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I Am Setsuna is out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. Our Alan Stock is here to review the PS4 version of the game for ComiConverse.
“I… am the sacrifice.”
Cue haunting piano music. While most of legendary Japanese developer Square Enix have been toiling away on the huge and expensive Final Fantasy XV, a small division called Tokyo RPG Factory was formed. This studio has been quietly creating a smaller Japanese role playing game (JRPG), paying homage to Square’s “golden era” in the SNES days. Inspired by classics like Chrono Trigger and older Final Fantasy games, this little studio wanted to create a game harking back to those simpler times, with a retro flavoured, traditional JRPG.
And why not?
There’s certainly a market for it, re-releases of the old Square titles remain popular and many players are nostalgic for those fantasy epics of yore. Introducing – I Am Setsuna.
Review: I Am Setsuna
As a gamer who also grew up on those classic fantasy JRPGs, I was a fan of Square’s older works. Although the combat quality varied, and the games could get repetitive and predictable, I could overlook that for the epic storylines, memorable characters and rich worlds they contained. Games like Chrono Trigger with its time travelling theme added some welcome originality to the mix. Unfortunately though, I am Setsuna doesn’t take on the more original ideas, sticking firmly to the traditional formula.
So then, we have a standard JRPG setup. You control the fate of a small group which grows in number during the course of the game. You explore via an overworld map, entering settlements and “dungeons” of various forms, following a linear storyline. You battle monsters and level up through combat, learning new moves and spells. The safety of the world is threatened and it’s up to your heroes to fix it, all to the sound of beautiful, atmospheric music. All the staples you expect from an old Square JRPG are here, and don’t expect any big surprises. The only addition to the formula worth noting lies in the combat system, which I’ll cover later.
The world of I Am Setsuna is a snowy landscape dotted with mountains, forests, and villages. The environment is pretty, and the rest of the graphics have a stylised charm. However, you’d best like snow because, in a surprising departure from other RPGs, there’s no other settings to experience. You’ll enter snowy forests, snowy villages, icy caves, ancient temples and… that’s about it. This landscape creates a nice ambience but it does get boring and you may be crying out for some greenery. You’d also expect to find side quests, secrets and other locations to explore – but here there’s very little – the world feels small and somewhat lifeless compared to similar games. It’s minimalistic in content which fits the atmosphere of the game, but feels restrictive. I Am Setsuna exclusively uses background piano music, and this makes for a beautiful and somewhat sombre atmosphere with some lovely tunes, although again, it can become wearying. This ambience compliments the story themes nicely.
Lead character, Setsuna, is a on a pilgrimage with a twist; she’s a human sacrifice following a tradition to appease the world’s monster threat. Characters gradually join her group and each has a small and sometimes tragic backstory. The narrative explores themes like loss, self-sacrifice, duty and hope, and has a thoughtful and melancholy air. Sadly, although the characters are quite likeable, they don’t get enough dialogue time to interact, develop and really care about. Your protagonist, Endir, is initially contracted to kill Setsuna, but decides to joins her quest instead. Although you sometimes get a choice of dialogue responses as Endir, they don’t affect the final outcome, but I did find it fun to always play the villain, just to see the other characters react angrily to me. The story and characters are compelling enough to want to see the story through to its poignant conclusion.
It’s classic Square, but don’t expect a Final Fantasy epic or masterpiece.
Combat in the game is also old school, being heavily influenced by Chrono Trigger. When you encounter enemies, you switch to combat mode. Within the combat zone, your group and the enemies move around during the battle, allowing some strategy using area based attacks and spells. Combat employs the old Active Time Battle (ATB) system. You don’t move characters, but can take actions when their individual time bars fill up. What’s new is that if you refrain from taking an action, another bar fills, earning you “Momentum” points. Momentum adds extra power or effects by pressing a button when the action’s performed. This adds some welcome interactivity and strategy to proceedings. On top of that, there’s a power-up system called Singularity which adds overall effects during battles, affected by items you have equipped and actions that you perform. Confused yet?
And it goes on. Spritnites are equippable items which dictate what actions you can use. These can be levelled up in different ways depending on how you defeat enemies. Incidentally, that also nets you different materials from the enemies, which in turn affects which Spritnites you can buy. Oh, and there’s different Talismans to slot your Spritnites into, which affect the Momentum and… Brain… exploding… Obviously, I don’t expect you to understand any of this. And herein lies a major problem with the game. These new systems are very complex, intertwined, and at least initially are very difficult to grasp. The game also does a terrible job of teaching you about them, in fact, after a brief tutorial, you’re basically left to figure it out yourself. Fortunately, ignoring these extra layers, the basic combat system’s straightforward enough and you can bumble through much of the game without really using or learning the new systems. But sometimes you may hit a brick wall of difficulty where understanding and exploiting these mechanics can be the difference between success and failure. Then it’s up to you to read the host of explanations hidden in the menus (the Snow Chronicles, don’t miss it!). This is poorly done and it’s a real shame – there’s plenty of depth with these new systems, but 90% of players won’t discover or fully understand it.
I Am Setusuna also clutches its retro roots a little too dearly – with some unwelcome design hang-overs from yesteryear. Tutorials and hints are thin on the ground. The game doesn’t have an autosave – and at times you are limited to static save points so don’t do what I did and forget to save for hours, then die! Party members become under-leveled if left out of combat. There’s item busywork; the traditional village inns to restore your party are strangely absent in this RPG, so you always have to remember to heal up before battle. Additionally, if you don’t stock up on plenty of restoration items in town, you’ll run into real difficulty in the wild, sometimes being forced to grind or backtrack to resupply. The game’s also lacking variety, presumably let down by the large scope of the game but small studio team size. At 20-30 hours for a playthrough, events are padded out with backtracking, lots of enemy re-use, and plenty of combat – with little extra content to add interest.
Whilst I Am Setsuna is a decent and charming experience overall, it doesn’t quite reach the standards of the classic JPRGs its trying to emulate. For fans of that genre, there’s probably enough here to keep you happy, but for other players it’s a bit lacking. Personally, it was a nice little nostalgia trip, but it was a shame to see nothing original besides the complex combat additions.
Newer JRPGs like the amazing Xenosaga series have proved you can modernise the classic formula successfully – but despite the nostalgia I feel for old school Square games, perhaps some things are best left in the past.
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A charming and competent RPG which is let down by a lack of variety, depth and originality. Retro JRPG fans will like it though.