Not just a loving tribute to the JRPGs of the 90s, I Am Setsuna tells a memorable tale, with a few bright design jewels of its own.
Tokyo RPG Factory's first game offers an elegant counterbalance to Final Fantasy 15. The teams behind each, steered by directors who first fell in love with the Japanese RPG as children, have laboured side-by-side behind acres of perpendicular glass in Square-Enix's new Shinjuku offices. But while Hajime Tabata and his battalion of developers hope to redefine the genre in the forthcoming Final Fantasy, Atsushi Hashimoto and his tiny squad (reportedly just ten in-house staff, supported by a few dozen contractors) want only to recapture the spirit and ambiance of the Super Nintendo and PlayStation RPGs of their childhood. One game is a forward-facing epic, and the other a wistful sketch. In this regard I Am Setsuna is a triumph, dispensing with the bulk and baggage of today's overblown specimens in favour of a simple fable told with clarity and care.
There are no unwieldy attempts to splice pop culture and fantasy in I Am Setsuna, and, as a freshly born universe, there's no cloying fan-service. The soundtrack consists not of tired snatches of familiar melody but of an unbroken chain of fresh tunes played by, presumably, the world's most exhausted pianist (there are no other instruments; the music changes in tone to match the action, in the style of a silent movie accompaniment.) Aspects of classic JRPGs inevitably feature, but as ghostly imprints, rather than totems. For a game inspired by nostalgia, there's irony to the novelty, further compounded by the game's driving theme: the folly of unexamined tradition.
The titular Setsuna is a girl of impeccable virtue. Her blinding kindness serves a narrative function: to intensify our sense of injustice at her assumed destiny to become a sacrificial lamb. Setsuna's world, locked in perennial winter, is riddled with monsters. Every few years its inhabitants must select a willing sacrifice, whose martyrdom will, they believe, hold back the hordes. It is Setsuna's turn.
You play as a knight who becomes entangled in the girl's fate in complicated ways, journeying with her and a clutch of other guards en route, it seems, to the final altar. Superstition, tradition and indignation soon collide. I Am Setsuna's script may lack the wit and unexpectedness of Chrono Trigger and other classics it imitates, but it's told with a clarity and unfussiness that is, nowadays, rare.
The structure is familiar. You journey between towns where, typically, the next dollop of plot is doled out. The lines that link the drama involve battling monsters, usually in forests spliced through with a spaghetti trail of pathways, traversing the world map and, every now and again, resting in inns.
The anachronisms aren't limited to structure and neither are they always as welcome. You may only save your game at glowing blue save points, for example. You must pay attention for clues as to where you need to head next; miss the crucial information, or pick the game up after some time away and you may struggle to work out what you are supposed to be doing. There is no map. You may only include three team members in your active party, a frustration when presented with such a diverse and useful cast, especially when those left on the reserves bench (who earn experience at a greatly reduced rate) fall behind in their development.
The battle system is traditional, but not without its quirks and novelties. It uses Hiroyuki Ito's recognisable 'Active Time Battle' system, which forces you to make battle decisions quickly as time isn't paused while browsing the menus. I Am Setsuna twists the design a little: once the ATB gauge is filled, another, separate, 'Special Power' gauge begins to fill. Once filled this allows the character to trigger Momentum Mode, where, if you hit the square button at the correct moment, you can add various additional effects to the character's attack or defensive move. This reaction test adds further interest to fights, especially as, if you defeat a foe using Momentum attack, you earn bonus items and experience points.
The design also feeds into I Am Setsuna's magic system. Spritnite, as spells are known, are abilities that allow your characters to cast a variety of offensive, defensive, status tweaking special moves at the cost of a fistful of MP. New spells are unlocked in a highly unorthodox way. In towns and cities you meet members of the Magic Consortium, to whom you can sell the huge variety of otherwise useless items that you collect from defeating monsters. Once the shopkeeper has the necessary components they will convert them into a new Spritnite spell. Many of the rarest materials needed to unlock the most powerful spells can only be harvested by defeating monsters while using Momentum attacks.
I Am Setsuna is a game of harmonious elements. It is also a game with few diversions. That leanness betrays the size of that team. The great JRPGs of the Super Nintendo-era were the blockbusters of their day, built by vast teams across years. The rise of third party engines (I Am Setsuna is made with Unity) has enabled games as accomplished as this to be built within two years by a dozen or so artists.
Even so, I Am Setsuna exhibits an unavoidable tightness of focus. There are no great side-quests to follow. The world map is barren. There is no equivalent to Chocobo breeding. This is a game that conjures the spirit of the golden age rather than its bulk. What's here, however, is enough: an enchanting story, supported by simple, lost pleasures. It's the way in which your characters leave deep furrows as they run through the drift. It's the sound of rested snow thumping to the ground as you nudge past a tree. It's the old sea, watched from a cliff. It's how Tokyo RPG Factory has managed to rekindle the wonder and innocence of a once great genre.