I Am Setsuna begins with its hero, a mercenary named Endir, on an unassuming mission to rescue a girl. You slay the monster and the girl asks why you did it. Of the two dialogue options you can choose from, “This is our job” seems appropriate for this stoic warrior-for-hire. As the victim runs to safety, a man emerges from the shadows of the forest. If he was going to attack you, he’d have done it from behind, but you keep your guard up.
The man has a new mission for you: In a faraway seaside town, a certain girl is about to turn 18. He wants you to kill her. Endir accepts.
That is a great opening for a video game.
Remember Final Fantasy VII’s introductory mission? A band of rebels fight their way through an industrial plant to set off a bomb in the heart of the city Midgar. You’re Cloud, a tight-lipped merc who will apparently do anything for a buck. This is that good. I got so excited the first time I played the beginning of I Am Setsuna, at a press event in May, that I put the controller down as soon as this prologue concluded.
I didn’t want anything else to be spoiled for me before I could sit down and play the whole thing. It gave me the same feeling that FF7 did when I was a kid. I wasn’t sure where it would lead, but it prodded my imagination and I wanted desperately to find out.
This was the draw of big role-playing games in the ‘90s: impossible worlds full of magic and mercenaries and sweeping plots that spanned dozens of hours. They usually started small—say, with a small band of environmental terrorists, or a lone warrior on a morally questionable mission—and wound up with the fate of the world in the balance by the end. I Am Setsuna captures all those old feelings and more.
The game was developed by Tokyo RPG Factory, a studio that Square Enix, the publisher of Final Fantasy games and many others, formed for this very purpose. The RPG genre itself—and the “JRPG” (Japanese role-playing game) subgenre—have changed significantly over the years, and these types of games mean a lot of different things to many people. But in the time I’ve spent with it so far, Setsuna encapsulates a lot of what was great about games like Final Fantasy VII.
You spend the game guiding your party of warriors around snowy forests and towns, chatting with villagers and fighting monsters. The girl—your target—is a ceremonial “sacrifice,” it turns out, and she convinces you to accompany her to the land of monsters, where, it seems, she’ll be ritualistically killed anyway. All your client said is she has to die; he didn’t give a time frame. Win-win?
The combat proves familiar to anyone who played old FF games or Chrono Trigger, another classic of the era. You take turns giving commands to your party members, who alternate attacking with enemies. There are combos and magic attacks and timed button presses and other variables, but ultimately it’s simple.
The real draw is the characters, story and world. Will Endir complete his mission in the end? Will Setsuna, the sacrifice, complete hers? Will the sacrifice really keep the monsters at bay for another decade or two, or is there something deeper going on? This is the stuff of ‘90s video games, and I love it.
I Am Setsuna is available now on PlayStation 4 and Windows. It’s $40, which is a little more than your average downloadable game but less than a full blockbuster. And unlike the Final Fantasies and Chrono Triggers of yesteryear, it’s only about 20 hours long.
The noble girl, the morally indifferent protagonist, the desperate, impossible mission, the gorgeous piano soundtrack—as someone said to me on Twitter, this is JRPG comfort food. The ingredients are familiar, and they’re put together in just the right way to make me drool at the thought of spending a couple dozen hours with I Am Setsuna.
Mike Rougeau is a freelance journalist who lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @roguecheddar.