My gaming preferences in 2016 could be described as counterintuitive. I had spent the bulk of the year plugging away at open-world, FPS, and action games, leaving a certain genre neglected. I hadn’t actually realized where I had been spending my time until Michael Cunningham reached out for Game of the Year responses and a stark realization struck me: I had only completed Final Fantasy XV.
Some have blamed this on 2016 being a weaker year for RPGs, regardless of the quantity of releases. My finacée would argue that a car change, house change, job change, and pregnancy were enough excuses to not play games at all. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had betrayed myself in a way.
The first role-playing games I can remember watching my older brother play were Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger. I watched because I idolized him, but somewhere along the line I realized that those games were powerful. The characters usually had depth and personality, the art styles ranged widely, and something about the combat systems seemed fascinating.
When the years graced me with the stamina to fully appreciate an eighty-plus hour experience I moved from one JRPG to another at near-breakneck pace. Grandia, Breath of Fire, Parasite Eve, Lunar, Golden Sun, Star Ocean, and other franchises would hop in and out of my consoles for years. When times were tough due to anxiety I often had an escape with the right mix of charm, gameplay, and exploration to pull me away from a funk.
In short, RPGS and JRPGs in particular played an important part in making me the person I am today. It’s a sentiment I’m sure many can share but it is also why inadvertently distancing myself from the genre had felt so distressing. Such that I had chosen to take a radical step in the other direction.
This year, 2017 anno Domini, will be 100% dedicated to the JRPG. They are all I will play. Which means that my recent purchases of GTA V and DOOM are now pointless, but it also gives me a chance to revisit my roots. I’ve kicked off this quest with two key actions: (1) a PlayStation Vita, which many consider to be the modern home of the JRPG, is currently on its way to my house, and (2) a few digital releases have been preselected in advance of the year to come.
I Am Setsuna (PS4)
The first game I had selected for this year-long journey of self-discovery was I Am Setsuna. This JRPG has always been on my radar, but I didn’t pick it up at release. Too many people were yelling about the game being uninspired; using Chrono Trigger as a reference point rubbed them the wrong way. I think they may not have given I Am Setsuna a fair shake.
I’m about 14 hours into Setsuna’s adventure and I’ve teared up like a little baby three times. The themes of the game will feel somewhat familiar if you’ve played Final Fantasy X, but the experience overall is a unique one. There’s a sense of sorrow that permeates the world of I Am Setsuna, and it is snow. Snow is everywhere. It’s the main aesthetic and while its presence makes some of the locals stand out less it also pushes a cold tone that goes hand-in-hand with the plight of the land you’re trying to save and Setsuna’s pilgrimage.
The combat feels like Chrono Trigger with a twist. Battle transitions and pacing are comparable, but new elements like momentum attacks, sprinite fluxes, and singularity effects shake things up. Some might suggest this overcomplicates a perfectly fine system, but in a world of Compile Heart games I refuse to call three additional combat systems overly complicated. They work in harmony and aren’t too hard to pick up on.
Exploration suffers in that while you have a world to explore, your initial run-through will be linear and the airship doesn't bring you to any neat locations. I see this as a misstep, but adventuring has retro-charm nonetheless.
Setsuna travels with a band of misfits, as per typical JRPG tropes. These heroes, however, have all been broken in some capacity. They’re flawed, mostly-tragic characters and will raise the same logical issues with the journey and Setsuna’s decisions that the player likely would. Their complexity was unexpected and you feel the impact of personal revelations as they unfold.
From what I understand, most playthroughs of I Am Setsuna clock in around 20 hours. I'm not quite there yet, but expect an update on how I felt about the ending in the next (Trent's JRPG Quest II.5). I'm looking forward to sharing my progress throughout the year. Check back every few weeks to see which fantasy world I’ve thrown myself into next.