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E3 2016: I AM SETSUNA Answers Your JRPG Prayers

Do you yearn for the halcyon days of turn-based combat? Does the sight of labyrinthine menus full of oddly named elixirs, potions, and decoctions give you a visceral thrill? Do you find yourself sadly staring out the window, listening to the sounds of rain clatter against the window pane? If you answered yes to the last one, you may have seasonal affective disorder. If you answered yes to the first two, then rest easy in the knowledge that Square Enix has got you covered.

Although Square Enix is pushing the RPG envelope with Final Fantasy XV and looking to reinvigorate that franchise’s DNA, they still pine for the days of classic JRPG titles like Chrono Trigger. To pursue this passion, they announced the creation of Tokyo RPG Factory at E3 2015, a new studio dedicated specifically to creating role-playing games. For its first effort, Tokyo RPG Factory aimed to create something that evoked classic RPGs of the 1990s. The result is a title called I Am Setsuna,

While at a recent pre-E3 press day hosted by Square Enix, I got hands-on time with Tokyo RPG Factory’s debut title, and I am champing at the bit to play more. Like many of my favorite RPGs of yesteryear, I Am Setsuna feels willfully esoteric, overcomplicating what would otherwise be a simple premise by talking in philosophical platitudes and vagaries. For some players, this could make for a maddening experience, but it evokes a certain kind of rosy nostalgia in me, reminding me of old Squaresoft titles like Final Fantasy Tactics or Xenogears, which coupled addictive old-school RPG mechanics with wonderfully weird, heady storytelling.

The game is a thoughtful piece of elegiac storytelling, a quiet story of sacrifice set in a snowy, faraway land.

Here’s the official synopsis from the game’s website:

“To maintain peace, once a decade, a sacrifice was offered to a fiend on the island. However, one year, the fiend grew violent before the next sacrifice was due. Those living on the island were afraid and tried to calm the fiend by offering a sacrifice; Setsuna, chosen because of her powers of enchantment. Setsuna must leave with her safeguards for the farthest land, where the ceremony of sacrifice will be held.”

The game begins with a small tutorial section that will introduce newcomers to the style and affectation of the old school JRPG mechanics. Veterans will likely blaze through this section as their muscle memory kicks in and they soundly defeat the low level baddies impeding their progress through a snow-covered forest. You control Endir, an aloof young mercenary who looks like if Yoshitaka Amano handled character designs for Legend of Korra. After braving the icy cold climes of the forest, he is given his most brutal task yet: to kill a girl named Setsuna.

Yikes.

Nothing like being told you’ll need to murder the title character within the first fifteen minutes, huh? But like everything in I Am Setsuna, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Setsuna is meant to be sacrificed as a tribute to appease a throng of malevolent demons. In other words, Setsuna must die so that hundreds and thousands of others may live. Your job, it seems, is to accompany Setsuna to her bitter fate. It’s a bleak task for a bleak world, filling the player with a pervasive sense of sadness and impending loss. But not all is hopeless; there’s a quiet beauty to the game and its lush, simply rendered landscapes. The Japanese word “Setsuna” means “a moment” or “an instant,” something that is ephemeral and quickly fades away, meant to be treasured and experienced rather than greedily hoarded. It’s a distinctly Japanese sensibility that makes the game feel almost like a playable ukiyo-e painting at times.

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Speaking of the gameplay, I Am Setsuna is not here to reinvent the wheel. Quite the opposite, in fact, because they actively want to return to something familiar—in this case, the Active Time Battle system from Chrono Trigger. While the combat system definitely evokes older titles, I found myself wishing for a little more variety. Granted, that is partly because I was at the beginning of the game, and it’ll take time to unlock flashier skills and abilities, so take that criticism with a grain of salt. With that combat system comes a slower pace than many modern RPG players may not be accustomed to—but that is part and parcel of turn-based combat. Still, despite these minor gripes, it satisfied that JRPG itch that more recent offerings just haven’t scratched. 

Although it got off to a slow start, I Am Setsuna managed to worm its way into my brain. Even though I spent a brief time with it, I found myself thinking of the game quite often, long after my play session had come to an end. Something tells me that I’ll be thinking about it long after I reach the end of Setsuna’s journey, too. And that, fellow adventurers, is the mark of a true RPG.

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I Am Setsuna comes to PS4 and PC on July 19, 2016.

Will you be playing I Am Setsuna? What RPGs were your favorite growing up? Let us know in the comments below.

Why is the Final Fantasy VII Remake episodic?

Image: Square Enix/Tokyo RPG Factory


Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@Osteoferocious).

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