From a small corner of the vast Square Enix empire comes a little team named Tokyo RPG Factory, with a mission to harness all the nostalgia for golden-age isometric JRPGs.
I Am Setsuna is a melancholy blast from the past set in an oppressive world semi-resigned to its own demise – and it’s the kind of console game the niche community has been crying out for.
The time is definitely ripe for a modern update of the classics, but I Am Setsuna still needs to stands on its own snowy feet in order to feel truly relevant.
Speaking of the classics, Chrono Trigger and the 16-bit era Final Fantasies are unmistakable influences, worn rather brazenly on Setsuna’s sleeve.
The battle system especially is straight out of the former. It relies on ATB gauges that, while full, start to fill a separate ‘momentum’ gauge, adding a nice risk-reward mechanic.
Attacking with a momentum point and hitting an easily-timed button press (a la Lost Odyssey) will add additional effects, from applying a debuff to all enemies instead of the one, to simply piling on another element of damage.
Battles also start immediately with no transition from visible monsters on the world map. In general it’s got pace, some enticing combo strategies, but it often feels fairly shallow.
However, there’s another system that adds some much needed, menu-based depth to the combat. Each character can equip an item with a variety of slots to fit ‘Spritnite’ into.
These are essentially Final Fantasy-esque espers, but experimenting and choosing between attack, support and passive Spritnites for each character is key.
And more, each has a variety of permanent effects they can add to a Spritnite, when that skill is used enough in battle, so there’s always an incentive to try out new skills, combos and gear load outs to generate a balanced set of buffs.
It never quite reaches the tactical highs of something like Final Fantasy VIII and it’s not quite as fast paced or stylish as Persona (4 especially) but it does occupy a nice middle ground with plenty of room for min-maxing.
Especially welcome is the difficulty curve – grinding is possible (for rarer materials used for crafting Spritnite) but not essential to progress, which keeps the game feeling fluid and accessible.
So, what’s the narrative that necessitates all this brawling? It’s certainly a triple distilled JRPG plot. There’s a titular red-headed girl whose weapon of choice is a chakram, and she needs to be sacrificed in the ‘Last Lands’ to appease the ‘monsters’.
She’s evocatively known as ‘The Sacrifice’ and bears the responsibility with dignity – pride even – and rapidly assembles a rag-tag guard of misfits to accompany her.
For example, the masked mercenary whom the player first controls (and who’s hardly a protagonist, tasked as he is with killing the Sacrifice) is strong, silent and begrudgingly finds his good streak. There’s a kid mage. A kunoichi girl with a cute panda hat and a big attitude.
It’s kind of hard to tell whether the blend of stereotypes is a fond homage, lazy storytelling, or straight up satire on a genre famously resistant to change.
Perhaps all three, perhaps unintentionally. Each character’s lore does slowly unspool (without half hour long cutscenes thankfully) and they’re predictably revealed not to be as 2D as the sprites that influenced them.
Along the way, you’ll also encounter other small personal stories and hitches in your plan. One city has an unhinged governor whose plan you’ll need to thwart to unlock your way for example.
Or, before the kid-mage Kir joins your party, you’ll have to spend a little time in his remote village and uncover the strange secret its inhabitants hold.
Depending on your patience, you’ll be pleased that these fly by, stopping you from getting bogged down in one area for too long, or on the other hand, it’ll all feel too brief and shallow.
Avoiding spoilers, of course things aren’t quite as they seem and after roughly the 5-6 hour mark the mystery does start to amp up. Although, in hindsight, the drip-feed is a little too slow.
As with all the above, and plenty more aspects of Setsuna, it’s clear that a love of the classics and their particulars has overridden modern design thinking in a number of ways.
Why is saving still restricted to the world map and occasionally before a boss? Is anyone really going to scum-save their way through a JRPG?!
Why bother having dialogue choices that don’t matter beyond giving you the barest of chances to role play, between ‘act surprisingly kind for your tough demeanor’ and ‘be a jerk like everyone expects’? What’s the point in an arbitrary experience system, where the most exciting aspect of leveling up is replenishing your HP/MP?
And hands up who really loves random chests scattered about, including ones you mysteriously can’t open until later and therefore force you to remember where they were?
It’s artifacts like this that Setsuna had the opportunity to innovate around whilst keeping the core feeling faithful, and they’ve all been woefully ignored.
However, they’re not game breakers. The snowy setting is gorgeous and cozy, the characters are charming if a little slow to develop, and the soundtrack, while a little piano-heavy, suits the mood. There are flashes of wry humour and at the very least, the writing very rarely grates.
All told, I Am Setsuna is an easy recommendation for those hungering for a rigidly classic experience, with lush graphics and a fluid, polished battle system that isn’t going to stress you out too much.
Yet, if you love JRPGs but think they need to leave the rose-tinted glasses behind, I Am Setsuna might not scratch the itch. It’s a shame it’s not more forward thinking but perhaps, should it do well, it could be exactly the thing to start bridging the gap towards a modern JRPG renaissance.
I Am Setsuna was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a digital copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 6
- Gorgeous, wintry atmosphere
- A classic, nostalgic formula influenced by the best.
- Snappy combat with some interesting strategic combinations
- Seamless and minimalist – doesn’t bog you down in hours of cut-scenes or dialogue.
- Combat often feels easy – but with big difficulty spikes
- Missed opportunities to innovate on classic mechanics
- Soundtrack can become overbearing
- NPCs are usually throw-away.
- Stereotypes aren’t usually given another of a twist.