E3 2015 had some great surprises for the gaming world at large. From an objective view, despite great success for nearly all presenters, the general consensus was that Sony conference was one of the best ever, due to some big reveals in The Last Guardian, Shenmue III and the Final Fantasy VII remake. Lost in the shuffle somewhat was the announcement of Square Enix’s newest studio, Tokyo RPG Factory, and their work-in-progress title Project Setsuna.
All that we received that day regarding the project were hints at classic RPGs and some lovely concept art for the title featuring a watercolor painting aesthetic. In the coming days and months it became clear that Tokyo RPG Studio’s focus was on giving numerous fans what they’ve been yearning for over the years – classic JRPGs that capture the 90s heyday. Eventually, the whispers came that Setsuna would be in some ways a spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger. Cue retro-minded gamer minds being blown worldwide.
The final vision of I am Setsuna may not reach the lofty sites set by the buzzwords of marketing and the hopeful hyperbole of JRPG faithful, but there is still a lot to like here. The approach is a streamlined one. Visuals, music and sound design adhere to the concepts of minimalism. As an RPG which hearkens back to Chrono Trigger and the SNES-era Final Fantasy titles, one would expect the game’s story to be expansive in counterpoint, yet that’s not really what we get here.
Setsuna’s narrative is a simplistic one: a quest featuring a cast of characters, each with their own unique stories and motivations. On the outset, Setsuna’s journey is one of sacrifice and not one of battling an overwhelming foe. Players know differently – that the smaller battles along the journey are simply precursors to the ultimate endgame. Instead, the theme of sacrifice is carried across through the actions of the individual characters, each forging on despite the odds.
Each of Setsuna’s characters have their own style and personality aside from Endir, the main hero, who takes the mostly silent-protagonist role, his only emotional impacts dictated through simple player dialogue choices. The trouble here is that their backstories, while interesting, feel stunted. While the stories of our titular character Setsuna, and others such as Nidir and Julienne, are essential, we don’t get much in the way of closure for their individual narratives, unless undertaking their dreadfully short sidequests, which aren’t even available until the very end of the game and easy to completely miss.
Still, Setsuna manages to engage in a story that has a few emotional moments. It examines, to a degree, what the concept of sacrifice is and how it works with friendships. All of these moments – failure, triumph, expectation, and most notably sad hopelessness – are accompanied by a nearly solo piano soundtrack arrangement. The music of Setsuna is a wonderful showpiece for the true range of the instrument. It covers the gamut of dark driving battle themes, care-free flying, and dark melancholy with equal aplomb. Still, as a lover of those finely composed Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI soundtracks, I was hoping for a little bit more – something that is a common theme as I write this review.
Visually, the game does a good job of conveying the watercolor style which was portrayed in their concept art reveal. I would have appreciated an even looser style truer to the roots of the painting medium, but there’s not much to complain about here. Characters and objects have a simple polygon-style that evokes the classic sprite look with a modern touch. Again it’s very minimal, but this snow-bound universe is constantly filled with wintery particle effects that tie everything together.
Where I am Setsuna drastically deviates from the streamlined model is in the area of gameplay mechanics. The tech system, directly inspired by Chrono Trigger, can be amazingly deep, though I suspect a fair amount of players, especially those with less time or less “hardcore” playing inclinations, will miss the majority of it. In this world, Spritnite are akin to your Final Fantasy VII materia, but dictate your techs à la Chrono. Action-based techniques, whether attacks or healing, are called command spritnite. Bonus effects, such as stat-boosts or battle-specific traits, are support spritnite.
All of these spritnite can be leveled up by fluxations, random permanent bonuses, which are the only way to upgrade these individual techs. Fluxes only occur during momentum techs or attacks, or defenses during momentum. Sounding confusing? Don’t worry, the game doesn’t explain the majority of this – it’s mostly down to trial and error. Momentum is basically the Limit Break of Setsuna. Hitting the square button (on PS4) while having a momentum charge will produce added effects to your action. On top of all this are randomly occurring Singularities during battle which provide party benefits. It’s an intriguing setup with lots of possibilities, one which the game seemingly unintentionally hides from a casual player.
I Am Setsuna is a title that relies almost wholly on one factor to carry itself and the player through the entirety of its journey. And no, it’s not the minimalist soundtrack or visual style, or story-driven ideals of friendship and sacrifice. No, it’s a singular concept that is easy to espouse, but harder to define as it belongs solely in the hearts and minds of each individual – nostalgia.
Setsuna is not only a tribute piece to Chrono Trigger, but also other classic Square RPGs. You can find tastes of numerous Final Fantasy titles stretching from IV to IX. My colleague Lance, has written recently about feeling the effects of an over-saturation of nostalgia-driven gaming titles influenced by the 90s. While I agree to the extent that “retro” stylings are sometimes used as a quick and easy way to cash in on a popular trend, I reject the idea that attempting to recreate the golden days of gaming is a bad thing – particularly that of the Japanese-style RPG.
The reason that gamers, especially those in a specific age-range, hold early to mid-90s games of the JRPG variety as sacred is simply that they are, in general, fantastic examples of everything games can be. They have expansive stories with intriguing mechanics. There are numerous characters that are both entertaining and interesting, where heroes have flaws and villains often have motivations outside of simple madness (except you, Kefka – you’re just nuts). They also feature some of the best individual musical themes and overall soundtracks of any games ever made. In short, I argue that these titles from which Setsuna draws its characteristics all hold up incredibly well.
The trouble with nostalgia is that there is an inherent danger in pinning one’s hopes on recapturing all those old emotions and the surrounding energy the create. This concept has been featured in numerous films and novels where a protagonist returns to their hometown – be it due to a death of a common friend, a standard high school reunion, or the like – and in doing so awakens all of these feelings tied to memories which are now front and center. Often, the center of the story ends up learning some life lesson focused on a conclusion that memories are lovely relics of the past, ones to be cherished but not to be repeated. Simply – the past is the past, and life moves on.
Prior to writing this piece, several friends have asked me how I feel about the game, and I’ve struggled to voice the answer. While I think it was a good game, and I’m glad to have played it, I can’t help but feel that deep-down, this was supposed to be a great experience. It was supposed to capture those glory days. I am Setsuna was intended to be a blueprint for nostalgia exemplified. In the end, whether it was my nostalgia or the game’s itself, the experience fell short of achieving the halcyon days of retro-gaming majesty.
Each nod to a title of JRPG yore is an acknowledgment of sampling from something fantastic. I am Setsuna is the sampler platter at your favorite restaurant. Not the one that gives you three tiny mozzarella sticks and a soggy onion ring – no, the place that puts a heaping of one of your favorite dishes in the center and surrounds them with generous quantities of the best of the menu. You know, the $20 appetizer tray that everyone can eat from.
It’s not the full meal, but you can experience a taste of everything fantastic the chef has to offer. Setsuna provides delicious samples of the styles and themes you know and love, only you don’t get to order an entree after you finish as you would at that restaurant. Take heart, though. While it may not fulfill all of your hunger, excellent appetizers can still function as a good meal. I am eager to taste the next dish our chefs, Tokyo RPG Studio, will prepare for us.
I am Setsuna was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Tokyo RPG Studio | Publisher: SQUARE ENIX LTD | Genre: RPG | Platform: PC, PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: NA/E | Release Date: July 19, 2016
The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not
Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.
One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.
The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.
Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals.
This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell.
The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying.
Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.
Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.
The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.
So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.
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