I Am Setsuna Review

Founded in 2014, Tokyo RPG Factory is a development subsidiary of Square Enix. I Am Setsuna is the company’s first title, released for Playstation 4, PC, and Vita (Japan-only) in 2016, with a Switch version following suit in 2017. This review is based on my playthrough of the game on the Switch using a Japanese cartridge (which comes with a full English translation on-cart).

-Sorrowful Snowfall-

She did the thing; she said the name of the game!

I Am Setsuna’s overall theme is one of loss and loneliness, which can be seen in multiple aspects of the game itself. Its tone is bittersweet, owing to the reason for the titular Setsuna’s journey; she is to become a sacrifice in order to prevent the world from being overrun by monsters. Her journey, given the presence of said monsters, is naturally fraught with peril. The party is made of her and her various escorts; amongst them a silent mercenary, a member of the previous sacrifice’s guard, and a knight with a troubled past. While the game itself is very linear, each character (save for the silent protagonist) is nonetheless given their time to shine over the game’s course, which leads to interesting solo developmental moments. In the post-game, every character additionally has a personal sidequest that can be undertaken to further flesh them out. 

However, much like a life cut short by fate, when it comes to the bonds between the characters too much remains unsaid. While some characters are very apparently linked to each other, they interact little outside of the occasional chime-in during major plot points. I personally find it to be quite a shame; it was a cast I wanted to feel for and the pieces were all in place to do so. Alas, as presented, the party is disappointingly disparate.

Tokyo RPG Factory’s stated goal is to revive the classic JRPG in modern times. Indeed, the plot itself would have been well-suited for something made in the mid-90’s. At this point, its linearity won’t wow anyone (the only sidequests are the aforementioned character quests), and many of the classic tropes (ancient civilizations, airships, a beast tribe) are ever-present. The major twist of the game, had it been released back then, would have floored a young me. Viewed through a contemporary lens, when compared to other games in the genre it holds up rather well, as I hadn’t seen it done before in the medium of JRPGs. That said, I feel like other media have approached a similar twist in a more nuanced way that makes it feel less like the viewer is being clubbed over the head with it all of a sudden.

Setsuna’s story is not an unfamiliar one, but I was nonetheless moved when her journey reached its end. I believe that had the characters been given more room to interact with one another instead of merely reacting to events, I would have been far more reluctant to put the game down as much as I did (I started playing in December 2018 and did not manage to finish until March 2020, after intermittently playing throughout 2019).  Nevertheless, the game itself is not all that long—about 25 hours including post-game content—so the investment overall is short enough to not be a terrible bother. In addition, the game thankfully has a journal-like feature to keep the player reminded of major story beats should their attention lapse like mine.

-Classics Revisited-

Maybe it’s just me, but I could have sworn I’ve seen that technique name somewhere before…

It is immediately apparent that I Am Setsuna draws design inspiration from the JRPG classics of yesteryear as intended, and none moreso than Chrono Trigger. The combat system at its baseline is nearly identical down to the names and execution of techs. Indeed, even the initiation of combat is mostly the same: enemies are present on-screen and combat begins when the player gets too close. What I Am Setsuna does in addition makes combat quite engaging. By waiting to act after the traditional Active Time Battle gauge is initially filled, allowing it to fill completely up to three times over again, SP charges known as “momentum” are accumulated. These work in a timing-based manner (think Super Mario RPG) to add additional effects to actions, such as status effects or bonus damage/healing. Engaging an unaware enemy on the map will confer a charge from the start, providing incentive for the player to not simply run through maps blindly. Balancing the desire to wait to potentially down an enemy with the need to heal to survive the encounter is a challenging task, and a welcome one at that. Enemies themselves can hit extremely hard, so taking advantage of he momentum mechanic can often mean the difference between life and death.

Another JRPG juggernaut I Am Setsuna draws from is Final Fantasy VII, particularly the materia system—known as “spiritnite” in this game. While not as mechanically complex as materia slotting, spiritnite makes a world of difference in a character’s combat capabilities. Without them, a character has no techs to speak of. They are obtained by selling sundries to a particular type of merchant, which serves the dual purpose of obtaining money to buy weapons and accessories (read: armor) and acting as crafting materials for the spiritnite. The process of obtaining the sundries adds another layer of strategy to enemy encounters: killing a monster in a particular type of way (overkill, dealing a strict percentage range of its health in total damage, utilizing specific elements/debuffs, etc.) yields different items to be sold. This is another reason why the SP attack augmentation is crucial, as it can often widen the range of types of damage done and as a result lead to a wider variety of spoils gained. Moreover, spiritnite can be enhanced by attaching it with “fluxations”—bonuses given by utilizing corresponding techs in battle with momentum determined by the accessory the spiritnite is equipped to.

-Snowblind-

I hope you like the color white, because it’s literally everywhere.

For a game developed by a subsidiary of one of the largest development/publishing companies in the world, I Am Setsuna is upsettingly lacking graphically. The game is simply boring to look at for extended periods. Unfortunately, the chosen motif has much to do with this. The game world is covered in snow. There are ice caves, frigid mountaintops, and fields full of white. Aside from some building interiors, there is a massive lack of variety, and the blank-slated color does little to stimulate excitement. Furthermore, I believe that aesthetically the game would have been better served leaning into its retro sensibilities. Choosing a sprite-based art style instead of the bland, footless 3D character models it used would have far better conveyed the intended emotion the game was trying to portray. The character art used in dialogue boxes is very detailed, so to see it diluted to such a degree is disheartening.

The music is notable in that it only utilizes the piano—there are no other instruments used in the game’s soundtrack. Considering that loneliness and sorrow are prevailing themes of the game, this choice marries well with the concept. Some songs are particularly memorable, even months after finishing the game. However, I can’t help but feel as though it falls into the same monotony that the snowbound aesthetic provides. A full orchestra would have been too overwhelming for this simple game, but at least some small instrumental variety would have been appreciated.

-Buried in the Snow-

Sadly, the game is nowhere nearly as epic as the image implies.

I Am Setsuna attempts in multiple ways to tug on the player’s nostalgia, particularly for Chrono Trigger; in addition to the oddly familiar battle system, some weapons are directly named after characters from Trigger’s cast, and one late-game party member in particular is a frank derivative of one of the beloved timeswept heroes. Even time itself is a major player within both games’ plots. It becomes somewhat ironic then that a game that uses snow as a motif and bears heavy similarities to Chrono Trigger is in and of itself frozen in time, so to speak.

In the end, my thoughts on this game are mixed. It is easy to see what Tokyo RPG Factory was trying to do in making I Am Setsuna. To a degree, it succeeds. My nostalgia was present, but I was not as gripped as I had hoped I’d be. As a first outing for a developer, it is a solid effort. As a 1990’s-esque game in the world of the late 2010’s, it only feels worthwhile once the other classics of the age it tries to emulate have been experienced.

Pros:

  • Fun combat system, a solid evolution of an established work
  • Mildly interesting character moments and intriguing plot twist
  • Catchy soundtrack despite the lack of musical variety

Cons:

  • Graphically uninspiring
  • Many missed opportunities with party development
  • Ultimately too wound up in trying to trigger a nostalgic response; slips into many pitfalls of the replicated era as a result

Because this is the first attempt of a fledgling studio, I am inclined to give I Am Setsuna the benefit of the doubt. For a beginner to JRPGs, it’s simple enough to dip one’s toes into. For the veteran RPG player though, it is harder to recommend. All things considered, I’d give I Am Setsuna a 6.5/10. While not mind-blowing by any means, I want to see more from Tokyo RPG Factory and have hopes that this is the first step in paving the way towards newer JRPG classics.

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