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