the world can’t distract from the fact that people are dying left right and centre. This speculation wasn’t helped by the fact that the publishers were being pretty tight lipped about the project: the above trailer was the first and last piece of news anybody would see about the game for years, until just a few months before the game actually came out.

Speaking of which, they released another trailer a few months ahead of release, to raise awareness and awake the sleeping giant that was the combined might of the SMT and FE fan bases. After two years of near radio silence, the fans were eager to see what the heck this cross-over actually looked like. They were more than a little bit surprised, however, that the cross-over looked like…this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fS24IxelBA

…So from a series known for its fantasy setting and varied character designs being combined with a series known for its mature and serious edge, we get:

– High School students
– Idol singing
– And most confusing of all, a design style that is more in line with the Persona series (a sub-series of the SMT franchise).

To say there was confusion and outrage would have been an understatement.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE (try saying that five times over) would be the game’s name, and it’s release would go on to suffer a lacklustre release, perhaps as a result of this whiplash of expectations. This would result in a pretty poor set of launch sales in Japan and a similarly middling Western sales figure. To its credit, its lifetime sales were not abysmal, but considering this was the marriage of two pretty big franchises, it seems kind of a letdown.

Now, I’m not going to throw shade on the game. I’ll admit to never having played it (it’s a Wii-U exclusive, and I’m not made of money), but I am kind of fascinated by the game for it’s design choices in the context of it being a crossover game.

First things first, why idols? That struck me as the most unexpected thing see in the game, especially since it plays such a large part in the themes. There are singers in the FE series, and they make pretty okay units, but idols don’t really gel well with the themes of either franchise. Heck, Atlus (the game’s developer, and the creators of the SMT and Persona games) had been pretty critical of the idol scene in one of their previous games, Persona 4. They didn’t completely demonise it, and the character involved eventually comes to terms with it, but it still feels like an odd direction to take. I suspect the whole idol thing didn’t really help the western sales either; it’s a pretty popular scene in Japan, but not only is it practically unheard of in the west, a fair number of people are probably uncomfortable that performers are so regularly sexualised despite being under 18 years of age. It definitely didn’t go over well with a lot of fans at any rate, since many thought it was a completely out of left-field pull that doesn’t really invoke either of the games it was supposedly based on.

The other problem it faces, at least from what I can see, is the game doesn’t really feel like it came from either SMT or FE. At best, it kind of feels like it came from Persona: the stylistic menus and effects, the huge and varied colour pallet, the fact the core cast are all high-school students all feel like elements that would have fit nicely into Persona’s area of expertise. To the game’s credit, the boss fights are definitely spawned from the creators of SMT, in that they’re incredibly challenging (or so I’ve heard. Again, Wii-U, not made of money, etc). Other than that though, there’s no real connection to SMT’s themes or characters, and the only thing it has on FE’s side is that there is one named FE character who is involved in the plot. Other FE characters show up, but I’d say those appearances are closer to references. The characters look, sound, and act fairly differently, making it seem like the character on screen is just loosely based on their name-sake. I’m not saying it had to be a straight cross-over, but I wouldn’t have blamed anyone from looking at the screenshots for assuming this was some kind of Persona spin off game, rather than a SMT-meets-FE crossover extravaganza. More than anything else, it’s disappointing that a game that was supposed to bring together two fan-bases ended up turning away many from both.

The third and pressing question I have to ask, though, is why the heck was this kept so much in the dark? They announced the game, and left fans to stew on the idea for two years, barely letting out even a scrap of info. I get that game development is an extremely complicated process where you can never be sure what the game is going to be like even as you’re making it, but it seems like a recipe for disaster. Fans didn’t know what kind of crossover this could be, if it would straight up use characters from either franchise, or if it would simply use the themes from both. So, naturally, they tried to come up with possibilities in their heads, something that’s easy to do when you’ve got two years of waiting and no info to work with. Even as they unveiled just what kind of crossover it actually was, the damage was already done: everybody had already built up an image that was impossible to meet exactly. While this is hardly the game’s fault, if you’re going to risk making a product that’s radically different than the two it’s based on you need to make sure that people know that before they get their hopes up.

A common argument made in favour of the game is that it should be judged for its own merits, and not be damned due to the expectations of the fans. While that’s fair enough in many ways, let me play devil’s advocate: if the game wants you to judge it by its connections to its home franchises, why shouldn’t you? This game was announced as a cross-over between the two series, the title more or less has both franchises in it, and they can’t stop making some basic references to both throughout the game’s run.  Make no mistake, the game wants you to know it came from both franchises because they were banking on it selling for that exact reason. If the game had simply been made by the minds behind both series, and had been identified as its own product without any connections to other games, then I suspect there wouldn’t have been as much blow-back. I do wonder if that would have affected sales, though: for as much as the underwhelming launch sales seem to indicate fans weren’t happy, would anybody have cared about a completely new IP? Were the sales, ho-hum as they were, only made because of the connection to two much beloved franchises.

Ultimately, all these points may be moot: there are rumours of a sequel circulating around, suggesting that the somewhat middling sales haven’t deterred Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE’s creators. Honestly, I hope it works out for them, since they did indeed take the boldest option of going for a game that wasn’t a straight forward mixing of universes, and I hope the fans of the game have something neat to look forward to. But I’ll also sympathise with fans who had hoped for a simpler crossover, because it appears that the possibility for such a thing grows ever more distant. I’ll admit that there is a part of me that’s kind of bummed out that we’ll never have a kind of Smash Bros. moment where we find out if Chrom could beat down Mara (ha), but c’est la vie.

At the end of the day, the only thing I can say with 100% certainty that the developers and publishers did ‘wrong’ was that they left they fans hanging with too little info. If they had been more up-front about the kind of game they were creating, there wouldn’t have been quite as much gasoline poured onto the bonfire, and there wouldn’t have been as much disappointment when the actual gameplay was revealed. I understand that maybe even they didn’t know what kind of game it was going to be when it was announced, but it still feels kind of manipulative to sell a game on its merits of being both a SMT title and a FE title, and for it be almost neither. This really does appear to be a case of ‘fusion accident.’

In any case, thanks for reading! Keep an eye out next week for our regularly scheduled upload (assuming we can actually get it ready by Sunday, when these things are supposed to come out, rather than early Monday, because we’re awful at scheduling). Take care!

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