The localization was excellent. While some of the text didn't match what was being said exactly by the Japanese VAs, it was close enough and also added a bit of its own flair to the conversations. The jokes and conversations were natural. I also didn't notice a single unintentional typo which was quite an accomplishment. I was particularly impressed with the text messages. Each character had a distinctive style of typing and some of their replies and banter were eerily realistic. I like to text and tweet all the time and the responses here were pitch perfect. The peeps at Altus definitely know their social media manners...lol.
One minor gripe I had with the localization was that none of the character interactions and dialogue during battle are translated at all. So all the banter and quips are lost to anyone who can't understand Japanese. I'm not sure what prevented them from doing so but a large part of interactions are gone. Oh well.
The real gems were the Side Stories. Each character in the main cast had their own story that had a beginning, middle and end. These weren't optional sidequests like the random fetch quests with random NPCs found throughout the game. These were full on stories in of themselves. They were really well written and developed the characters really well. Not only do you learn a lot more about them but you also see how they bond and become better friends. There were some genuinely touching moments in these stories that I loved. It made these characters much more complex and interesting. Their confessions and revelations gave me major Persona vibes. It's my favorite part of the game and each objective is varied enough that I never knew how each one would progress. They also tied in some must-have gameplay perks and rewards when you finish different parts of them so they're a must play for story AND combat reasons.
The art direction for this game is fantastic. There are very vibrant colors everywhere and the look and feel is very nice and inviting. All the characters are very well designed and look super clean. Even NPCs you barely see that often have a unique and distinct design. The main cast are all attractive and good looking although since they're performers, that shouldn't be a surprise. I liked the majority of their different outfits as well. I really liked how the 2D concept art transitioned to 3D. I found myself taking a ton of screenshots constantly. The Mirages in your party as well as the various enemies also look fantastic. Some of the redesigns for the Fire Emblem characters as Mirage looked particularly fanastic. The special attacks in particular also looked awesome. While it's not a technical marvel (some stiff animations in cutscenes, aliasing and slowdown occasionally), it's a very nice looking game overall. I also loved the idea of making the NPC crowds you can't interact with as just randomly colored people. It's quite stylish.
There were also a bunch of cutscenes for the music videos which ranged from much more detailed cel-shaded models to 2D animated scenes and some even used the in-game character models. They were all very well produced and looked amazing. Note: There were some major changes to the game during localization but you can read my rant about the censored visuals/content later in this review.
The music is the real highlight and compliments the visuals perfectly. Considering pop idols were the main focus, this shouldn't come as a surprise. I didn't expect to like most or all of the songs in the game since I don't like most modern J-pop songs these days. The songs were produced by Avex Trax which is a real record label in Japan and they did a pretty great job. Every song is catchy and memorable. They range from traditional J-pop songs to ballads and there's even a Vocaloid equivalent. Some songs actually got stuck in my head even when I wasn't playing the game. Even if I didn't like the singing for a few songs, the music itself was still great. It's a shame you don't get to hear the full songs in the actual game though. You only hear a portion in the debut music videos as well as clips from some special attacks. The only way to hear the whole thing is from the Vocal Tracks album they released in Japan. I actually imported that before I finished the game since I knew I would want to listen to all the songs after I finished the game. A selection of tracks were also released with the Special Edition but it's just a small sample. It's really good and I recommend picking up the album if you liked the songs in the game.
But the songs weren't the only good tracks. The in-game music is also great and memorable. I found most of the slice of life themes to be nice and relaxing while most battle tracks including some boss ones were really hype. They fit in within the scenes really well and had a really modern J-drama feel to them. I'm a bit disappointed that they never released an official OST for the rest of the game's music aside from the vocal tracks. The only way to to listen to them outside the game would be from a game rip on YouTube which someone has done.
Combat was super fun. The battles started out somewhat repetitive but once you start amassing the rest of your party members and unlocking more and more attacks and special moves, it's a sight to behold. You mainly try to attack an enemy's weakness to start a Session which will have every party attack in sequence. Not only does this look super flashy but it's a must to take down really tough enemies and bosses later in the game. The enemies can also do the same to you so it can prove to be quite challenging at times. I actually died because some enemies will take advantage of the whole Session mechanic. The addition of special performances, adlibs, duo arts etc also add an insane amount of extra flashy animations and effects to the battle making it quite a feast for the eyes and ears. It's what keeps the combat enjoyable and addictive. There are more systems in the game that involve upgrading your weapons and characters but my review would end up even longer if I explained it in more detail. It's good, trust me. I also liked that you could basically save anywhere. No save points here! That was unexpected.
The dungeons were okay. They felt and looked a lot liked the dungeons from the SMT and Persona games except the ones in this game are much smaller in scope and less of a grind. There were some light puzzles except for one dungeon where it was actually a bit of a brainteaser and frustrating to solve. I had to look up a guide a few times because some parts just weren't clear enough for me to figure out. I also found the dungeons to be a bit of a drag at times especially when you need to revisit them for Side Stories, sidequests and other reasons. That was a bit too grindy for me. But I did like that each dungeon looked different and had its own music. Each one is based on a specific theme and I think they were pretty well thought out. The backtracking sucked but at least the dungeons weren't super long. I also liked that they would put in some unexpected objectives in order to complete a dungeon.
I should also give a special shout out to the UI and the way they implemented the Gamepad functionality. The UI is very similar to a visual novel where you can fast forward through all the dialogue, let it play out automatically or manually progress it. It also allows you to press a button to hide all the dialogue boxes so you can take clean screenshots of of the scenes. It's pretty handy and I wish all RPGs allowed this function. The Gamepad screen is not only a nice easy access to the map for the world and dungeons but it also uses the texting messages really well. Here, you can check all the texts very easily and see the very humorous dialogue as I mentioned before. I also love that when you get a message, the Gamepad would vibrate like a phone. The ability to check the stats and weaknesses for your party and the enemies during combat in the Gamepad which was also a nice touch. It's all very slick and made navigating around quite painless. Whoever designed this did a great job.
Okay! Rant time start:
One major gripe I had with this game was the censorship. It made no sense whatsoever so I need to talk about it. I can understand if they wanted to take out some of the pervy aspects of the game they found too mature for children but some of the censoring choices were baffling. I'm usually fine with changes made to a game for local consumption but this was done all wrong. Some of the decisions felt like one hand didn't know what the other was doing. Example: A few outfits were censored for some cleavage but then there were other ones that showed MORE skin and cleavage but they were left untouched. Huh?
I was going to list my grievances in detail but these guys at Censored Gaming did a great job summarizing the bulk of the major changes in this YouTube video. They also mentioned some of the inconsistencies with what Nintendo and Atlus felt inappropriate. Make sure to watch it if you're curious what they changed. Nintendo and Atlus put way too much effort into this including changing or adding in a ton of new assets/textures and changing hundreds of lines in the dialogue. The amount of work they did to censor the game was pretty insane. It's really quite a shame because the people who are buying this game know what they're getting into. If you're going to change what the game originally was just because you're afraid of offending some people outside Japan then you are doing it wrong. This whole game is about the idol culture, pop entertainment and fanservice in Japan and going ahead and fucking with it doesn't make it acceptable. The people who are interested in this game know this stuff well. It's a niche game for a niche audience especially for the audience outside Japan. Taking away the original content from them isn't a positive thing no matter how you spin it.
If you already own or played the game but you don't want to import a JPN Wii U or JPN copy of the game, then you can check out a fan-made patch to restore the original content. I discovered this while looking up the censorship issues. It seems pretty involved and I'm not sure if I'll bother with it but if you're interested, it's worth checking out just to play the game the way the developers intended for the Japanese audience. I might just import the JPN version myself and play on an emulator in the future.
Also, you can thankfully watch a full playthrough and all the music videos/cutscenes for the original Japanese version on YouTube. You can see all the costumes and whatever else Nintendo and Atlus decided was too "offensive" for our poor child-like eyes. Seriously, I haven't been this annoyed with a censored game since Yakuza 3. That was bad and this comes close to that.
It's ironic that this game was so heavily censored because it goes against the message of what the game is trying to tell us. It tells the player that you need to be true to yourself and your art in order to entertain people. I bet Barry (the otaku dude in the game as seen above) would've been pissed.
Overall, aside from the silly censorship, the game itself is great. The changes didn't destroy the positives that much. It was much longer than I expected and I was constantly surprised with the scenarios it presented. I loved all the characters and the setting. It was really cool to see a cast of heroes made up of performers from the entertainment industry. It felt fresh and new. You could tell the devs put a lot of love and care into this game. This is one of the best RPGs from last year and should not be missed. You should definitely play it. I really hope Nintendo and Atlus gives this game another chance by porting it to the Switch. It needs a bigger audience. Here's hoping!