Square Enix's Mission to Relive JRPGs' Golden Age with I Am Setsuna

Moving forward to look back.


Atsushi Hashimoto looks like a happy guy. He's just wrapped up directing I Am Setsuna, the first game from Square Enix spin-off studio Tokyo RPG Factory. I Am Setsuna was released last month in Japan as Ikenie to Yuki no Setsuna, and will launch internationally under its localized name this summer. Despite the quick turnaround for Setsuna--the game was in development for just a year and a half with a team of fewer than 20 people--Hashimoto looks refreshed as I sit down with him, like he's just breezed in from vacation.

Tokyo RPG Factory and Setsuna were both announced during Square Enix's E3 press conference last year. Their stated goal: to recreate the golden years of JRPGs. Hashimoto says this goal was all-consuming for the team, and that every day, after spending hours reminiscing and discussing what they love about their favorite games from yesteryear, the team would come together to make their dream a reality.

"Technology is rapidly growing, and I think it is a prerequisite to constantly aim for innovation and try to incorporate as much of that new technology as possible," Hashimoto says of making games. "And that should be an understanding that is already there. That being said, there is that category of people that prefers arthouse, almost, niche titles. There's nothing wrong with the old RPGs, and it's always great to aim for new technology and whatnot, but it's also nice to have those good old classic games co-existing in the same world.

"As video games become more diverse and you have different types of games, I'm sure players also develop their own different tastes. That's why the Setsuna team thought there could be a game that exists that pays homage to those good old classic RPGs. It's great that there are people that are out there that support and want to encourage those kinds of games to be born."

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I Am Setsuna's DNA is rooted in these "old school" JRPGs; its battle system is an evolution of the one used in 1995's Chrono Trigger, and its characters are presented in a chibi style reminiscent of 16-bit games like Final Fantasy VI, albeit with their models more smoothed out. The view of the world is top-down isometric, and characters follow each other around in a line like the heroes of Final Fantasy VIII. After even a brief time seeing Setsuna in action, it's clear where its influences lie, and I found myself recognizing bits and pieces of the games I grew up with the more I looked on.

"With Setsuna, we were inspired by a lot of 1990s JRPGs," Hashimoto explains. "It's funny because even amongst development staff the conversation goes, ‘Okay, let’s take this element from this title and let's try to do something about it in our game.’ And we already know by mentioning a particular title what concept we're trying to go for. It's as if there's a common understanding of what concept is being talked about."

Two of Tokyo RPG Factory's key goals in developing their games--and there will be more after I Am Setsuna, at least according to Hashimoto--are epic boss battles with a sense of accomplishment and a story with emotional power. For the former, Hashimoto says the way a boss looks has a lot to do with how players perceive the challenge.

"I would say it can be boiled down to two points," he says. "First is the visual impact it makes, approaching the boss and recognizing it as this formidable foe and wanting to take on the challenge. You must be visually drawn to the boss battle. We want our titles to be very memorable, so another factor I feel contributes to a great boss battle is remembering how you had to strategize, and thinking in the moment about what you could do to beat the boss remains in your memory."

As for I Am Setsuna's story, the emotional poignancy of the game is steeped in Japanese cultural ideas of heartbreak. There is very little voice over in the game, most of is limited to grunts and shouts in combat, and this is not only because those early games didn't include voice acting, but because it leaves room to players' imagination. By using text-based storytelling and giving players just enough to feed their imagination, they will fill in the rest of the blanks on their own, allowing them to immerse deeper into the story.

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"This is a team of Japanese people, and we felt that we wanted to express something very specific to Japanese culture," Hashimoto explains. "The Japanese word that we used as a concept is setsunai. It's not just sadness, but it's a poignant feeling, and a very challenging word to pinpoint. It's very unique to Japanese culture. At the same time, most of the staff members on the development team have a love for ‘90s era JRPGs. We were thinking about how our games should have funny moments and serious moments--but come to think of it, many times the most memorable scenes are where there is a sting, a little bit of sadness to it. We wanted to bring that concept out, something that strikes the core of that era of JRPGs."

Tokyo RPG Factory, and Hashimoto, want I Am Setuna to be remembered the same way we remember Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI: as emotionally and mechanically brilliant, as pieces of art that touch our hearts in unexplainable ways. Capturing this feeling is why the studio was founded in the first place.

"So [Square Enix] president and CEO [Yosuke] Matsuda-san has observed that in the gaming scene there are a lot of indie games, especially in America, where the developers are paying homage to those classic JRPGs," Hashimoto says of the studio's beginnings. "There are American studios that are successfully making Japanese-esque RPGs, so we felt, why can't we be doing this in Japan? We should be doing this! We are Japanese, we are the Japanese RPG company!

"That curiosity and interest drove us to start the development process [for I Am Setsuna]. It's very interesting how the staff came together, because it started as just a concept. Matsuda-san presented it as: this is a concept of a game that we want to build, who wants to join us? No mention of it as a Square Enix company, just the concept of the game. So the developers who were interested in making the game based on that concept alone came together and built around it.. I wanted to jump in because the project was so appealing."

As for those indie games inspired by JRPGs that really caught his eye, Hashimoto cites Ubisoft's Child of Light without hesitation. It was games like this that made him believe that the development would could see successfully produce JRPGs reminiscent of the genre's golden years.

But the game that really inspired Hashimoto, the one the called him into this business to begin with, came much earlier, when he was still a child. Without Dragon Quest III, Tokyo RPG Factory and I Am Setsuna may have been very different things.

International audiences can play I Am Setsuna when it launches this summer on PlayStation 4.

Alexa Ray Corriea on Google+

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