"The name Setsuna is important because it references a Japanese concept called setsunai, which roughly translates to a sadness or bitterness that accompanies resignation to a cruel fate."
Recent outings by independent studios have created a wave of "retro" style RPGs that hearken back to the the favorites of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their commercial success has not gone unnoticed by Square Enix. Home of the masterminds behind such classics as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quest, Square Enix wanted in on the action, and so they created a small studio under a separate corporate entity called Tokyo RPG Factory. Tokyo RPG Factory's stated mission is to create games with the look and feel of the "golden era" of JRPGs. Part of that work means operating on a smaller budget, with limited resources and development cycles. However the company's technical director Usuke Kumagai, who I spoke with at the Square Enix booth through a translator, stressed that the most important aspect of recapturing the spirit of these old games is a focus on strong storytelling.
Which brings us to I am Setsuna. The name Setsuna is important because it references a Japanese concept called setsunai
, which roughly translates to a sadness or bitterness that accompanies resignation to a cruel fate. The story is built around this concept, and Kumagai-san said that the story and its emotional resonance are his proudest achievements in the game. The team appears to have put a great deal of thought into building a game that will connect with players. For instance, the exaggerated morphology of the character models is designed to be unrealistic; the notion being that hyperrealism actually detracts from player empathy. Similarly, the protagonist is silent to allow the player to fill in their own concept of how he might sound. Tokyo RPG Factory hopes to draw players further into the story by leaving something to the imagination.
The silent protagonist might remind an RPG fan of Chrono Trigger, and well it should; the game plays very similarly to the Squaresoft classic. Enemies appear on the field, and approaching them will trigger an Active Time Battle turn-based system that should feel immediately familiar. Special skills are again called Techs, and multiple characters can combine these skills for powerful combos. A new development is the "Setsuna gauge," represented by a snowflake-shaped meter that fills as the character deals or takes damage, or simply waits with a full ATB meter. Once the Setsuna gauge fills, that character will gain a Setsuna point that they can trigger by pressing square at the right moment to add a bonus to whatever action they are taking. Using a point while attacking can increase attack damage or crit chance, while using one while healing can grant a boost to recovery. The system is simple yet engaging in an elegant way.
I am Setsuna is Square Enix's attempt, through Tokyo RPG Factory, to recapture a style of game making that it seems to have lost. The focus is not on production values, but emotionally resonant story. Years ago, it seemed Square Enix had relinquished the mantle of this JRPG style to, ironically, indie studios in the West. Can Tokyo RPG Factory reclaim our hearts with I am Setsuna?
RPGFan would like to thank Square Enix and Kumagai-san for their time and energy in facilitating our interview. ありがとうございました!