Think about your favorite town in a JRPG. Anyone who’s played a JRPG has a favorite, and usually a different one from everyone else. Why you like the town varies: maybe it’s from one of the first games you’ve played, or it reminds you of your home town, you really like the setting or stories, or it just has good music. Chances are, the more time you spend in that town, the more you come to like it. After all, it’s a place people are supposed to call home, and spending time there just makes it more homely. Getting that mental connection between game life and real life is key to igniting immersion, and developers like are using one simple trick they don’t want you to find out: sidequests. Talking around and getting a small mission with a small scope and small reward is pretty common in games, and happen so silently you barely notice them. Since the quest is short or insignificant, it’s optional padding you just decide to do. But that little sidequest is giving you more insight on the town, more acquaintance to the quest giver, and hopefully more worldbuilding on the random normal people living in the towm. So what if there was a JRPG with only one town, and a story that consists almost entirely of sidequests? It would probably have the best town ever, even if it’s nothing special. Well, that’s what Tsugunai is and it is something special.
Tsugunai – Atonement is a 2001 PS2 game from Cattle Call. Being an early PS2 game, it has those unimpressive, flat graphics which aren’t trying to push anything. The game starts with the main character Reise looking at his lifeless body. He’s not dead, he’s just functionally a ghost. In a flashback, the game establishes how he got to this point, which doubles as a tutorial for the game’s combat. The combat is pretty special, but I’ll get to that later. At the end of the flashback, Reise pisses off God and gets his soul separated from his body as punishment. This isn’t the first time God had to do this, so Reise is eventually told he has to help people out to get back to his body. There are some rules to ghosts, like only being able to pass through wood, and not being able to travel too far from the body. These translate to only accessing certain doors, and being stuck in the one town. This is all a clever setup to just say Reise is on parole, a holy parole, where you get to posses people. Oh, I should probably explain that possession part.
Ghosts can’t interact much in this world, besides grabbing the attention of people who can sense them. Shortly after entering the town, Reise finds a dwarf with a drinking problem named Navi. As a social experiment, Navi steals some guy’s wallet which makes the guy sad. Reise can possess people who are sad or angry, usually about some specific problem. So after successfully possessing the guy, Navi holds the wallet hostage until you find a mushroom. This quest is a fantastic introduction to the rest of the game, and represents the unique nature of the game’s structure. Asking around the town is the best way to find hints, as usual, but some people will tell you that there are more pressing matters. That sounds like another quest, but the only thing that will get your soul out of this guy’s body is retrieving the wallet. The solution is found by asking a certain person, and you’ll spend a lot of the quest just exploring all available areas of the town. Talking with every townsperson, you might get hints about other quests down the line.
Due to the nature of possession, you can only tackle one quest at a time. In fact, you have to complete that quest in order to take on a new one, and you can’t exit a quest early. Since you’re stuck in that person’s body, you can’t do anything that body can’t do. The best example of this is how a character who can’t do combat, won’t be expected to fight in their quest. So there’s plenty of non-combat quests in the game, which focus on fleshing out the town’s life and backstory. Tsugunai takes a confident approach to its story, making each quest an actual quest, instead of a variety of excuses to make the player see some combat. The non-combat quests are phased out as the game’s story ramps up, and you become more familiar with the game’s characters, mechanics, and world.
So let’s talk about that combat. What got me to try this game was a lengthy post on a Taiwanese tapestry BBS about this game’s unique combat, and that anonymous poster was as correct as he was misleading. This game’s focus seems more on the plot and characters, than the combat itself. It really tries to make you understand the characters, before putting you in their shoes up against impossible odds. That’s why I first talked all about the game’s approach to questing, since that’s what really got me hooked. Regardless, the combat is just as unique and fun in both design and execution.
Sometimes, a fully turn-based battle system just isn’t up to people’s tastes. It’s understandable, since there’s constant downtime when waiting for an enemy’s attack. Since the attack is unavoidable, it feels like wasted time, with the only risk/reward decisions made during your turn. Tsugunai keeps a standard turn-based combat, but adds a defense mechanic which makes battles a lot more fun. Whenever an enemy attacks, you can press one of the face buttons to do a defensive maneuver. It needs to be timed correctly to the enemy’s hit, with a wind-up time to offset your button press. There’s a learning curve to using these defenses, and each opponent offers a different attack pattern whose rhythm also needs to be learned. This is a huge risk/reward center, becoming more important than the “normal” combat itself. The riskiest maneuver, the counter, will allow you to deliver damage on success. You can potentially attack each enemy on each of their turns, and your own turn, and end the round in 1-2 turns. There’s a Limit Break style mechanic with a bar that fills during combat, and two of the defenses will raise or lower the bar.
The dull graphics and stiff animations of Tsugunai both help and hurt this combat system. Enemy attacks are clearly telegraphed, but exactly when they hit is hard to predict, and just has to be memorized. Camera positioning varies between battles, so you don’t always have the best angle on seeing the attack. While I can respect the combat having the same dull, earthy artstyle as the rest of the game, a little more graphical flair would’ve gone a long way.
This complaint wouldn’t be as big if the defensive combat weren’t so necessary for survival in the game. Since grinding isn’t so constant in Tsugunai, the game holds its balance pretty well. This heavily encourages a defensive strategy, becoming more and more necessary as the game progresses. Magic is similarly effective, and has its own unique system of mechanics. I’ll spare the explanation, but it’s pretty important in the bigger fights down the road.
I always hate leaving the music last in my reviews. Most of the games I review have good music (to my untrained ears), but I can rarely fit that aspect into the bulk of the review. Maybe that’s how music in games often is treated: a great bow to tie up an already great package, or an unhealthy mound of cheese on a bowl of chili. It’s much appreciated and makes everything feel right, but won’t ruin the game as long as it reaches a base level of quality. So the soundtrack in Tsugunai is good, fits the feel of the game, has some catchy tracks that aren’t annoying after the 400th loop. The composer for the game is Yasunori Mitsuda, who also worked on a bunch of other famous JRPGs like Xenogears and Chrono Trigger.
Anyways, I should stress how overlooked this game is. I rarely ever see it in online discussions, and all information on this game is brief and lacking. It’s very easy to emulate, and isn’t super rare if eBay prices mean anything. Tsugunai is developer Cattle Call’s first game, and they’re still around, working on mid-budget RPGs. Earlier this year I checked out their 3DS game The Alliance Alive and it was fairly enjoyable, so I guess the team has still “got it”. It’s little studios like these which restore my faith in the games industry, who know exactly what kind of games they want to make. I’m keeping my eye on them, just in case they quietly put out another game like Tsugunai: unique and ambitious but reserved enough to avoid reinventing the wheel.
I meant to write this article pretending this was a horror game, since you play as a ghost possessing people. But I don’t have the ability to keep up that joke for the whole article, and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to discredit the game itself.
Also published on Medium.