The X Button
First Impressions: I Am Setsuna

by Todd Ciolek,
I'll start this column with some very important news: The X Button is retiring. If all goes as planned, the final installment will go up next Thursday, July 28.

I must preemptively fend off rumors that the column's being shuttered because of my controversial stand on the Breath of Fire II love triangle or any other issue. The true causes run deeper.

You see, I've written The X Button for over eight years, and a lot has changed. When I started the column, Anime News Network didn't run many game-related news stories or reviews, and I had plenty of space to fill as well as plenty of time to fill it. Today, the website branches out in many directions, and while we'll expand game coverage in general, the truth is that a lengthy column each week fits neither the site's current ideal nor my own schedule.

Not that The X Button will vanish wholly into the ether. Next month we'll launch a fresh weekly feature with game releases and opinions, all courtesy of a new writer. Think of it as a sequel to The X Button, and remember that video games have better luck with sequels than other forms of media.

I'm not going away, either. I won't author the new column, but I'll continue to write features, reviews, and other things here at Anime News Network, all while working in mentions of Gravity Rush and Valkyrie Profile whenever plausible. You'll never be rid of me.

So when The X Button ends its broadcast run next week, don't be sad. It'll survive in an evolved form, like a treasured Pokémon. I hope you'll remember this incarnation fondly, no matter what I said about your favorite games.

NEWS

NINTENDO SHRINKS THE NES INTO A NEW PLUG-AND-PLAY
Nintendo resisted a good many siren calls of the modern game industry, including the trend of plug-and-play units that pack dozens of older games into joysticks or small simulacra of classic systems. Sega, Atari, and Intellivision all went this route, but Nintendo avoided it, preferring to repackage older games digitally on the Wii, 3DS, and Wii U. Well, Nintendo is changing, and if Pokémon Go isn't a strong enough indication, you can look to the NES Classic Edition, a plug-in system molded from pure nostalgia.

Shaped like a small version of Nintendo's widely popular 1980s console, the NES Classic Edition connects directly into a TV's HDMI port and accepts controllers much like the old NES pads. Within are 30 NES titles covering many of the system's highlights and more popular offerings up through 1990 or so: Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Double Dragon II, Dr. Mario, Excitebike, Final Fantasy, Galaga, Ghosts 'N Goblins, Gradius, Ice Climber, Kid Icarus, Kirby's Adventure, The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Pac-Man, Punch Out!!, StarTropics, Super C, all three Super Mario Bros. titles, Tecmo Bowl, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

I'm sure we can think of many games that were excluded—I'd love Crystalis and The Guardian Legend myself. Yet the lineup captures a lot of what made the NES a fixture of so many childhoods. The list plucks games from favorite series, apparently granting Castlevania two slots just because Simon's Quest is a significant departure from the first game.

The lineup suggests expansions, as it lacks some notable sequels (Mega Man III, Ninja Gaiden II), avoids licensed standouts (Duck Tales, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game) and seems to stop shortly into 1991, with Kirby's Adventure being the only later release included. Yet Nintendo has no plans to enhance the NES Classic Edition; it'll play only the 30 packed-in games, and you won't be able to put old NES cartridges into the deck. At least it'll work with the Wii's Classic Controllers, since the connectors are the same.

Given the many different options for running a vintage NES on a modern TV with every game available (via a ROM cartridge), the NES Classic Edition relies on affection for the NES as Nintendo presented it. It'll span at least some part of your childhood, and it'll look better next to the TV than some third-party console wired to run everything. The NES Classic Edition is due out on November 11 at a $59.99 retail price, and even that targets the Nintendo generation. They can remember when new NES games cost that much.

If a pint-sized NES isn't obscure enough in its game excavations, you can turn to a Kickstarter for a plug-and-play unit featuring Wisdom Tree games like Bible Adventures and Spiritual Warfare. Wisdom Tree dug out a profitable niche in the NES age by making routine games with Christian themes. While unlicensed, they found homes with children whose parents deemed the likes of Zelda and Mario too secular or demonic. Those Moblins scared some people.

The Wisdom Tree Arkade (get it?) exists as a prototype that fits inside an old NES controller, and the backers have nearly a third of the $16,500 they need to produce the line. I have no particular fondness for the Wisdom Tree catalog, since I went through an entire childhood without seeing one of their games, but it's a part of NES history I never expected to see revived.

DIZZY IS IN GUILTY GEAR XRD: REVELATOR TO STAY
Some Guilty Gear fans hate Dizzy. Some of them resent how the series had Ky marry her instead of Jam Kuradoberi or Sol Badguy or some all-new character. Some of them wish that just about any other Guilty Gear character but Dizzy, including Fanny the nurse, would join the cast of Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator. Well, that's too bad. Dizzy is the latest addition to the game, and you can download her right now.

This was inevitable, as Dizzy has a prominent background role in the first Guilty Gear Xrd, and she's the wife of series mainstay Ky Kiske and the mother of the already grown-up Sin Kiske. Her Revelator appearance reflects her attire in older Guilty Gears, preserving her anthropomorphic demon-and-angel wings and the bondage attire that always seemed creepy on such a demure and even childlike character as Dizzy. Regardless of opinions, Maybe Revelator will sell us her pirate outfit further down the line.

GRAVITY RUSH 2 UNVEILS RELEASE DATE, DUMB-LOOKING CHARACTER
I didn't expect Gravity Rush 2 to make it out this year, and in some ways I hoped it wouldn't. The Last Guardian comes out at the end of October and I wanted to take my time with it. Yet Gravity Rush 2 makes its way to the PlayStation 4 on December 2 in North America (and slightly earlier in Europe and Japan), and pre-orders get you a soundtrack and a white outfit for heroine Kat. Just in case she gets married, I guess.

In Japan, you can land a special edition with a Blu-Ray of Gravity Rush: The Animation - Overture, a 20-minute cartoon that fills in the details between the first game and the sequel. We'll see it over here, though probably not in a nice box set.

The latest trailer for Gravity Rush 2 introduces another character to the game's lineup of superheroines. She shows up to help Kat at times, she dresses like a contender from JWP Joshi Puroresu or Rumble Roses, and her name is…Angel. She's at odds with the European comic-book aesthetic that ran through the first Gravity Rush, but I suppose the second game is brighter and sillier in design. And even the first Gravity Rush wasn't a serious game in many cases—it ended with everyone having ice cream, after all.

Fine, I guess. Bring on the pro wrestler.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I AM SETSUNA

I Am Setsuna goes deep in its allegiances, and it may not be apparent to all. If you never spent copious time with Square's RPGs of the Super NES era, you might not notice how I Am Setsuna's opening credit-crawl through a snowy forest recalls Final Fantasy VI, how its battle system recalls Chrono Trigger, or how its gruff airship pilot recalls the Cids who appear in just about every Final Fantasy.

And what if you don't notice? How well does I Am Setsuna stand on its own?

The world of I Am Setsuna is a harsh and wintry one, where monsters ;besiege frail outposts of humans. Only sacrifices placate the creatures, and this season brings a demand sooner than expected. Nive Village sends their chosen lamb: a red-haired and dutiful young woman named Setsuna. An interloper appears in the form of Endir, a masked mercenary hired by a mysterious figure to kill Setsuna. Yet Endir, whose employers were apparently not very specific in their requests, decides to accompany Setsuna on her pilgrimage to the Lost Lands, where she'll fulfill the contract and die anyway.

It's a story occupied with the same clichés that already grew too familiar in the 1990s. Setsuna is a quietly determined woman, self-sacrificing even beyond the demands of her morbid duty, and her journey is not all it first appears to be—an arrangement seen many times since the likes of Final Fantasy X and Tales of Symphonia. Endir is a largely silent warrior with mostly inconsequential responses dictated by the player, and the two travelers join up with other archetypes: Nidr is the grizzled and guilt-driven warrior, Aeterna is the concerned friend of the heroine, Kir is the child wise beyond his years, and Julienne is the knight honorable to a fault. And they're harried by a scythe-toting assassin named, of all things, Reaper.

I Am Setsuna survives on good pacing. While the first hour of the game is sluggish, the narrative speeds up noticeably thereafter. The player's never bogged down in cutscenes or exposition beyond a few lines of dialogue, and it manages the same trick pulled by decent 16-bit RPGs: you have just enough of a plot to hold your interest. If anything, I Am Setsuna may be a little too curt in addressing side-stories, though it doesn't harm the main plotline. There are twists to be found, and even if some of them are obvious well in advance, I Am Setsuna wastes no time in getting to them.

It helps that I Am Setsuna looks like few other RPGs. Some of it is primitive when stretched onto a PS4 and a large screen: characters have large heads and hands but mere points where their feet should be, and the surroundings often lack detail. It looks less like a Chrono Trigger tribute and more like a PlayStation RPG scrounged from Square Enix's 1998 data library.

And yet the game slowly builds a frigid aura of white fields and icy rivers, with trees shaking off snowfalls as you pass by. Backed by a piano-heavy score from Tomoki Miyoshi, it's an entrancing game at times. I Am Setsuna may not try for new territory in its plot, but it finds a unique place to set it.

Taking its most obvious cues from Chrono Trigger, I Am Setsuna streamlines many RPG conventions. The overworld is free of enemies, and there's rarely any long strength of dull travel. The battles all take place on-screen, and enemies are visible (and often avoidable) a good distance away. The Chrono Trigger parallels continue once battles unfold: the player's party lets three characters fight at a time, and they can utilize team-up attacks when their real-time combat turns align properly.

Perhaps recognizing that Chrono Trigger's battle system is shallow, I Am Setsuna adds to its pilfered formula. Party members can tag on extra damage and effects with a properly timed button-press, while a supply of equippable Spritnite allows new abilities. While the wintertime landscape of I Am Setsuna may appear empty, it's dotted with many collectible knickknacks that help uncover new abilities.

Like its storyline, I Am Setsuna's battle system keeps things moving. Fights rarely drag out, and the boss battles show pleasant difficulty once the quest gets underway. The only repetition lies in the monsters themselves, as you're stuck fighting the same beasts for too long. And there lies a strange incongruity: the creatures of I Am Setsuna are built up as powerful terrors aiming to overrun humankind, but a lot of them look like cute, goggle-eyed plush toys. It's hard to imagine civilization destroyed by capering, sharp-tooted penguins and pom-eared rabbits. Then again, that's another Square Enix throwback. They're the creators of the adorable rabites.

I Am Setsuna doesn't match its inspirations. It lacks the breeziness and time-travel of Chrono Trigger, the variety of Final Fantasy VI, and the advantage of showing up in an age when every RPG concept seemed like a fresh one. Even so, I Am Setsuna finds its own core, weaving a bleakly framed tale that doesn't need to drop Super NES references at every turn. It's not the second coming of a classic, and that works in its favor.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

FAIRY FENCER F: ADVENT DARK FORCE
Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: July 26
Faerie: Passes spellcheck
MSRP: $59.99

Yes, you've seen a lot of Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force before. It arrived on the PlayStation 3 back in 2014 without any subtitle, and now, as is the course of many PS3 RPGs, it heads to the PlayStation 4 with enhancements and new options. And the Advent Dark Force, whatever that may be.

Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force sticks to the same general story as its original version. A vicious war between the gods left a race of sentient weapons called Furies wandering the world, and special warriors called Fencers possess the ability to command them. A reckless, gluttonous mercenary named Fang is unceremoniously drafted into gathering up vagrant Furies and reviving the goddess, with a snobbish schemer named Tiara pushing him onward. They're accompanied by a variety of Fencers and Furies, including a cartoonish cat-creature named Pippin, the battle-mecha Ryushin, and the newly playable gunslinger-Fencer Noie. Advent Dark Force presents two new plotlines for the cast; the original's tale remains as the Goddess path, while the new stories arise in the Vile God and Evil God routes and make previously antagonistic characters into allies.

Advent Dark Force also expands the original game's combat system, allowing up to six characters to take part in battles. Party members get an expanded complement of skills and magic spells, and they can switch places with other characters and gang up on foes in Avalanche Attacks. The most interesting battle directive (in name, at least) is the “fairize” option, which transforms a character into a high-powered superhero form. It's much like the Hyperdimension Neptunia games, minus the profuse in-jokes and background references about classic video games. Well, minus most of them. Pippin must symbolize something.

GOTTA PROTECTORS
Developer: Ancient
Publisher: Ancient
Platform: Nintendo 3DS eShop
Release Date: July 28
Buy Ten Copies: OK
MSRP: $12.99

Ancient's Protect Me Knight remains a highlight of the retroactive-retrogame trend. Some five hundred games appear each week with deliberately basic pixel artwork and design, but Protect Me Knight, released on the Xbox 360 in 2010, has a confidence still unmatched. Many of its creators, composer Yuzo Koshiro among them, actually worked on those old games that so many people imitate, and so Protect Me Knight emerged as an expert in its tributes and parodies.

Protect Me Knight's sequel, Gotta Protectors, is just as gifted in capturing the style of a past era. Players choose one of six character classes (including “The OLD GUY”) and protect a princess from encroaching goblins and behemoths and other creatures. The characters can raise and move barricades and work cooperatively, players can design their own stages, and it comes together just like a classic arcade game, albeit one made for the NES…or perhaps the MSX. Actually, Gotta Protectors pulls the neo-retro trick of looking too good for the game system it immediately recalls. And that makes it even more charming

Best of all, the Gotta Protectors website is a game itself. Ancient's page greets you with a hideous depiction of the princess, parodying those American cover illustrations that redrew anime-styled game characters into awkwardly compromised monstrosities.

Mouse over the princess, and she turns into a distinctly '90s anime character, straight off the cover of a PC Engine game or some slimly budgeted OVA that Media Blasters would snag in a bulk-license buy. And you can do this for the rest of the similarly mock-Westernized characters surrounding the princess! My favorite is Old Guy, who has a horsehead codpiece to appease American marketers and an inner tube or diaper in his Japanese incarnation. Try it, won't you?

SHIREN THE WANDERER: THE TOWER OF FORTUNE AND THE DICE OF FATE
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: July 26
Koppa: Not a stoat, ermine, or marten
MSRP: $39.99

It's always nice to see a new Vita game on shelves. Most of the system's 2016 lineup is either digital-only or also available on the PlayStation 4, but Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is available in a physical release that you can pick up in a store (or order online) and stick on your shelf. Sometimes a game system needs that material reinforcement.

Shiren the Wanderer: I Am Not Typing That Subtitle Again hails from the long and esteemed Mystery Dungeon series, which uses the traits common to a Roguelike game. You tread underground labyrinths filled with monsters and traps, and a slow, strategic approach serves you best. Weapons break after a set number of attacks, enemies move only when you do, and nightfall leaves Shiren unable to see distant creatures. And if he dies in a dungeon, he's stripped of all of his items and set back to level one in experience points. And that's how roguelike fans want it.

The Shiren of the title is a vagrant warrior accompanied by a pet weasel named Koppa, and this installment finds them climbing the Tower of Fortune in the hopes of altering some unspoken fate. They're guided by the panda-suited Tao, and a village of merchants and other helpful souls backs them on their travels.

As a port of a DS game never released over here, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune And Something Else isn't a modern visual masterpiece. Yet it's built with the same rigid sense of challenge that makes a dungeon-crawler brutally compelling, as something as simple as a brawl against a fanged plant can make the difference between surviving for another room and awakening back in town, minus all of your experience points and subterranean spoils. At least you can't lose Koppa.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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