All the same, I feel like I’m the target audience for “I Am Setsuna”– a JRPG steeped in nostalgia. On the developer’s website there is a note that testifies to the fact that Tokyo RPG Factory, a subsidiary of Square Enix, was made for the express purpose of creating throwbacks to the 16-bit era when games like “Chrono Trigger” ruled the roost: “The ‘good old days’ are coming back. To every RPG fan in the world… This is for you.”
“I Am Setsuna” has the look of a Super NES game created on a modern graphics engine. I half-joked with a friend that the game is aimed at people looking to re-experience their youth or for parents looking to share an aspect of their hobby with their children. When I started playing it, I almost felt smothered by its tweeness. The towns are small, and townsfolk adhere to their generic designations e.g. Gentle Old Woman, Traveling Merchant, etc. The monsters look whimsical, and the piano-heavy soundtrack is more emotive than atmospheric. Everything feels calculated to move you.
I’m open to the possibility that I might have contracted some variant of Stockholm Syndrome over the last five days while playing. However, what began as a straight-forward tale of a motley band of heroes endeavoring to save the world evolved into a vehicle for posing ethical quandaries such as what the proper limits of altruism are. As a result, I grew more interested as the game went on.
Players assume the role of a gruff mercenary who has been hired by a mysterious party, for unknown reasons, to kill an eighteen-year-old girl, Setsuna. As you quickly learn, Setsuna already lives under the shadow of death. Acceding to a local ritual, she has volunteered to act as a sacrifice — a human offering to a mystical force. Wisdom has it that this is the only way the monsters besetting the region can be appeased for a time.
It falls on you to help Setsuna on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands — the most remote and foreboding spot on the map. “I Am Setsuna” has a gentle difficulty curve. For many hours I kept my party of heroes going with a combination of healing magic and potions. But when I encountered Stout Sheep — a boss — and lost after fighting him for what felt like twenty minutes, I was forced to come to grips with the game’s tangle of subsystems.
As anyone who has played JRPGs knows, there are normally a number of menus to master. And you know an RPG has its hooks in you when flicking through the menus grows into an absorbing activity. The same can be said here. Essentially, the game offers a few different layers of skills and perks. Learning how to make use of passive benefits — like a skill that increases your odds of evading an incoming hit or a talisman that reduces the cooldown rate in between using one of your special abilities — is crucial. Once I ascertained the many ways that I could buff up the members of my party that rambunctious sheep was soundly defeated. A word of advice: the mages in the game are your hit squad.
Writing on playstation.blog, Usuke Kumagai, the director of the English and PC versions of the game, said, “The concept we sought to express through the game’s story is setsunai, an emotion unique to the Japanese language.” (Although “setsunai” has no direct English equivalent, I’ve heard the word carries connotations of poignant, heartbreaking, and cruel.) So it came as no surprise that when I finally saw the credits I felt that everything had been orchestrated to end dramatically, but, ultimately, it was a success. The story’s burden is to find a way, after saying upfront that it’s a tale about sacrifice, to work through the clichés of the genre to make you care about what that sacrifice entails.
“I Am Setsuna” is the polar opposite of a subversive work it. It’s earnest and conventional but also alert to the vast scope of human fallibility and treachery. When the game starts posing you ethical questions about leadership or when you stumble upon an artfully glitchy-looking area where the developers left their calling cards (i.e., you can hear tale of how the composer cried while writing the score), it’s hard to resist the endearing tug of the human pulse humming beneath the surface of the pixels.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
More game reviews: