|Platforms||PC, PS4 (reviewed)|
|Developer||Tokyo RPG Factory|
|Release Date||July 19, 2016|
I Am Setsuna is comfort food for fans of classic JRPG’s. That’s one way I’ve heard the game described by a few different people, and it’s probably one of the most appropriate tags for the game. Within half an hour of starting the game I felt like I was a teenager again, playing an old Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger or any one of the many SNES/Playstation-era JRPG’s that cemented a lifelong love of the genre. Tokyo RPG Factory was founded specifically for the purpose of creating games that evoked the classics, and in that regard I Am Setsuna is a successful fulfilment of that mission statement.
The game itself, however, has a few issues.
In a world of perpetual winter, protagonist and assassin for hire Endir is hired by a mysterious man to kill Setsuna, a young woman who is about to embark on a pilgrimage to the Last Lands to sacrifice her life to stem the growing tide of monsters rampaging through the lands. Rather than go through with his mission, Endir “decides” to join her quest and, along with a ragtag collection of misfits they encounter along the way, they forge a path across the world.
There is the barebones of a really fascinating story in I Am Setsuna. The game commits to a bleak tone that matches its stormy, snowy backdrop and the inherent dour mood of its central premise. I mean, you’re basically escorting a girl on a death march. While there is some levity to be found in the occasional joke or humourous situation, I Am Setsuna plays its story fairly straight.
The problem is the pace with which I Am Setsuna blows past a lot of its story beats. The game seems to be in a mad dash to sprint from one plot point to the next, dumping rapid fire blocks of exposition on the player before moving on to the next chunk of story. The plot is never given any real room to grow or expand, there’s never any real room for characters or story arcs to develop. I Am Setsuna simply explains whatever it needs you to understand in the fastest way possible before moving on.
And it’s a shame too, because I Am Setsuna begins strongly, with a premise that is ripe for exploration. If its central storyline had been given room to breathe and develop naturally it could have been a beautiful, haunting tale. Again it starts as you agree to escort a young woman to her death, a death which is the last, desperate salvation for a world without much hope. With more care and attention paid to the way the story unfolds, and less manic pacing, it could have hit a lot harder than it actually did.
I Am Setsuna goes to great lengths to explain to me what’s happening and why I should care, without ever actually making me care. The story is essentially told via a series of monologues delivered at the player. If the dialogue had been better, or if the characters amounted to anything other than stock JRPG stereotypes, then this wouldn’t have been an issue. Unfortunately the dialogue is incredibly clunky and unwieldy for the most part, spoken by character archetypes you’d find in any number of JRPG’s. The stern protagonist, the innocent girl, the grizzled supporting character, the stoic knight, etc.
All that being said there were moments when I Am Setsuna’s story and characters clicked, although like the majority of the story arcs themselves these moments were very fleeting. A mid-game example of a young boy and a missing village springs to mind, where the conclusion to the quest was quite affecting. It’s moments like this that show off the potential I Am Setsuna has, but rarely manages to live up to. With a bit more care and attention paid to the dialogue, and a lot more room for its more interesting stories to breathe, this story could have been something special. Instead it’s mostly okay with a few flashes of brilliance, and a Godawful conclusion that causes the whole thing to fall flat on its face.
Although I feel like I have to take the time out to mention the dialogue options. I Am Setsuna features dialogue options, as many JRPG’s have before it. Except they don’t actually do anything. Each dialogue option essentially boils down to two sets of variables – “be a dick/don’t be a dick” and “look smart/look like a dumbass”. You can choose whichever option you like, because it has no bearing on the game, the story or the character relationships.
If you’re given an option to do something or not, you can pick either option, then the game will continue on with whatever the “correct” choice is. It’s a pointless system that seems to exist purely because it exists in classic genre entries, therefore must exist in I Am Setsuna, only this games story doesn’t allow for player agency. One classic Square Enix gameplay mechanic that I Am Setsuna manages to successfully bring back, however, is the Active Time Battle system.
The turn-based/real-time hybrid combat system that first appeared in Final Fantasy IV is back with upgrades. Player characters and enemies are presented in a 3D battlefield and both are moved around depending on the types of attacks they utilise (Endir, for example, can make use of a Backstab ability to appear behind enemies), and different attacks can hit one or multiple enemies depending on where everyone is standing.
But there’s a twist. As is standard, characters must wait for their ATB meter to fill out before being able to perform an action. However, if you continue to wait a second meter begins to fill – this is the Momentum meter. As soon as the ATB meter fills you can perform an attack or use an ability, but if you wait a few seconds longer you can gain access to Momentum, a system that can modify an attack or ability in a variety of different ways by dealing extra damage, selecting extra targets, or causing secondary effects such as speed boosts or group healing.
Momentum adds a really interesting dimension to the otherwise fairly straightforward ATB system. Ordinarily you’d just wait until the bar was full then unleash whatever attack or ability you wanted. Now it’s sometimes better to hang fire and wait for your Momentum meter to fill. Nidr, for example, has an ability that can deal big damage to a single enemy. If he uses Momentum to enhance the ability, it can also heal all the characters in your party as well. It’s a trade-off though, because by waiting for your Momentum meter to fill up you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to attack.
There’s also a twist on the general roles characters can fulfill in I Am Setsuna as well, thanks to the totally not Materia-like Spritnite system. Each party member can equip new abilities called Spritnite, essentially Materia. Unlike Materia each Spritnite can only be used by a specific character. Only Setsuna can equip Heal, only Kir can equip Fire, only Julienne can equip Ice, etc. When you first get each character they fill a generally typical party role – healer, damage dealer, black mage and so on. The further into the game you go, however, the more these roles can change.
Setsuna, for example, can become quite an effective damage dealer later in the game thanks to her exclusive access to a couple of very effective damage spells. As mentioned above Nidr, who begins his time in the party as a standard physical attack-based character, can become a handy secondary healer thanks to his Momentum-powered Blunt Blow healing the entire party. Every character in the party can fill more than one role once you unlock and buy a couple of Spritnite abilities for them. These abilities can also form combos – a devastating special attack that is a combination of two abilities.
It’s a shame then, that you can only really get to see what this series of impressive combat mechanics can actually do a mere handful of times. The brilliance of I Am Setsuna’s combat systems is undone by a difficulty that is generally lacking, combined with a few utterly balance shattering abilities. Outside of a couple of bosses and a smattering of optional fights against Spritnite Eaten Monsters, there’s no actual challenge to the game, thus no reason to really engage with what I Am Setsuna’s combat is actually capable of.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a really well designed and thought out combat system. It’s excellent. But it never really gets the chance to shine, because you can one-shot your way through most encounters by spamming the same overpowered abilities in every. Single. Combat. Encounter. Most of the time Endir’s hilariously broken Cyclone ability combined with a damage boost from Setsuna’s Enthunder ability will end fights in a matter of seconds. That tactic got me through the entire game. There was no reason to ever switch up because it worked from beginning to end, rendering everything interesting and fun about I Am Setsuna’s combat redundant.
The world of I Am Setsuna feels similarly redundant. As with the classic JRPG’s it’s aiming to recapture, you walk your party from town to town as you progress the story. Unlike those classic JRPG’s the entire world looks the same. Everything is covered in snow – every town, cave and piece of land that you walk through looks almost identical to the last. There’s not even any real reason to have an overworld, as all you use it for is to walk from point A to point B (and usually back and forth a couple of times) before moving on. There aren’t really any secret areas to find and no exploration to be done. The soundtrack, entirely composed using piano music, is pretty great though.
In the end the game is a paint-by-numbers JRPG. It’s designed simply to be a throwback to greater games. It’s only purpose for existing is to capture people like me with fond memories of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy (before it went off the rails). It feels like it was constructed from the superior parts of those games without ever actually understanding what made those games special in the first place – their soul. Tokyo RPG Factory is probably an apt name for the developer of I Am Setsuna, because this game feels like it could have been constructed on an assembly line. It’s a fine game, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed it for what it was. But it should have been far better, and reeks of wasted potential more than anything else.
I Am Setsuna is a decent enough throwback to the JRPG’s of the 90’s and early 2000’s – though it lacks any real identity of its own. Its one truly great feature, the extremely well thought out and implemented take on the classic Active Time Battle system, is rendered impotent by a total lack of challenge in combat. There’s never any need to engage with the interesting elements of its combat mechanics because you can get through the whole game with one or two overpowered abilities. The game also wastes its interesting premise on a story that is essentially one exposition dump after another, with characters and plotlines that never have the chance to actually develop because the game doesn’t bother exploring any of its themes or developments in any meaningful way. I Am Setsuna could, and should, have been much better than it is. It’s a decent enough JRPG, but there are just enough flashes of excellence to make you rue the missed opportunity that this game represents.
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