It’s like Spartacus. Everyone, say you’re Setsuna so she doesn’t die!
I was oddly drawn to I am Setsuna as soon as I heard about it. As a love letter to the old style of turn-based JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, I was absolutely in the mood for this game to mechanically bring us back to that time with a fresh adventure.
If I had any expectation for I am Setsuna, it would be that the game serve as a reminder of those good times. I can say the game is mostly successful at that. However, what stands out the most to me about I am Setsuna are the places it chooses to deviate from its inspiration.
The JRPGs of yesteryear typically dealt with variety. There was a variety of themes at play in the stories as well as a variety of locations. Different enemies and characters also went a long way to making the player feel like the journey they were on was actually spanning across an entire world despite fairly linear design.
If you are seeking that sort of variety, I can’t recommend I am Setsuna. This game will quickly make it clear that its own vision is far more narrow than that. The world is a snowy land with icy dungeons with almost nothing to change up the visuals, the characters are all straight out of the JRPG 101 textbook, the entire soundtrack is solo piano music, and the one theme the game seems to be exploring is that of mortality. Every character is just another perspective on that single theme. Though it may be inspired by classic JRPGs, I am Setsuna is drastically more bare than the games that built its house.
This is not me saying I disliked it by any means. While I would have preferred a wider variety of environments and less repetition in enemies, there is something I respect about a game that chooses to embrace its limitations and put all its efforts towards capturing one vision. It doesn’t strive for complexity in any one area, but that means what the game does attempt to do is done surprisingly well for the most part. The snowy world is beautiful, the single piano soundtrack is very well done, and the characters are toned down just enough from their archetypes to be rather likable. I ended up wanting to see how they all dealt with that dilemma of mortality and fate.
The story begins with the player taking the role of a masked mercenary name Endir (or whatever you want to name him), as he gets roped into escorting a sacrificial maiden named Setsuna to the Last Lands. Offering her life there can bring about another temporary peace from the aggressive monsters of the wild. Endir is mostly silent except for the occasional dialogue choice, which makes him a good outsider to all this. As you progress and gain more companions, you get the sense that he’s learning to fight for somebody other than himself. The other characters you meet seem to be struggling to find their own way forward, which makes the ultimate goal of the group’s journey seem that much more tragic.
You would probably expect that the game doesn’t play out to a successful sacrifice where everybody just goes home afterwards. Still, I appreciated that for the expected zigs and zags in the story, I am Setsuna doesn’t run away from the hard realities of loss. I found it all led to a really strong ending where matters weren’t tied up neatly, but there was that classic sense of hope for these characters to find what they were looking for. It’s a story that made me feel good in a way only this genre has ever pulled off, even if it’s a very simple story to tell.
The combat of I am Setsuna is where a lot of the Chrono Trigger inspirations become more apparent. There are no random battles, a meter fills up to let you pick your action, and each character and monster position on the screen will have an effect on attacks and abilities. There is also a momentum meter that will build up as long as you delay picking an action. It can be filled up to three times, and it allows you to hit the square or x button just before an attack. This will do more damage or cause other effects in battle depending on what skill you’re using.
Those abilities are called Spritnites and rather than gaining them through leveling up, they are primarily something you craft by selling off materials you gained in battle. Equipping the right ones can lead to some very effective combinations between the members of your party. Possibly too effective.
What ended up happening for me was about halfway through the game I put together a combination of Spritnites that meant every normal monster fight was no longer an issue. I would use one combo, kill everything, and then I had an ability that would restore all of those spent points just for defeating the monsters. It sure makes any optional grinding a breeze, but it also limits the challenge to boss fights and the special monsters you have to go out of your way to hunt. Finding a way to smash through regular enemies is not unheard of in this genre, but I guess this did muddy the line of whether I was being effective with the game’s abilities or being cheap with them.
The problem is that I am Setsuna follows the classic JRPG trend of having optional content that is ridiculously tough compared to the main game. So did I want to grind twenty levels to be a match for this dual where my character could get turned to stone and automatically game over, or did I want to just use my Counter ability and put the controller down as my character took no damage and chipped away at the enemy every time they were attacked? Was I being effective or exploitative? Do I actually care? As far as the optional stuff goes, I would say probably not. The three or so more hours this optional stuff would add to the seventeen I spent in I am Setsuna‘s world didn’t feel all that necessary for me.
I mostly enjoyed playing the main game though, as finding the right combinations of skills and having to possibly change how you play certain characters on the fly was satisfying. Finding that correct cycle of abilities that would lock a tricky boss down is as enjoyable as ever.
With that basic enjoyment packed into a story that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, I think I am Setsuna is a pretty good game. It’s unmistakably a bare bones return to the genre and I certainly hope this opens the door for some more games that might flesh the style out a bit more. This doesn’t change the fact that I walked away from I am Setsuna feeling pleased with the time I put into it. It reminded me that these sorts of games can have their faults, but if the developers have enough passion for their main vision then a player can walk away feeling adequately rewarded for their effort.
Now if you want a real JRPG masterpiece, I am Setsuna says Chrono Trigger is way up there. You might want to keep an eye out for that one.