While my wife is light years away from being a “gamer,” there are occasional moments when she’s far more hardcore than I could ever believe. She’ll routinely hop online and crush fools in Dr. Mario, and though she’s never actually beaten its end boss, she’s currently on her fifth (or is it sixth?) playthrough of Chrono Trigger.
I bring that up because it’s created something of a weird parallel world for me at home. At the same time as she’s been eating through battery charges on her DS playing the classic Square/Enix collaboration, I’ve been making my way through the recently-released Japanese RPG it helped inspire: I Am Setsuna. Coming as the first project from the Square Enix subdivision studio known as Tokyo RPG Factory, Setsuna was a project meant to harken back to the glory days of old-school Japanese output in the genre, with Chrono Trigger being one of the biggest sources of inspiration mentioned.
I Am Setsuna begins with Endir, a mysterious mercenary being tasked with killing a young maiden named Setsuna for reasons he isn’t told. Before he can accomplish his goal, he learns that she’s about to embark on a journey to be the next sacrifice, one in a long line of girls who have given their lives to help calm the war between men and monsters. Deciding he’s not prepared to kill her just yet, the sellsword, Setsuna, and her protector Aeterna set off on a journey to the Last Lands, where Setsuna’s death will hopefully bring peace again.
Taking place entirely in a snow-covered world, I Am Setsuna whisks the player from village to village, where they help solve problems, beat bosses, and meet new faces as the party gets closer and closer to their final destination. Much like Chrono Trigger, Setsuna offers up a colorful cast of characters that join up with the player, each bringing with them their own backstory or reason for tagging along for the ride. While not quite up to the standards of beloved names like Marle, Lucca, Robo, or Frog, Setsuna’s cast—especially Aeterna—grew on me for the most part. By the end of the game, each had shown enough moments of personality to cause them to rise above the stereotypes they could have fallen into. Heck, I even kind of dug the yet-another-mute-protagonist Endir by the end—even if the game does force you to play him more and more as a good guy the further along you are. There was, however, one exception: Setsuna herself. As the titular character, she should have been the best-developed and strongest-written cast member; instead, she’s the epitome of the “kind and pure” JRPG trope heroine whose one-dimensional personality put me into situations at times that I simply hated being in.
Once each new character has joined your group, you can swap in and out any three as your main party. Though they all have their own distinct fighting styles, you can better balance out your favorite combinations through the use of Spritenite. Each Spritenite you find unlocks a particular active or passive ability, and although which techniques a particular character can use are predetermined, you can customize the specific combination of Spritenite each of your teammates is using at any given moment.
While you’ll at times run into a particular mob or boss that really calls for a set line-up of fighters, most of I Am Setsuna’s battles are crafted to support any particular trio. Combat kicks off when you run into enemies on the playfield (or they run into you), and those encounters—much like Chrono Trigger—take place directly where you were, instead of changing to a pre-set battle “arena.” Combat can be somewhat overwhelming at first, as not only will you need to collect and juggle Spritenite, but you’ll also have to keep in mind things such as the combination attacks you can do based on which Spritenite you’re using, Momentum (taking no action during battles builds a meter you can use to unleash more powerful attacks or buffed techs), Talismans (items you characters can wear that help cause Fluxuations in combat), those Fluxuations (bonuses that can pop up during battle), post-fight modifiers, food dishes you can make that will add modifiers to your next combat encounter, and more.
If all of that explanation leaves you feeling a bit confused and overwhelmed, then congratulations: you know how I felt playing I Am Setsuna. Really, the game does a terrible job of introducing all of this to you, akin to learning how to swim by being tossed into a lake and having your parents yell at you, “Now survive!” If you can stay afloat, all of those elements work to craft a battle system that’s actually enjoyable for its complexity. I didn’t understand every little detail, but honestly, you don’t really have to. If you want to focus on one particular strategy or try them all, you can, and Setsuna’s difficulty is just welcoming enough to accommodate that plan. It’s always nice when RPG battles are more than “mash attack to win,” and depending on how you spec your party out, you can get some great strategies going.
For as deep as its battle system is, it leads to I Am Setsuna’s major point of failure: the fact that too much of the rest of it is disappointingly shallow. Were this an indie-developed RPG by a team of fans, I could understand how it turned out; as a project from one of the industry’s preeminent RPG companies—even if it’s from their new satellite studio—it feels far too amateurish. While I personally loved the snowy backdrop, it leads to locations and cities that closely resemble one another. Dungeons are either icy caves or snowy mountaintops until one additional type is thrown in late-game, and it doesn’t take long to become bored of running through yet another instance of that duo. They’re made worse by the fact that progression through the game feels like a treadmill: go to a town, find out the problem, kill enemies in a cave, return to town, cross a mountain to get to the next town, repeat. Those dungeons are mercifully short, but so is everything else. You’re almost never in any one spot long enough to grow attached to it, NPCs are cycled in and out in short order, and rarely do the storyline beats get the chance to develop enough to have the emotional impact that they should. As someone who dreads the idea of 60+ hour role-playing games at this point (outside of exceptions like Atlus and BioWare offerings), I really wish I Am Setsuna would have been longer than it was. There were so many little instances of “oh this could be cool” that are never built on properly, and with the same amount of gameplay but more time for character and narrative development, this could have been been a much better experience.
And, really, it should have been, if for no other reason than to do right by some of I Am Setsuna’s best parts. On an artistic level, the visuals are gorgeous, crafted in a style that more resembles paint than polygons, and which rarely hints at the fact that this was a game released both on the PlayStation 4 and the Vita (the latter of which we aren’t receiving here in the States). Appropriately, the snow effects are also pretty fantastic at times, as you leave tracks through snowbanks and brave blizzards that obscure your sight. And then, there’s the music. If any one piece of Setsuna harkens back to the heyday of Japanese RPGs, it’s the game’s score, which is easily one of the best soundtracks a video game has featured in years—and which took me back to my days of importing Final Fantasy and Suikoden CDs from Japan long before there were better options for Western fans to buy game music.
Releases like I Am Setsuna are frustrating. There’s so much that could have gone right here but didn’t, and it’s disappointing to see so much potential just not come together in the end. At the same time, there are moments of greatness, enough that I can’t just write the game off as a lost cause and move on to the next release on the calendar. Just when I was really having fun with Setsuna, it’d do something to squander what it’d been building. And then, just when I was ready to give up on it, it’d pull a twist or thrilling moment that helped to pull me back in. I Am Setsuna is a beautiful yet flawed start to Square Enix’s new RPG studio, one that attempts to capture the spirit and heart of classic games while seemingly not always understanding what it was that made those games great.
I Am Setsuna is a mixture of beautiful, heartfelt, and depressing moments, one whose depth is unfortunately overshadowed by its over-abundant moments of shallowness. The worth in Setsuna may end up being not in what it did on its own, but the groundwork it provides for future projects.
Tokyo RPG Factory
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|I Am Setsuna is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Sqaure Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.