I Never Wanted to Leave I Am Setsuna [Hands-On]

Playing I Am Setsuna is kind of a tiny miracle. The upcoming title developed by Tokyo RPG Factory, a studio established to specialize in JRPGs seems to be on just the right track. After decades of fond memories of FFVI and many PlayStation One classics, I was curious to see how this winter tale would feel. I was not disappointed.

At least, so far as the demo, which was only about twenty-minutes long. As much as I adore many of the new indie titles that have come in recent years, titles based on older designs (mostly Metroid), I never thought I get something like this: a true new Japanese role-playing adventure that celebrates this beloved but bygone era.

The story is concerned with a world in perpetual winter. Yes, Winter has come and it didn't take six seasons (and counting) on Game of Thrones. You play a mercenary named Endir who, at first, is sent to assassinate the titular heroine, Setsuna. Upon meeting her, she doesn't seem to mind since she's planning on being a sacrifice to appease the gods, or some evil monsters, or other nonsense. As fate wold have it, your chance meeting curtails all that. At least for now.

One of the reps I spoke to mentioned how the isolation and cold setting is meant to highlight the themes of sadness throughout the campaign. That might be true, but it certainly didn't dim my mood at all. The production value is exquisite, almost like a storyboard come to life. Even a small thing like trudging in the snow feels special.

If you've played Chrono Trigger you'll be at home with the good-ole ATB, or "active time battle," system. For newbies, we're talking about a turned-based battle where each member of your party (I had three by the end of the demo) has a timed gauge that needs to fill before making an action: attack, use an item, etc. It's extremely easy to pick up and play, but as the campaign continues, I assume there will be more added like perhaps the summoning of otherworldly beasts or spirits. Again, if you've ever played peak Nintendo/PlayStation RPGs, you'll be right at home.

Then again, this is 2016 so while I did smile to myself when I approached the matter-of-factly named “Shrewd-Eyed Young Man,” the dialogue exchanges felt modern, not at all clunky. I don’t mean the characters used today's vernacular (obviously), but the writing is thoughtful and aided by (thankfully) not at all poor translations of Japanese to English. Normally, I'm a huge proponent of voice-acting and mo-cap, but darn it, this just feels so right. The peaceful nature of being in a snowbound forest is haunting, a feeling that is highlighted by an enchanting score.

This piano-heavy score is somehow perfect. Should they have done a midi-sounding score? I might have said 'maybe' if I hadn’t heard it, but I’m sure fans of the genre will take to it. That’s sort of my big takeaway from this terrific demo: I Am Setsuna clearly has its roots in more classic gameplay, but it also feels like it might be something more than just a journey of nostalgia. Of course, the key to accomplishing such a feat is not just a smartly-designed presentation, but more importantly, a game with memorable characters and a well-written narrative. My few exchanges with Setsuna was short (destined to die… maybe not!), but it’s hard, as a fan of role-playing not to get psyched to spend more time here.

Note: At the time of the press event, I Am Setsuna is set to be exclusive to the PS4. Digital-only. The digital only part makes sense, I suppose, but it feels like a missed opportunity not to bundle this as some deluxe edition that includes an art book and other cool Loot Crate-type items. Regardless, with I Am Setsuna, winter comes July 19th.