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I am Setsuna Director On Chrono Trigger Inspiration, Turn-Based Battles, And Theme of Sadness

We previously heard from I am Setsuna director and Tokyo RPG founder Atsushi Hashimoto about what’s missing in RPGs today from the golden age of RPGs in Siliconera’s recent interview. Here is the full interview from the man in charge, who had plenty more to share about the upcoming RPG.

What do you feel is missing from RPGs today from the golden age of RPGs when the Super Famicom was the leading system?

Atsushi Hashimoto, Director: One element that was distinct with titles developed in the 90s is because technology-wise the developers were not able to express everything photo realistically, there were elements for the player’s imagination to fill in gaps. Players would have to look at the screen and imagine parts that weren’t filled in. They would enjoy projecting themselves into a game and building the story in their mind. That was a key element from games in the 90s that I wanted to integrate with I am Setsuna.

I can see that. When players look at say Terra from Final Fantasy VI or even Cloud from Final Fantasy VII the characters aren’t as detailed so players fill in the details with their imagination and everyone adds a personal touch to their view on a character. Comparatively, when you look at Noctis from Final Fantasy XV there’s only one way to look at him.

[Laughs] I feel there is a trend that a lot of games, even RPGs have leaned towards action oriented combat. Tokyo RPG Factory’s mission for I am Setsuna was to bring back the turn based RPG battle system which worked really well in the golden era of JRPGs. We wanted to feature that in the game. I can’t say for all of our titles that will be a characteristic we will incorporate, but turn based battle systems were one of the charms in the 90s.

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That’s a good point and thanks to evolving technology creators have a chance to make more action oriented games. Do you think turn based battle systems are simply a feature older gamers are nostalgic for?

I believe turn-based battle systems can be loved by all. It’s an interesting system that I hope even younger gamers who aren’t familiar with this style of RPG will enjoy. There are other elements in the game that draw players in. In the story, we put a lot of effort into making it interesting. As well as the motifs illustrated in the game. There is a lot of snow in the world which plays a crucial role within the narrative. The background music has a lot of piano that also helps illustrate the environment and world of I am Setsuna. I hope with all of these elements even the newer generation will also take notice that this is something new and refreshing.

The world is pretty somber and sadness is a main theme of the game. Why did you choose to center the story on sadness?

When we were thinking as a Japanese studio and we wanted to pay homage to classic RPGs, what makes us unique as Japanese people? That’s where we had the concept of “Setsuna”, a very poignant sorrow. You may recognize the word is very specific to Japanese culture and one of the factors why we held sadness as a concept. Most of the development staff, the classic RPGs they experienced and memorable scenes to them, tended to be some of the more of the sad moments. It is ingrained in our culture as well. When we were faced with a creative decision – how do we express ourselves? How do we make our title unique and when we boiled down what characterizes us as Tokyo RPG Factory’s title I am Setsuna is the idea of poignant sorrow became a pillar to build upon.

The journey and story reminds me of another Square Enix title, Final Fantasy X, although it wasn’t from the SNES day. Without spoilers, how is the story different from Final Fantasy X?

Looking at it from a development standpoint, there was no intention to make it similar to Final Fantasy X. In the end it may be perceived that there are similarities, but there was no conscious effort to look towards mimicking that plot. The concept was “poignant sorrow” and from there we stepped off to sacrifice and that’s how we built upon the narrative. It’s just the approach that the team took using these themes are that of a different story.

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But, you did take a lot of inspiration and details from Chrono Trigger. I think fans of that classic RPG got excited when X-Slash showed up in battle videos. What elements of Chrono Trigger did you want to bring to a new generation?

The team referenced battle elements from Chrono Trigger and tried to make it unique for our own time. The ATB (Active Time Battle) system is representative of that. Another key feature that we did a lot research on was the seamless transition between the world to battle. A lot of JRPGs have random encounters and some titles fade to black from field to battle. If there is an event or cutscene the game would fade to black too and then cut into the scene.

We wanted to make I am Setsuna as seamless as possible. We felt Chrono Trigger did transitioning into the battle sequence from the field so well that was the look we wanted to achieve. We did a lot of research on how we could achieve that and not interrupt the immersion factor for the players and be able to keep a good tempo with the narrative.

Can you elaborate more about this? I think some earlier games especially those on the PsOne used a transition to load characters and objects into battle, but now we have more powerful hardware. Can you tell us what you found worked well to make a game feel seamless?

One of the ways we did research is we went back and played Chrono Trigger. We measured the time it took while you’re moving around the field, how long it took to move a certain distance, and how long a battle was. Then we measured how long a transition took and wrote down the numbers for each action. After we gathered the data, we looked at how the flow was structured and we tried to derive how much time you can spend on certain transitions to keep that good pacing for a player to be comfortable and satisfied with the tempo to have an exhilarating gameplay experience. From that information, we would apply it to how I am Setsuna was structured. For example, if we inserted some loading time here I think the players won’t experience any kind of discomfort. We started building the structure based on what we believed was a good progressive pace.

We’ve seen the Vita version which is currently out in Japan has long load times. Is that the reason why the Vita version isn’t being released in the West?

Actually, the load time issue isn’t the reason why an overseas release isn’t coming out on Vita. It was more about shifting our focus to providing a gameplay experience on a large screen and having that sense of immersion. The development team strongly felt that we should focus on providing that sort of gameplay experience. Of course, the Vita market in Japan is very large and we couldn’t completely discard that segment whereas the North American and European markets for the Vita are not as large the Japanese market. The development team’s focus was to provide a great gameplay experience on the big screen. That was a decision we had to make.

That being said, if the Vita market in the Western territories grows and there is a very large demand on that platform it is something that team would have to notice and continue. We’re constantly keeping an eye out for information on trends like that.

Another note is we’re releasing a Steam version for the Western market because we realize there are a lot of PC gamers in the Western territories. The Japan release did not have a Steam version, but the Western release will. We tried to get the best of both worlds and focus our efforts on how we can deliver a great gameplay experience to our fans out there.

When you say version do you mean just changing the language or do you mean other gameplay tweaks for the Western release of I am Setsuna?

David Yang, Square Enix Public Relations: I know there are a lot of deep questions you want to get into on the gameplay stuff and your readers will want to hear about that. We will be able to release that information later. Right now this is a little bit more about the gameplay than we are able to discuss at this point.

You mentioned one of the reasons why Tokyo RPG Factory got started was there were a lot of Western developers making JRPGs. Were there any Western-made JRPGs that you felt did something special?

Yes. There was a game that was announced and I saw what it looked like I instantly felt why isn’t a Japanese studio doing this title and that was Child of Light. They’ve done such a good job paying homage to the JRPG genre. I was impressed that a Western studio could handle that game genre.

If we look way back to the golden age of RPGs, before “JRPGs” existed there were just RPGs on consoles whether it was Ultima or Final Fantasy. I think what separated these titles was RPGs were story driven games compared to the arcade-y action or platformers that dominated the market. Now that a story is a central element to a game we see that East and West split, but do you feel there are still some common threads between WRPGs like The Witcher III and JRPGs?

With technology advancing, a lot of games want to keep up with the changes and there are many games that fall into the RPG category. That being said, I feel that the root of what makes a good game hasn’t changed. There is a constant that defines a good gameplay experience I personally think a RPG is like a toy chest of different elements packed into one gameplay experience.

Once players get their hands on it and try to experiment and play with different elements in that toy chest. For example, if you like the characters and emphasize with them that’s one way of enjoying it. Then there are elements like the game mechanics which you come to like and then focus on that aspect as well. Many RPGs are story driven, so some players may choose to enjoy the story. With so many games available, the way the game is expressed and how it looks may be different, But, the enjoyment of playing a RPG has stayed constant and there is a quality that the players themselves find would define a great RPG experience.

Thinking back to the SNES RPGS, players who grew up with them are adults now and may not have as much free time to sit down and play a deep RPG and actually reach the ending. As someone who grew up with those games too, how did you make I am Setsuna more approachable so players can finish the game?

I understand and agree that I play games between work and a game that takes up more than a 100+ hours is a huge commitment. Adults and a lot of people many not have the time to play an entire game. The team didn’t want that to happen with I am Setsuna. We wanted it to be a manageable length for people who only have a short amount of time to play games. Of course, we would love the younger generation to play the game as well and have them be satisfied with the game. But, we also wanted to reach fans of the 90s JRPGs and we wanted to make the game volume comparable to players who have experienced that era of JRPGs. We took considerations to make sure the game is a comfortable amount and even older players can get to the end of the story. I feel confident that even if you’re working and are very busy, this is a game that you should be able to play through to the end.

Since the team has been inspired by Chrono Trigger, has Tokyo RPG Factory considered to continue the Chrono Trigger series?

Many of the team members at Tokyo RPG Factory love the RPG titles from the 90s, but we never went into the project thinking we would remake Chrono Trigger. We were inspired by Chrono Trigger, but none of us worked on the game. For us to tackle anything related to the original Chrono Trigger or doing something with it would be disrespectful to the original staff.

Also, this is a team of people who were influenced by 90s JRPGs, but we also feel like it’s not supposed to be a 1:1 replication of those games. We’ll take hints from those titles, but we want to make something new for a new audience. We want to constantly evolve and that’s what Tokyo RPG Factory is all about. How we put our own flavor into it so it’s retro, but unique. Instead of looking back and working on a past title we want to keep evolving and bringing titles for a new audience.

What do you and the team at Tokyo RPG Factory want to do with your next title? Can you give us a hint?

[Laughs] To be candid, there hasn’t been any decision set in stone yet. When the project was announced by Matsuda-san during last year’s E3, this whole concept of Project Setstuna was not just pointing to I am Setsuna, I would love to continue that project and connect it to the future. Again, there are no specific plans, but we hope Tokyo RPG Factory will be a studio can take a unique concept and bring it out to the world.

I am Setsuna will release in the West this summer for PlayStation 4 and PC.

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