Clearly after several weeks of spooky or spooky themed games or at least games involving death and darkness, it’s time to really ramp things up for October…
… by looking at a brilliantly colored game that revels in enjoyment and light.
This game of the too long, complicated name, is one of those that was originally released on the Wii U but received a port on the Switch. There are longstanding jokes about how nearly everything’s been ported to the Switch (one of the reasons I love the console, obviously), and that seems to go double for Wii U games that had any potential. The game combines Atlus’s Persona Style series with Nintendo’s Long-Running Fire Emblem franchise.
It’s also one of the most vibrant games I’ve played, so into its overarching themes and ideas that everything seems to interlink with everything else in utterly delightful ways.
The main controllable character is the above pictured Itsuki. He’s close friends with Tsubasa, who happens to be obsessed with idols and idol culture (this is a longstanding cultural thing in Japan, where various young people, most often girls, dress up in outrageous outfits, usually to perform catchy song). She drags Itsuki along to events, and he’s generally willing to go. At one such event, emotions get out of control, and these mysterious beings called “Mirages” attack.
Itsuki and Tsubasa manage to free two such Mirages from the evil forces controlling them. These turn out to be Chrom and Caeda, two characters from the Fire Emblem game franchise. They agree to serve as Itsuki’s and Tsubasa’s Mirages particularly, and together the four vow to get out of the new Idolasphere, a dimension that has formed as a result of the Mirages and intense emotion.
They soon find out that Fortuna Entertainment, a company of Idols, not only works in the entertainment industry, but has also been fighting the Mirages since their activity increased five years ago. Itsuki and Tsubasa sign on as performers/idols for the company, and the story follows their working and rising through the ranks of the idol industry while also discovering who is behind the rising Mirages.
And that’s just the loose, broad summary I can give. The story is outrageous, but shouldn’t be too far out there for people who enjoy JRPGs, particularly the Persona franchise. About an hour or so in, I had already made the inevitable Persona connection, saying aloud that this felt like a lost Persona game. There isn’t the usual time limit that I recall from most Persona games: you can take as long as you’d like to complete the various Idolaspheres, and the game encourages you to use your spare time to wander around and complete side quests to develop your characters.
What’s great about this is how well they’ve tied in the story and the gameplay elements, something that’s obviously a big deal for me. As the characters interact and rise within the idol industry, they gain more abilities and become more in sync with the other characters. Encouraging two of your characters to perform a song together and helping them learn to act in step for the performance will often result in a special attack that happens during battle.
The first time I unlocked one of these special attacks, my mouth just dropped. I had input an ice spell for Kiria, an experienced idol and the party’s assault mage. Her special attack kicked in, and I was expecting maybe a slightly stronger ice spell, or perhaps just some increased damage. Instead, the music from the previously shown, full anime music video kicked in, and Kiria performs what amounts to a music video, conjuring ice almost as an afterthought to her powerful singing and performing.
It was insane, and I love that.
The battles for the most part follow standard JRPG structure, more particularly, the longstanding structures that the SMT and Persona games use (and yes, I bought this game at the same time as SMT Nocturne, which made for a fun contrast). You control three characters against a party of enemy Mirages. Interestingly, instead of standing on one side or another, your characters form a ring around this stage, with the enemy Mirages at the center.
You input various attacks, and each attack has a certain typing attached. Several are physical: sword, lance, axe, spear, and bow, while others are magical: fire, ice, lightning, force (wind), light and dark. Whenever you hit an enemy with an element they’re weak against, this starts a chain attack, where your various party members can jump in if they have the appropriate skill.
Eventually you gain a skill that lets the characters outside of your active party of three jump in, forming lengthy chains that start to pile up. On top of that, you can also have those special performances, and on top of that you can have duets where two characters will act together.
The end result is this chaotic, lively, magical mess:
Selecting one of those duo attacks will activate a skit and/or song from the duo indicated, and in turn result in yet more damage, as well as repeating the chain of attacks. It also cuts in more of those energetic song numbers, and they’re catchy enough that I’m still hearing snippets just writing about it now.
This excess can get a bit draining toward the end of the game, when essentially every attack results in this chain of animations, sparkles, noises and effects. I loved it when it was first happening, and there’s still a lot of charm built into hearing your characters sing and dance their way through combat. It can drag just a bit, though sped up animations can and will help. It helps that most enemies die after being piled on like this.
That does ring about an odd wrinkle here: the enemies can also chain attacks and occasionally have specials of their own. This adds another layer of strategy to the proceedings, and can sometimes make battles tricky (they can be downright overwhelming if you accidentally get into a battle that’s beyond your level).
The last aspect to be discussed is probably the weakest part of the game: the exploration and dungeons. You control only Itsuki during these phases, and he’s locked into your active party at all times, which feels like a strange anachronism in a game that’s otherwise playing fast and loose with most of how JRPGs work. The dungeons are pretty imaginative in concept, way beyond the samey corridors of SMT Nocturne. You’ll be running through television studios, art exhibits, a twisted fashion show, and more.
Itsuki mostly just runs at one speed with almost no variation. He can swing his sword if you hit a button, but this is always the same wide, awkward slash, looking very much like what I’d expect out of a teenager who’s never used a sword before in his life.
The last dungeon is a major bummer though. It’s just a series of floating islands that have various ruins dotting them. Given how unique everything leading up to it is, it’s definitely a disappointment. Piling onto that are warp panels, floating platforms that auto-track, and other annoyances that, again, feel like they’ve been ripped straight out of a 90’s JRPG instead of a more modern game. This made the last dungeon feel like a slog (which in my opinion is often a problem with those dungeons).
There are also a few awkward moments in facial animation, particularly in Tsubasa, who often looks nearly horrifying, dancing dangerously close to the uncanny valley (see the gaping mouth pic at top). It’s not too bad, but it had me snorting with laughter or cringing in a few spots.
The other real major sticking point in the game for me is one of the characters:
Barry is supposed to be an American who got way too into Japanese culture. He moved to Japan as a result, and is most definitely an “otaku”, or someone who’s way too into anime and the like. He’s portrayed as comic relief, like we’re supposed to laugh at his buffoonish antics and how he squeals over Mamori, an eleven year old girl who joins your party. The game tries to portray Barry as sort of this doting uncle over this girl, but when he’s squealing with delight when she’s in a cute outfit or getting angry at someone getting close to her, he comes off a bit more like an awkward stalker.
The comedy just doesn’t quite land with him, and, again, his relationship with Mamori feels almost creepy at times, making me uneasy as a player. It borders on “grooming,” where an adult is way too nice for a child to get close to them. I do believe that the writers were trying to make Barry this sensitive soul who gets excited over anime and things that the players might also enjoy. But he’s not portrayed in a flattering manner, and is entire cringe-inducing or unnerving in bad ways. The game could’ve done without him, as he barely impacts the plot (he ostensibly trains the characters and serves as a sort of red herring bad guy for a middle chapter), and a simple rewrite to make him actually Mamori’s uncle would’ve smoothed over a lot of the weirdness there.
Still, the game is really good overall, doing a great job maintaining its upbeat tone. I loved the music throughout, and the way they integrate everything makes for a pretty immersive experience, which can be tricky for this genre.
It does feel like a few modern conveniences could have been added to the map, and I have to dock them points for how poorly the Barry character is handled: he’s offputting enough that he could actually ruin the game for people. Still…
8 excellent game with strong tone, and a consistently bright and uplifting story, mired only by a few stiff areas in exploration and an extremely offputting character