I am certainly no stranger to RPGs of yonder year, having rooted myself into the genre with classics such as Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana back in the 90s. While I do enjoy playing modern games as well, sometimes I find myself longing for a more “retro” experience. So when I heard that I am Setsuna was an RPG that promised to hark back to the old days of console RPGs, I knew I needed to investigate. But the experience I found within wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
In I am Setsuna, you take the role of the silent protagonist, Endir, who has been hired to assassinate the next “sacrifice” to subside the invasion of monsters throughout the world, Setsuna. As you are about to carry out your task, Setsuna is promptly protected by her guardians while you are temporarily imprisoned. It doesn’t take long from this point for Setsuna to display how extreme her ability to trust anyone and everyone is by releasing you when her village is under attack by monsters. From here, you have no choice but to accompany her on her journey to fulfill her role as a sacrifice and save the world for another ten years in this vicious cycle that plays off the old “sacrificial maiden” cliché.
As the game proceeds, you will find yourself with an array of characters that join your party and a few small twists in this otherwise predictable story. The problem with I am Setsuna is that the story is rather short, but it tries to stretch what substance it has over twenty or so hours, making it feel dry rather fast. This also damages any potential character development, leaving many personal issues that each character has to be solved within a few hours of them joining, give or take a couple of characters. Then Setsuna, the character who needs it most, doesn’t change even remotely from the start, displaying her extreme martyrism and how easy it is for her to trust anyone, even if they are clearly trying to kill her. There have been characters like this in other games, most notably Final Fantasy X and Tales of Symphonia, but these characters weren’t nearly as bad and grew with the story. Setsuna does not grow at all, and honestly her behavior can be downright embarrassing at times from how foolish she is. The writers wanted this to seem endearing, but because the story is over almost as soon as it began, we hardly gain much attachment to her and it falls flat as a result.
While the story is certainly a rather large shortcoming for I am Setsuna, such is not the case for other aspects. For one, the developers claim that this game’s combat was highly inspired by Chrono Trigger, and it is simple to see that this is true. You are allowed three people in battle that can execute normal attacks and Techs. Each person has their share of single Techs, but are also able to form a Combo with one or two other combatants. You are even able to boost the effects of your attacks and Techs through Momentum, which is done by pressing a button as your Tech is executed, but only after you have built up enough in your Momentum gauge.
In addition to that is the Spritnite system. This is the point where the combat start to go a bit further than necessary. The idea of Spritnite itself is interesting and a welcome change of pace, instead having you learn your Techs through equipped items rather than leveling, similar to Materia in Final Fantasy VII. However, I feel as though I am Setsuna does not perform this as well as it could have. For starters, there is simply too much Spritnite for how short the game is. The number of personal Techs you learn is about right; not too few but not too many. But the amount of passive supports is overwhelming. Although the game’s boss battles require more thought than simply mashing the same buttons over and over, they are still not challenging enough to require you to use different types of support Spritnite. While the game does have some side content outside of the main story, even that is not enough to justify just how much Spritnite there is. By the time I had finished the game, I had only 23% of all Spritnite in the game. It’s great that they give you a very customizable system like this, but I feel like they got carried away with it to the point that most people will never see all of these possibilities. At that point, the remainder might as well be a pointless collectathon, useless to anyone but the most diehard I am Setsuna fan or a completionist. It’s a good concept, but the normal person will hardly scratch the surface of what’s there.
Other aspects of gameplay are a bit odd as well. For starters, the game completely lacks inns, which is a staple in just about any console RPG. Granted, you can purchase tents and just rest and save outside of towns, but it seems odd when you’re already in the town and should just be able to do these things at an inn. A minor nitpick, perhaps, but still an odd design choice for a game that advertises itself as being so much like older RPGs.
Another odd choice is the lack of a Run or Flee command in battle. Fleeing is done entirely through Fogstones, an item you can purchase from an item vendor in any town. However, if you happen to run out of these items and run into a rather heavy encounter, you’re out of luck. I’m not against there being a guaranteed fleeing item if there is a battle command already to make an attempt at running away, but it seems strange to entirely omit the option. However, this isn’t the first RPG I’ve seen to do this.
Another shortcoming is the inability to switch combatants once you are already in battle. Sure, this is something that a lot of older RPGs did not have, but it is a modern convenience that a game like this should not be without, as the boss fights are challenging and at times require a certain character to add relative ease.
While I have pointed out a number of drawbacks in the game’s system, I do have to praise the game’s shop system. All shops are interconnected and thus do not require you to backtrack to a previous town to purchase something you might have missed. All items, weapons, accessories, and Spritnite can be bought from the same vendors in every town, upgrades being most likely noted by story flags. Once a weapon or accessory is purchased, it is removed from the list as to not overwhelm you. Thankfully, because you can’t sell anything outside of items and materials you gain in battle, there is no fear of losing one of these once you’ve obtained it.
When it comes down to the visuals of I am Setsuna, the game does a good job of setting the gloomy mood of the world by having it be entirely blanketed in snow. However, they might have done this almost too well, as it does get repetitive after a time and could have easily been rectified by different types of lighting other than Midday Clear and Overcast Gray. Something as simple as that could have made this winter wasteland much more exciting. Couple that with the many reused area assets and it does start to get a little tiring by the end. But I can’t completely condemn it because again, the mood is very fitting for the game. I will praise the game’s skill animations though, as they are well done and show a good amount of effort. I am also fond of toi8’s unique art style used for the characters, although a couple of outfits seem out of place for such a perpetually frigid world.
One thing I really do need to praise about this game is the soundtrack. It is performed entirely by piano, give or take a few battle themes, and it sounds wonderful. Tomoki Miyoshi and Randy Kerber did a fantastic job with the soundtrack. It was refreshing hearing music in a game done entirely with one instrument, and the piano certainly fit the theme of the game. While I have a hard time remembering songs that were used once or twice, songs that were heard on more than a few occasions still stand in my memory, which is a good sign.
As far as the localization goes, I would say that it is rather well done. It could have used maybe a bit more liberties to give it a touch more personality, as the writing did feel a tad dry at times. But overall, it does not disappoint. The only voice acting in I am Setsuna is during combat and was not dubbed, so it isn’t possible to gauge the quality of that aspect.
So, did I get what I was expecting from I am Setsuna? I would say no, but in the end I am only a little disappointed compared to what my initial expectation were. I should have remembered from past experiences to take anything claiming to hark back to old games with a grain of salt. The thing about older console RPGs is that they worked for the time they were in, and we can appreciate them for what they are. The standards are different these days and it seems odd to remove certain quality of life improvements in favor of giving a “classic” experience. Homages and references are more than welcome, and this game certainly had a fair share of those. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise you end up with an average experience, and that is exactly what I feel like I am Setsuna is.
Pros & Cons
+ Stunning soundtrack
+ Promising combat
– Poorly represented story
– Appropriate but ultimately repetitive locales
A promising game with an excellent soundtrack that unfortunately falls short of what it could be due to it’s lackluster story.
PlayStation 4, PC, Nintendo Switch
Tokyo RPG Factory