You know the saying: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. One man’s homage is another man’s ripoff, but there’s plenty of room in gaming for titles that experiment with ingredients from various popular properties with the noble intent of concocting a killer combination. So what do you get when you mix a Persona-like setting and relationship-based mechanics with the well-refined battle system design of a Falcom action RPG? As it turns out, a lot of “meh.”.
Tokyo Xanadu takes place within the fictional Morimiya City, located on the outskirts of Tokyo, ten years after a massive earthquake devastated the region. As the area’s denizens heal from that traumatic event, little do they know that a terrifying alternate world exists right under their noses. Only a select few are able to see this other world’s manifestations in the real world. Points where the two worlds overlap are know as Eclipses, which are conveniently accessible via ephemeral gates and serve as the game’s labyrinthine dungeons.
Within these Eclipses, protagonist Kou Tokisaka and a selection of his classmates fight through hordes of enemies known as Greed. Kou and his friends are not only able to see the gates and enter the Eclipses, they’re also “Wielders” that are able to summon Soul Devices to do battle with the otherworldly beasts. Each of these devices is unique to their associated character and affects how each plays in battle.
Tokyo Xanadu is not shy about replicating and celebrating the urban fantasy setting and relationship-based gameplay mechanics popularized by the Persona series. The game stars a cast of high school students. Time passes in-game through days at school followed by various after-school shenanigans that push the plot forward. The player initiates interactions with other characters, namely students, oftentimes in the form of “Friendship Episodes” that increase relationship levels. There’s clearly no mistaking the high-quality source material here. The problem with Tokyo Xanadu lies not in the mere act of its mimicry, though. Rather, it’s the mediocre execution of these lauded gameplay mechanics that make it more a cheap imitation than a charming homage.
The story, dialogue, characters archetypes, and sub-plots are all rehashed elements of generic slice-of-life anime centered around bland teens with boring problems. There’s the brusque main character that doesn’t notice all of the girls falling for him, his doting childhood friend, the mysterious girl who lived “abroad,” the martial arts student whose self-worth is tied to their fighting ability, the corporate princess who plays an irresponsibly outsized role in the family business, the tough guy with a heart of gold, and the hacker boy with glasses. So many clichés with not an interesting one in the bunch. At one point a character literally says “We’re just normal, nondescript high school students.” That’s about as on the nose as it gets. To top things off, the overarching story is a slow-moving mass of things just sort of just happening one after another for the sake of moving a poorly-developed plot along.
Where Tokyo Xanadu falters in storytelling and setting, it wholly succeeds in creating a battle system that is fun and engaging from your first foray into an Eclipse until the credits roll. It’s an active action system that’s a hybrid of elements from the battle systems of other Falcom series like Ys and The Legend of Heroes. Players control one character from their three-person party at any given time, though they can switch between them at will. Each character can perform a basic melee strike, charged attack, ranged magic attack, and air attack, though each excels at only a few of these. Combat controls are very fluid and I rarely encountered instances where characters failed to act exactly as my input intended despite the sometimes frenzied pace of action.
The crux of the combat system, however, lies in elemental weaknesses. Each character has an affinity for certain elements, and choosing the right characters to take into an Eclipse can mean the difference between a relatively easy trek and a prolonged struggle. Effective exploitation of enemy elemental and physical/magic weaknesses leads to fast-paced, sometimes frantic, encounters with groups of enemies as you constantly switch characters to leverage their strengths.
The dungeons themselves are nothing more than chains of corridors populated with enemies and elementary puzzles. While some additional mechanics like traps and other environmental hazards become more prevalent later in the game, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the dungeons beyond how visually pleasing many of them look.
Graphically speaking, the game looks good beyond the unoriginal character designs. The locales outside of the Eclipse dungeons aren’t particularly inspiring either, although each section of the city does manage to maintain its own distinct look and feel. The music, as per Falcom custom, is fantastic. While the soundtrack is quintessentially Falcom-sounding, there were clear instances of Persona-inspired tracks that created a nice blending of the two seemingly disparate sounds. I’m also a sucker for a catchy J-Pop anime opening, and players are treated to one (though the same one) before each chapter. Also note that there is a lot of voice acting, but only in Japanese.
Tokyo Xanadu is a good example of a developer pulling together the best parts of beloved franchises but not quite following through completely. I’d wager that Falcom pulled back a bit on the Persona-inspired mechanics to avoid a 100-hour saga that already struggles with a paper-thin story. As a result, we’re left with a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging battle system wrapped in an uninspired package with little originality. To put it plainly, Tokyo Xanadu is a painfully average experience that still manages to be worth your time.