Square Enix is no stranger to the callback. Games like Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, and even Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn have all leaned on fan nostalgia to varying effect, which is why I was trying to manage my expectations when the publisher parked me in front of I Am Setsuna at PAX East over the weekend.
Conceived as an homage to JRPG classics, I Am Setsuna is particularly enamored with Chrono Trigger: it has the same top-down perspective, gauge-filling turn-based battles, and even a team-up tech system with familiar attacks like X-Strike. Chin up, Chrono Cross, I'm sure you'll get your spiritual successor some day.
Just like Chrono Trigger, you have no direct control over where your heroes move once a battle begins (and yes, you can still see monsters in the wider world and try to sneak around them). You need to consider how using abilities will move your characters around on top of the usual JRPG business like buffing your party and exploiting weaknesses. Positioning was important to keep in mind before, but it's an even more essential part of battle here - the majority of special abilities I saw in the demo could affect multiple enemies or allies in a set area around the primary target.
Fighting monsters felt familiar yet refined, a word I never thought I would use to describe encounters with exploding otters and a tentacle-mouthed giant tortoise. I Am Setsuna clearly appreciates what made Chrono Trigger's battle system unique, which is good, but even better is how it goes further afield with those same fundamentals rather just recreating them. The same could be said of its surprisingly somber tone.
I Am Setsuna follows a small band of adventurers helping one woman (named Setsuna, duh) on a quest to save her village. Typical RPG stuff, right, but she's not venturing forth to slay an evil sorceress or kill a dragon: her difficult journey is meant to end with her ritual sacrifice. You could draw a connecting line between her apparent fate and Crono giving his life to save his friends from the wrath of Lavos, but Setsuna's future may be harder to change without a time-traveling spaceship.
The weary villagers, snowy world map, and lonesome piano soundtrack are all heavy with lament. Lighter moments will lift the mood now and then, but c'mon, Setsuna's name was chosen because of its similarity to the Japanese word setsunai, which refers to a feeling of sorrow or bitter-sweetness. The name of the game is almost literally I Am Sadness.
However the story pans out, I'm eager to see it build on a decades-old base with familiar themes, while leaving overt nostalgia-goading references by the wayside. I Am Setsuna will be released in the US on PS4 and Steam on July 19.