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I Am Setsuna REVIEW – Warm heart for such a cold game

by Ron Duwell | July 20, 2016July 20, 2016 9:20 am PDT

It’s nearly impossible to judge I Am Setsuna based on its own merits without comparisons to the classics we all fondly remember. The very purpose of its existence has always been to hearken back to the days of Super Nintendo JRPGs, and Square Enix, bluntly stating this objective in its call to arms, assembled the perfect development team at Tokyo RPG Factory to get the job done right.

Chrono Trigger is the name that was most frequently thrown around with the marketing of this game, and the influence definitely shows. Hints of other classics flirt with both subtle winks and straight up blunt bashes to the intended audience’s skulls, most of whom are going to be veterans of the genre and likely to be in on the whole joke.

However, what sends I Am Setsuna into the upper echelon of all the great throwbacks is that beneath the references, the game has a heartbeat of its own, and it would be a shame if the gaming community failed to recognize just what Tokyo RPG Factory has achieved here.

It created a linear, draconian JRPG that somehow manages to not only work in the modern age but excel in telling a moving and melancholy story, one free from the modern day vices of open world exploration or player input.

Deep down, the only crime that I Am Setsuna commits is that it can’t quite match the high standards of the masterpieces it was created to pay homage to. Other than that, Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory have a mini-miracle available on retail shelves right now.

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Hello, Setsuna. I am Ron.

Let me see if this plot rings a bell. I Am Setsuna unfolds in a world that is ravaged by supernatural monsters. Every decade or so, as monster attacks grow more coordinated and frequent, a girl is chosen from the ranks of her people, and she sets off on a globe trotting pilgrimage with a group of guards. Her ultimate destination? Ruins of an ancient world tucked away in far off mountains, a place where she will ultimately sacrifice herself for the good of mankind…

… until the cycle repeats itself, over and over and over.

Yeah, I Am Setsuna isn’t very subtle in its nods towards Final Fantasy X. Not in the least. We’ve all heard Chrono Trigger on the lips of every JRPG fan and Square Enix marketing strategist for the last two years, but this game straight up lifts Final Fantasy X’s story all the way down to the mysterious, one-eyed, kimono wearing, giant sword-swinging, veteran “sacrifice” guard.

Yes, Auron appears in this game, and the only real difference is that this impostor wears a green kimono instead of a red one. That and he doesn’t entirely steal the show.

Other nods to famous JRPGs don’t end there. On her quest, Setsuna runs into a young, tailed boy cursed with a limited lifespan due to his ability to use magic. Visions of Final Fantasy IX are dancing before my very eyes. Even Setsuna’s weapon of choice, the projectile Chakra, is the same used by Colette Brunel, the sacrificial girl from Tales of Symphonia.

When taken on the surface, I Am Setsuna doesn’t even pass the plagiarism test let alone stand as something original to behold. However, like all the great JRPGs of the Super Nintendo and PlayStation era, the overall plot acts more as a framing device, allowing the subtle bit of magic to spring up from the cracks and flesh out a very personal tale.

Tokyo RPG Factory deliberately drags players through a very linear adventure, from town to dungeon to town to dungeon, each location holding its own mini-vignette. Abandoned towns, mass kidnappings, leaders forced to choose between trusting the sacrifice’s journey and making deals with the monsters.

It’s these mini-stories that flesh out I Am Setsuna’s melancholy world, bringing genuinely heartfelt moments to the forefront. Wondering if humans can coexist with monsters, contemplating whether living simply for the sake of survival is living at all, and, of course, the ultimate goal of sacrificing one’s life for the good of everyone.

And let’s not forget our cast. Much like the Super Nintendo games of old, each lovable face that Setsuna encounters, even the silent protagonist Endir, has flawed characteristics and an imperfect backstory, and much like a 16-bit classic, each of these characters will ultimately lay themselves out and be brought to a dramatic conclusion. Tokyo RPG Factory unfolds its character development at a pristine pace, never lingering on a single member for too long, but giving just enough exposition to keep players interested in seeing their next shining moment.

At the journey’s end, while they might not be entirely memorable like Crono and his ragtag band of time travelers, Setsuna and her guardians prove to be irresistible and deserving of every ounce of your empathy. Unoriginal, but still still engrossing, like playing Final Fantasy VI for the 18th time

What year is it!?

So while I Am Setsuna might follow Final Fantasy X’s story line beat for beat, Chrono Trigger is definitely where it takes its gameplay from. We’re talkin’ verbatim! The first two abilities acquired in the game are called “Cyclone” and “X-Slash.”

If that’s not a hint at where this game is going, then I have no idea where else to point to. Maybe the laundry list of other familiar Chrono Trigger skills. “Aura,” “Antipode,” “Cleave,” I could go on.

I Am Setsuna copy-and-pastes Chrono Trigger’s progression straight from the data on a Super Nintendo cartridge. Tokyo RPG Factory had discussed how it laboriously played through the classic, timing how long each dungeon and each battle took to complete, and it set a goal to match that pacing. And it passes with perfect marks here. Much like its inspiration, I Am Setsuna requires very little grinding, allowing players to blast through the story at lightning speed without the need to stop to gather experience points.

While pushing through a dungeon, I Am Setsuna also removes the random battles that Chrono Trigger famously did away with. Each lays out a series of increasingly difficult standard encounters before a boss fight presents itself at the very end. Dungeons never once prove to be too difficult, but these boss fights are a different story and will challenge players to use their “techs” (again, with the Chrono Trigger lingo) and Spritnites, the game’s magical system.

Equipping characters with Spritnites grants them their abilities and passive traits in battle. Like Chrono Trigger, some of these can be combined together with other characters to form powerful combo attacks, and others will set up situations like “this character has a less chance of being targeted in battle.” It is through this system that we find the core of I Am Setsuna’s customization as characters can only equip a certain number of these abilities, limiting how powerful they can ultimately become in battle.

Leveling-up only increases a character’s hit-points, magic-points, and Spritnite slots, and only through acquiring new weapons and improving these skills can players advance their builds.

It’s a simple setup, one which even uses the classic “Active Time Battle” from Final Fantasy IV, but it is when I Am Setsuna starts to come up with its own ideas that is gets a little bogged down in complication.

Battles also rely heavily on three further elements of Tokyo RPG Factory’s design, and these become more and more difficult to keep track of with each additional piece. Fluxes are innate abilities tied to Talismans, the game’s accessories, and these will randomly increase your Spritnite damage output and MP cost at the end of battle if used in tandem with the Momentum.

Momentum is a kind of risk/reward system, where if a character remains still in battle and does not attack, an SP meter fills up, and using this SP will allow players to ignite Super Mario RPG style timed-hits when attacking, healing, or defending.

Yes, this game even takes inspiration of Super Mario RPG, just so we’re all clear that Tokyo RPG Factory at least knows the right places to lift ideas from.

Confession time, I fired up I Am Setsuna for the first time after a night of no sleep, and I barely remember the first two hours. I missed the Momentum tutorial, and didn’t even realize this was an element in the game until 12 hours in. That might make it seem not very important, but trust me, in the boss fights towards the later half of the game, it is.

And then there are singularities, which are totally random occurrences that grant stat boost and other twists to shake up the flow of battle.

On top of the countless Support and Command Spritnite” to manage, all of this inner-weaving might seem a bit much at first. However, once you are able to recognize the game Tokyo RPG Factory was inspired by, the light bulb flashes on and it makes all the sense in the world!

And just a few weird little choices hold it back. No dungeon map is fine considering that not many JRPGs back in the day had one, but the lack of a world map, even once players take control of a classic airship towards the end of the game, is a bit off-putting.

Recipes are uncovered by collecting food ingredients from flashing points on the ground and talking to the correct NPCs. However, you never know which NPC to talk to and which ingredients you’ll need, sending that inner-RPG completionist OCD into overdrive.

Money is made through collecting items, which are gathered by slaying monsters in various ways, be it elemental attacks, combo attacks, or momentum attacks. These items are sold to the Magic Compendium representative in each town. Not only does this land money, but it will also turn useless swag into new Spritnite abilities!

The weirdest choice of them all is the lack of an inn, meaning the only way to heal a party is through classic tents and healing items.

And if we need another nod towards Chrono Trigger the overhead map is it. No enemy encounters and super small character models.

Snow in the morning, snow in the evening, snow at suppertime.

If there is one area that can be pointed at that truly holds back I Am Setsuna, it is the presentation.

Character models look fine when standing still, but they lack personality and suffer from the same “feet” problem that Fire Emblem: Awakening suffered from; they don’t have any!

One of the reasons Chrono Trigger’s characters, including the silent protagonist Crono himself, remain so endearing to this day is because of how expressive Square was able to make them. The development team drew out countless extremely detailed sprites under the supervision of one of Japan’s leading legendary character artists, and the results leap to life with an absurd amount of animation representing emotions, poses, and actions.

I Am Setsuna’s character models are stiff, rough, and lack this genuine personality tucked in between the animation frames. Luckily, each is backed by the game’s excellent writing and a team of solid artists who took great heed not to go overboard with wardrobes or hairstyles. Simple and sweet saves the day here.

I Am Sestuna’s biggest presentation problem also happens to feed into one of its strengths in a weird and unique way. Whereas Chrono Trigger and a good many other JRPGs whisk us away to exotic locations, everywhere from bleak mechanical futures to the tropical dinosaur jungles, I Am Setsuna takes us from snowy landscape to snowy village to snowy mountain top to snowy canyon… you get the idea.

Every inch of this game is covered in snow, some much so that it even finds its way into the deepest and darkest mountain caves. This blanket that covers the Earth lacks the exotic pizzazz of other games, but in a way, the cold, bleakness of it helps create consistency in I Am Setsuna’s world-building and feeds into the shrill, melancholy atmosphere of the story.

The music too is bound to both please and detract some people. With its budget, Tokyo RPG Factory was obviously unable to hire the biggest, best orchestras in the world like EA and Ubisoft do, so instead, it relies heavily on simple piano arrangements. Pianos everywhere! Sad pianos, happy pianos, and even piano music in the battle theme if you can imagine it!

Snow and pianos. The hallmarks of I Am Setsuna’s presentation. Again, both were conceived with a budget and might not appease those looking for something grander, but Tokyo RPG Factory deserves all the credit in the world for flipping these constraints and using the limitations to benefit the project as whole.

Without the piano music and the snow, I Am Setsuna wouldn’t pull nearly as many heartstrings.

Will it stand the test of time?

I hope I’ve painted a good picture of I Am Setsuna for you. Square Enix’s previous release, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, nearly destroyed my anticipation for Square Enix’s comeback year as a blatant example of how safe JRPGs with an old-fashioned mentality can’t work in the modern age.

Thankfully, I Am Setsuna, the game in Square Enix’s lineup I had the least amount of faith or interest in, was there to pick me back up. Square Enix set out to create a game that hearkened to a time when its JRPGs were the driving force in the video game world, and it very clearly found the right people to do so.

Tokyo RPG Factory has created a pleasant little gem with a lot of soul that will definitely appeal to its intended 30-something audience. However, I have a bit of trouble seeing anyone who doesn’t enjoy oldschool JRPGs finding any value here. I Am Setsuna boasts many unexpected qualities of its own, but the main drive here is still nostalgia for that early-to-mid-90s era.

Naturally, this means I enjoyed it, right up there with the likes of Bravely Default and Shovel Knight as far as throwbacks go, and anyone who ran the JRPG gauntlet in the Super Nintendo days should as well. The $39.99 asking price is fair for a JRPG fan, but those on the outside looking in might want to hold off a bit.

Now, all that remains to be seen is if I Am Setsuna can truly follow in the footsteps of its inspirations and be considered a classic 25 years down the road. This is where I draw the line and predict it’s going to fall short. I’d like it to stand the test of time, but it just doesn’t cry “classic,” so much as it does “distraction.” The ultimate answer for old-timers who disapprove of Final Fantasy XV’s approach to the JRPG genre.

The game is fun to blast through and soak in the old fashioned approach, but it doesn’t entirely escape its novelty nor leave quite the same emotional footprint as Final Fantasy X or Chrono Trigger.

One way to help it achieve immortality, though, is to allow Tokyo RPG Factory to have a second stab at a new game! I Am Setsuna proves we have a talented new studio on our hands, and with more time and resources, it could make something even more magical!

And the only way to let Square Enix know we want that is to buy I Am Setsuna! Well, what are you waiting for!? Get out there and do it!

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Disclaimer: We were provided a copy of I Am Setsuna for the PlayStation 4 and played 17 hours of the campaign before writing this review.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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