Thursday, February 9, 2017

I am Setsuna review from a Catholic Perspective (total spoilers alert)

By accident when I was watching a video on the Nintendo Switch, I caught a brief description of the game I am Setsuna which the show promised would be coming to the Switch, I loved the sound of the brief synopsis of the game- the allusions to Chrono Trigger, the 16 bit style RPG genre, and above all the idea of escorting a sacrifice on a mission to save the world. I was overjoyed when I discovered I could already get the game, so I bought it on Steam and played through it within a few month. I had a few days away from the parish on a break in mid-January and that's when I knocked in a few hours tapping at my computer keyboard and conquering this epic RPG. 

I was hoping that the game would offer a different better take on the whole "I must sacrifice myself to save the world" than FFX ended up producing, I was bitterly disappointed when FFX turned out to be an occasion to preach moral relativism, the sham of organised religion, and the ineptitude of sacrifice.... would the plot of I am Setsuna be more noble? I couldn't wait to discover. 

Like always my review is going to be focusing on to what extent the game endorses a Christian worldview/ philosophy... whether it can be a propaedeutic for the values of Christ, whether it inspires the gamer to seek the truth, and to live the moral life.

Character and identity

So, does the game present a clear acceptance of free will and the ability of good and bad uses of the will to alter and pervert character? Does the game have an understanding of vocation- of characters trying to become what they are called to be, of growing closer in approximation to whatever likeness of Christ they are called to reflect?

I know guys, we are talking about a videogame and not a novel, and not real life for that matter either, so our expectations won't be super high, but there should be something that supports a Christian anthropology. 

The characters in I am Setsuna are not overly developed, we get some back stories, especially in the optional side quests, but a lot of the characters are still a little unfleshed by the end of the game, that's ok, a lot of the modern FFs go crazy in trying to put every character in the psychiatrists chair, and they end up doing a really awful job. I am Setsuna is closer to a 16 bit game in the level of characterisation. Chrono had very little depth, Ayla hardly any, and even Marle and Lucca only really had their one special focused sidequest. I am Setsuna gives you enough on each character, and what it gives you, frankly, is pretty good.

Those who follow Setsuna are all wounded in some way, they are all broken, following a broken dream, with a broken past, or destined to be broken to pieces very soon.

A strong thrust of the game is the harm of hatred in corrupting a character, the message is repeated throughout the game that power and hatred and playing God all lead to personal disaster.  

The game faults in failing to present the corruption of evil as corrupting right down into the inner core of the person. Too often in the game it is revealed that the bad guy is a good guy deep down inside, underneath all the hatred and anger that he had worked up. The reality is though, evil reaches the core of the person and whilst, in one sense, everything that participates in being is ontologically 'good', mortal sin makes the very person evil. 

Setsuna, our deuteragonist (alongside a silent player-character called Endir on the lines of Chrono), has the annoying trait of always trying to see the good in everyone, now usually that is virtuous, but you get the sense that if she got thrown in a cage with an angry lion she would try and stroke it rather than shoot it with a gun. This is Setsuna's character, she is a one off, she is the sacrifice, she is the girl that has been chosen to give her life to hold back the monsters, much like Yuna was to give her life in order to bring a period of calm.

Setsuna embraces her call and has no doubts about it throughout the entire plot. Setsuna is resigned and she is resolved, she will be the one to bring life to others. I found it moving when some young guy tells her that he would like to have married her, to which she responds, "I guess you will have to experience this happiness for the both of us", there are some great lines and great moments of motivation for the Catholic Priest who is himself a living sacrifice, and who in celibacy renounces much in order to more effectively renew Christ's sacrifice for the benefit of the world.

None of the characters are escaping their vocation, no one is depicted as finding fulfillment through running away from the pathway that nature and providence has put before them. 

The main gripe I had with some of the characterisation was the role of women in the world of Setsuna. It is a poor cliche of RPGs that they insist on including a woman who is tougher and stronger than all of the men around, in this game there are 2 of them! God's design for women is not to be the bad ass leader of an army who inspires fear in her soldiers due to her strength- this is unnatural and frankly ridiculous, especially in a medieval RPG setting. Setsuna is fine, she is a essentially a white mage, but Julienne, who is the strongest character in the game is given far too many male qualities and the fact that she was female really added nothing to the story, it only made the thing seem ridiculous. The same can be said for the NPC Freyja. I would love to see an RPG which really presents a woman as aspiring towards motherhood, we never see that and yet Almighty God's design if for women to exhibit maternal, nurturing, empathetic virtues. Setsuna in some way fits this mold but it is unfortunate that aside for her there are no maternal icons within the game.

Reality of Objective Moral laws.
Are the actions of characters that are wrong depicted as breaking some moral law, of pricking the conscience, or of harming themselves in some way?

There is clearly a sense that harming another is wrong, that definitely comes across, but, as I mentioned above, sometimes to attack an agressor is virtue, and sometimes evils need to be opposed vigorously. Whilst I am Setsuna clearly presents the abuse of power, and the use of others against their freedom as terrible evils, there is a tendency to justify the evils that people commit by some explaining factor in their past. The monsters are only bad because they keep being given a hard time, the ultimate evil boss in the game had his generosity abused and became the subject of experimentation thus beginning the evil within him,  and so on. A proper Christian worldview should accept that people are characters chose to become depraved by repeated choices of evil- they change.

Occasionally the main character gets a dialogue choice, I think unfortunately sometimes the two options are both immoral, perhaps one is a lie and the other is rude. If there are going to be dialogues and the main character is meant to be the player, the player should be able to make moral choices in his speech, anything else is to trivialise virtue.

Chrono Trigger style dual techs are fun and numerous

Interior Struggle to pursue the good.
We see a couple of instances of this in I am Setsuna. Kir goes through a little bit of a struggle in order to make a choice of self sacrifice, and we are allowed to hear a little bit of his thinking. Again, with Nidr perhaps there is a struggle to overcome his past ghosts and the mistakes he made and to now put things right. Ultimately however Setsuna, who could have had some struggles in her vocation as sacrifice, doesn't really voice them.... the good for her is easy, or so it seems, which is great for her, but not much in the way of encouragement for the gamer's own life struggles

Divine Providence working through free will.
Fate certainly gets a mention throughout I am Setsuna, and there is a sense at the very end of the game that the main character- Endir is somehow a providential and fated individual who has entered into the cycle of sacrifice offerings and will now be able to break that cycle for the good of the world. Setsuna sees this from the very beginning of the game, she has dreamt of Endir, she knows that he is essential to completing her mission, and she knows that she must complete this mission.

Perhaps in Julienne's side quest there is a sense that her recovery of her kingdom is a fulfillment of prophecy and that, nonetheless, she is co-operating to bring it about.

Self Sacrifice for others
Here obviously is the big one for this game. Setsuna sets out selflessly to go to the Last Lands on a pilgrimage to offer herself in sacrifice to somehow keep the monsters at bay for a period of time. Unlike in FFX this is not revealed to be a sham invented by a corrupt religion- the sacrifices do actually work! The only problem is they are less effective than they used to be and so the decision is made that the party will try and kill the source of all the evil rather than keep him at bay by sacrifice of Setsuna. Ultimately however, after they defeat the evil he manages to flee back in time, Setsuna and Endir follow him, Endir manages to destroy his mortal frame, but his spirit seems to be out there seeking another host or something... Setsuna steps in the breech and embraces his spirit, she consoles him, she seems to allow it to enter within her and then, as she has him in her grasp calls on Endir to sacrifice her, in hope that it will also do away with this spirit, will bring him to the next world, and to peace. That's how I interpret the end of the game anyway and I think that is a legitimate reading of it. So Setsuna becomes the last sacrifice who does away with the source of the evil. But ultimately the evil originated in the lust of power, the abuse of magic, through human experimentation
 and through the accumulation of anger and hatred in an individual. The real roots of evil remain, but the present danger and the source of the monsters is now eliminated through this sacrificial offering.

Alongside Setsuna, Kir is another beautiful example of sacrifice, he allows his lifespan to be drastically shortened, essentially, he catches a deadly disease of magic poisoning in order to help our Setsuna on her pilgrimage and restore her to health.

Finally there is Aeterna who is a projection of the Time Judge who is keeping the great evil at bay, once the great evil is defeated, the Time Judge will finally be able to go to her eternal reward and so Aeterna will disappear- a little bit like Tidus being the dream of the Faith. Aeterna has no probs with this fate, but nonetheless it is still very noble of her.

Basic Christian Theodicy- Monotheism, Goodness of creation, understanding of eternal reward/punishment based on moral behaviour.

This is where the game has a couple of unusual Japanesy dodgy bits. There is clearly "a next world" but it seems like a kid of spirit world- we see Setsuna enering this domain at the end of the game. At the same time it seems possible for a character' spirit to inhabit a magic stone and so to remain with the character, watching over them in someway- this is very Japanese, the Kami of Shintoism which are spirits that inhabit inanimate objects. How far this is from the truth! Once we experience death we are immediately judged by Almighty God and go to heaven, hell or purgatory based on the state of our immortal soul. There is no sense in IAS that evil characters go to hell because basically, deep down, everyone is good- that is dodgy and has to be rejected totally- it sounds like some dodgy Redemptorist who has long abandoned the writings of St. Alphonsus, and thinks everyone is going to heaven now.

So whilst we have that unfortunate view of the next life, the positive theodicy is the acceptance of the importance of prayer- that comes across, many characters tell the sacrifice that they will be prayer for her. My memory doesn't serve me on whether there was any mention of God in this game, there certainly wasn't any public religious cult which was unfortunate, so whilst there was prayer, it didn't necessarily make any sense- prayer is directed to a person, or it isn't more than human esteem and empty hope.

There is also a certain reverence towards the sacrifice as a consecrated person, I liked this- sacred things and people should be respected. 


Overall, I really enjoyed this title, I felt that it made up for some of the mistakes of FFX, Yuna finally got sacrificed and in doing so she really did bring calm to the world, the longed for calm. The game isn't a big budget title, it would have been great to see this story and this world on a scale of one of the FFs- that will never happen though. 

There is something a little unfinished or unpolished about the game which stops it reaching the heights of Chrono Trigger, if there had perhaps been another 10 hours of gameplay, a few more side quests and a little bit more narrative, the game would have been a masterpiece. 

The battle system is good, but again, the enhancement of the spritnite with extra qualities didn't come out great in execution. Dual techs were good, as were triple techs. The game has the battle system that Chrono Cross should have had, a slightly tweaked version of CT with a little more depth. 

The soundtrack is enjoyable and keeps the mood of the game, although at times the tracks play for far too short a time- a track will play to catch the mood of about 5 dialogue boxes, them we will get another track!

There is a lot of good in this game and a lot of fine examples of heroism and self sacrifice, the big downer is that evil is not appreciated for how hideous it really is. We are in a battle and we have real enemies who want to drag our souls to hell, I am Setsuna gives the impression that if only our enemies sat in with a bit of talking therapy they would come round to being nice and we could all live in peace- unfortunately that isn't the case, evil can't be trivilialised, sometimes it must be conquered by force.

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