It’s obvious the era of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII has long past — what is often considered the golden age of JRPGs will never come back in the same form in the world of ever-evolving technology and expectations. Some will go so far to say that JRPGs have stagnated or are dead, and video game sales have reached an all-time low in Japan while the budget required to create a game that matches modern standards is only increasing.
Developed by Square Enix’s new brand Tokyo RPG Factory, promotional material hyped up Setsuna to be “what brings back JRPGs.”
The keyword here is “bring back”, not “save.” The last company that claimed to save JRPGs outputted a bunch of bad games (to be fair they had plenty of games I thought were decent to good, but the good ones were small-profile and weren’t advertised with bold claims) with amazing budget and eventually went bankrupt. Tokyo RPG Factory isn’t trying to “save” JRPGs in the sense of being revolutionary or innovative with Setsuna. The game’s scale is small, the very straightforward is story told in the minimalist style you’d see two decades ago, and the battle system and dungeon encounters are taken straight from Chrono Trigger. Its whole point is to show the player a game following 90’s Famicom era JRPG game design with a coat of 3D graphics and an entirely piano soundtrack.
Civilization is constantly threatened by the attack of monsters, and in order to restrain the monsters in the world, a sacrifice must be made every ten years. The sacrifice is chosen from the residents of the Moru, also known as the Village of Beginnings. She must journey to the Ends of the Earth to complete her sacrifice. The protagonist End is a mercenary given the task of killing the next sacrifice, a young woman named Setsuna. It hasn’t even been ten years since the last sacrifice, but the monsters have been becoming aggressive much earlier than anticipated. She convinces him to accompany her on her journey instead, as she is fated to die by the end anyways. Together with her bodyguard Kuon, the three set out on a journey to the Ends of the Earth.
I imagine many would be disappointed with Setsuna if they didn’t know what to expect. Opinions of Japanese gamers are very divided, and even the developers addressed this reaction in an interview. Despite having Setsuna in the title and a bunch of characters with time-related names, it’s no time-traveling epic like Chrono Trigger. The story, much like actual 90’s games, is told through short and to-the-point scenes that avoid spelling out too many things explicitly. The characters are well defined on the macro-level so their backstory and primary struggle are clearly illustrated, but micro-level interactions are somewhat rare. There’s a bit of banter between Keel and Yomi, but most of the scenes just get to the point and exist solely to move the plot forward. It’s the antithesis to modern RPGs that employ long dramatic cutscenes or slice-of-life/downtime scenes to show the fun side of character interactions. There are enough gaps left in the story scenes for the player to imagine the details of each character on their own, and even the scenes intended to be dramatic go by relatively quickly.
The game takes place in a land covered by snow, which, combined with the piano soundtrack, creates a transient atmosphere that persists throughout. It’s very fitting for a story about a girl whose purpose is to be sacrificed to save the world, and at the end I find it to be the most effectively realized part of the game. The ending is very fitting in this regard as well. I would almost call Setsuna a 雰囲気ゲー. The protagonist is also silent with loads of dialogue choices that affect absolutely nothing.
The encounter system is the same as Chrono Trigger’s, where the monster groups are visible on the map and you fight them exactly where you encounter them with no transition into a battle-only background. Battles use the ATB system that Square Enix designed back in the 90’s, and you’ve got Dual and Triple Techs that can be performed by two or three characters at the same time. Basically, it’s Chrono Trigger. The only new thing is the Setsuna system, where a character accumulates the SP with time and once the gauge is full, pressing the square button when they execute their action gives that particular instance of the action a special boost. SP can be accumulated to up to 3 “bars”, and activating the Setsuna system once costs 1 bar. The boosting effects of Setsuna depends on the specific skill: most attacking skills will just deal more damage or have increased hits, while some will add an HP drain effect or inflict a status ailment; healing skills tend to remove status ailments as a Setsuna boost, and buffs get their duration extended. Activating Setsuna for a Dual or Triple Tech requires all acting characters to have enough SP.
The game is overall very easy. The first time I got wiped out by a boss was around 3/4 into the game when the bosses started getting tricky, but they’re not hard so much as they require you to actually start paying attention as opposed to how you’ve probably been fighting previous encounters with your brain on autopilot. Most fights where the boss actually deal enough damage to you/are fast enough to be a threat are balanced out by having the opponent go down very quickly as well. Normal enemy encounters are trivial since it doesn’t take long to get access to End/Yomi’s dual tech that deals damage to all enemies and also stuns them. Most of the time you can wipe out the entire enemy group in the first turn, and you get so much money as well as complete healing upon level ups that MP management is hardly an issue.
You never get any cash from monsters, but you get material drops that you can sell to the store for money, as well as get new skills which require specific monster drops. There’s a rather elaborate drop system where the monster’s drops vary depending on how you kill them. Each monster has a normal drop and a rare drop, and 8 other conditional drops based on overkill/just-kill, the element(s) of the killing hit, and whether Setsuna was activated during the killing hit. You can get multiple kill bonuses at the same time, including all of the elemental ones (there are ways to turn your attack into all-element).
Skills consist of passive abilities (“support”) and actual battle commands. Characters do not get any skills as they level up, but rather, gain more slots to equip skills obtained from selling monster drops. There are specific commands for each character, and a bunch of support skills that are free to equip for everyone. This results in more time spent messing around in menus, as you’ll have much more skills than each character does slots. Dual and Triple Techs require specific skills to be equipped to work. I thought this was a pretty novel system at the beginning, but that wore off quickly.
There’s also a world map to walk around in, but there are no encounters on it — just like Chrono Trigger, I guess. You also get minor tidbits like being able to rename characters and magic.
The game up to the ending of the story is around 20 hours long, which would feel really short for a modern RPG but is just right considering Setsuna is telling a straightforward story that doesn’t waste any time. It invokes nostalgia through game design and not 王道 JRPG storytelling — the “romance” of a grand adventure from the Famicom era classics is absent, and the excitement in arriving in a new area is practically nonexistent. You get an airship to explore the world map, but that happens at the very end and there aren’t that many cool areas to really explore. While many fans probably have fond memories of Square Enix’s ATB system, I’m mostly neutral towards it and thought that 20 hours was a good amount of time to experience the system again without having it overstay its welcome. It’s definitely not the kind of gameplay I would like 60 hours of, but 20 is fine.
Despite all the similarities in Setsuna’s gameplay to Chrono Trigger, I’m willing to bet that most people liked the latter due to its epic time-traveling story and being very impressive for an SNES game. Setsuna’s story is small in scale and it’s definitely not on the technically impressive side when put on the PS4 or Vita (in fact, it runs terribly on the Vita compared to many better-looking games). The developers said that rather than creating something exactly like a 90’s JRPG, Setsuna is supposed to be the result of a different evolution path for the genre or a “forgotten choice at a past decision point”, but I can only see it as a game recycling Chrono Trigger’s system with a few new additions two decades later. I’d recommend it to people interested in experiencing mid 90’s JRPG design with a modern coat. It’s not a bad game for what it is and I liked how cleanly it ended, but it’s probably not the type of game that one would remember several years down the road. Opinions on it are understandably very divided.