I Am Setsuna is one of the most contradictory games I’ve ever played, and with an opening statement like that, it’s really tempting to not explain it at all until the end of the review, but I’ll do it now anyway. I Am Setsuna is a well-made, solidly fun fantasy RPG with a great soundtrack and plenty to offer any experienced fan looking for a decent way to spend 30 hours or so. It’s also hard to deny that it’s probably one of the worst games in its genre. Let me know if you’ve spotted the contradiction.
I Am Setsuna is very heavily-inspired by Chrono Trigger, one of the all-time greatest RPGs, with a little bit of influence from a handful of other titles as well. RPGs themselves are often considered to earn the most emotional investment from players and are more likely to be remembered as their favourite games, because of course they are; they have the deepest storylines and even back on the PlayStation 1 it could easily take more than 100 hours to completely work your way through one. Everyone’s favourites will differ, but I can’t help but imagine some kind of exclusive club for successful RPGs like this; Chrono Trigger would be there, of course, along with some Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Tales of Symphonia – Skies of Arcadia would be a huge presence – and many more modern titles that I haven’t gotten round to playing yet would all be there. And I Am Setsuna definitely does enough to earn a place in this club, even if it’s moreso by ticking boxes off a checklist than trying to rediscover the genre.
It’s just that, when compared to the RPGs it’s so clearly inspired by, it’s hard not to notice that I Am Setsuna… doesn’t really measure up to any of them. Which is fine, for the record – not every game has to be a 10/10, and I’ve spent thousands of hours having a great time playing plenty of middle-of-the-road experiences – but when the game itself is constantly inviting the comparison, it’s hard not to see I Am Setsuna as one of the worst games in a group composed entirely of exceptionally good games. Hence the contradiction.
But despite the fact that I’ve just summarized the game fairly well, if I do say so myself, I still want to talk about it in a little more depth because I honestly really did enjoy the game a lot and I’d like to discuss why, and what it does new, and what it does new that doesn’t really work, and why I had so much fun with it regardless. Also I understand that I’ve been talking about this game to friends so much that the last time we went bowling, they changed my name to ‘i am satsuma’ while it was my turn. There were a group of children in the lane next to us who were all using their real names, and then there was my group, composed of ‘i am satsuma’, ‘big chungus’, ‘dodgy steve’, ‘little chungus’, and ‘baetato’. They looked at us funny.
Anyway! Onto I Am Setsuna.
It might surprise you to know that the team behind the development of I Am Setsuna has a very rich and interesting history in the video game industry; it might surprise you because it isn’t true at all and I just made it up. Square Enix announced a new studio at E3 2015 named ‘Tokyo RPG Factory’ which had the goal of creating more JRPGs that the company had been famous for in the mid-90s, like Chrono Trigger. In February 2016, I Am Setsuna was released in Japan, and by July it had released worldwide on PC and PS4. That’s it.
“Now hold on a minute,” you may clamour “I’ve just barely started this review and you’ve already name-dropped Chrono Trigger like three times – four if you count that one – and what gives? Have you played so few RPGs that you genuinely don’t have anything else to compare it to?” Well, thank you for that comment, hypothetical reader, but there is a reason I’m bringing up Chrono Trigger – that’s five times now – so frequently; because that’s how often I Am Setsuna brings it up too.
Sometimes it’s in the form of a knowing wink or special nod, like the overworld, battle system, the rotating cast of seven overall characters who you can only control three of at a time, the combination attacks, the huge airship you find about three quarters of the way through the game that makes travelling around the map much easier… and other times it’s a little more obvious, like every party member having a late-game weapon that is directly named after a weapon from Chrono Trigger. But I Am Setsuna is by no means a rip-off, or at least, a rip-off of a single target; one character’s final weapon looks a lot like Cloud’s famous Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII, and the main plot involving a young woman raised to be a human sacrifice going on a pilgrimage with an entourage of protectors (and who fights monsters with chakrams) is very reminiscent of Collette from Tales of Symphonia.
But as easy as it would be to make fun of I Am Setsuna for cribbing notes off of everyone else, those RPGs are genuinely fantastic games and with a task like “Make a game that feels like a mid-90s JRPG,” you can hardly criticize Tokyo RPG Factory for taking inspiration from some of the best mid-90s JRPGs out there.
So what actually is the original story of I Am Setsuna? Well, the main character – hang on, I’ve just realised that I may need to rephrase that, as the entire story does kind of revolve around Setsuna – uh, the first character you control is Endir, a mysterious masked mercenary master mswordsman – sorry, really wanted to keep the alliteration going there – who never speaks outside of the few dialogue options you’re given that never really alter the story in any way, who is asked by a mysterious stranger to go to a remote village and kill a young woman named Setsuna. Setsuna is a sacrifice who is due to shortly embark on a journey to The Last Lands where she will… do a sacrifice, and somehow this will temporarily stop monsters from attacking several major cities. For like, two decades, and then someone will have to do it again. Not the greatest system they’ve got worked out here.
So Endir shows up in Setsuna’s hometown of Nive Village and is promptly captured before he can attack her, but when the village is attacked by monsters, Setsuna inexplicably decides to free him so that he can help to defend them, and then just decides that he should join the group that will be accompanying her on her one-way trip to The Last Lands. On the one hand, this is a pretty stupid set-up, but everyone except for Endir and Setsuna loudly protests what a stupid set-up it is, and it does at least show quite quickly that Setsuna really is one of those pure saintly cinnamon buns capable of seeing the good in absolutely everyone, which is brought up plenty more times later on.
Your other party members include Aeterna, a young woman in the village who feels a lot like Setsuna’s trusty childhood friend, which makes things confusing in the endgame when it turns out she has a different, way more complex backstory. There’s also Nidr, an older, gruffer veteran swordsman who accompanied one of the previous sacrifices on a pilgrimage that was not successful, and Kir, a cheerful young fire mage who comes from a village of powerful mages who have decided to forego the use of their magical abilities in return for extending their lifespans. It’s a good job you meet all of these colourful characters along the way, because if they all weren’t coincidentally waiting in line on the way between Nive Village and The Last Lands, it looks an awful lot like the initial plan was to send Setsuna, alone, to fight off everything in her way without dying, in order to make it to the place where she’s supposed to die.
The story is another area in which this game becomes a contradiction, because it’s okay, which means it’s terrible. By general video game standards, I Am Setsuna has a perfectly fine story that, whilst not particularly interesting or original, is still inoffensively enjoyable and while you won’t be in any hurry to start writing fanfiction, you also won’t walk away feeling too empty. It’s fine, really. The issue is that by the standards of a JRPG, ‘fine’ is total garbage. It’s not a great idea trying to invoke the spirit of other, better video games like Chrono Trigger and Tales of Symphonia if they had stories that were long and involved and emotional, and your story feels like the first draft of a Final Fantasy spin-off for PS Vita that ends up getting cancelled.
Despite this not really being a huge problem, it is probably the biggest disappointment in the game. If there’s one genre that can really tug on your heartstrings and make you feel like you really had a connection to the characters, it’s the RPGs we can spend dozens – or even hundreds – of hours on, level-grinding and exploring the world and discovering relationships and more. So for I Am Setsuna to essentially hand in a barely passing grade is a pretty big let-down for people who were really hoping to get involved in a story they could sink their teeth into. But again, this is only by the standards set by RPGs; for a regular video game story, I Am Setsuna is fine. Probably even slightly better than fine, but not by much.
In contrast, one area in which I can wholeheartedly lavish the game with praise is the setting. Every area in I Am Setsuna is incredible, and it’s easily one of the best-looking RPGs I’ve ever played, even though it’s not really going to challenge anyone’s graphics card. Here’s a picture of the overworld near one of the earliest areas in the game, Nive Village.
And here’s a picture of one of the first major cities you reach, Floneia!
And here’s, er… another picture of…
… You may have noticed that in spite of the game looking relatively great, it seems to be lacking quite badly in variety, and this is a complaint against the game that I both wholeheartedly understand and passionately disagree with. On the one hand, the only reason you can’t call the game one big overlong snow level is that it can’t technically be a ‘level’ if it’s actually the entire game. On the other hand, it’s so commonplace and clichéd these days for every game like this to have a series of areas that follow the themes ‘Forest level, Desert level, Ice level, Fire level, Water level, etc’ that I really enjoyed the way I Am Setsuna picked a single setting and just stuck with it. And in spite of the above screenshots looking a bit samey if all in one group, it doesn’t change the fact that individually, they’re all perfectly fine screenshots. And while the towns all appear to be almost identical on the overworld, they’re each uniquely interesting from within.
Every major town has a merchant from ‘Weppy & Talli’s’ – no idea if that’s a reference to something – who can sell you new weapons and talismans – oh God, weapons and talismans, Weppy and Talli’s, ugh, -1/10 off my rating of the game for that – along with an apothecary who can sell you healing items, and a member of the Magic Consortium, who can sell you powerful magical attacks that you can use in battle, and is also your main source of income, as you can sell him the various items that enemies and bosses will drop when you fight them. Each enemy drops a different item depending on the type of attack they’re killed with, whether they have a status ailment when they die, whether or not they’re defeated by ‘overkill’, and more, which is a little touch that can make grinding for experience and items a bit more fulfilling. Also, rather than buying the magical items that let you use special attacks in battle, you just need to find the materials required and trade them in, so most of the time, you will be walking away from merchants minus three hundred beaver pelts and plus about 40,000 gold.
Most towns also have an inn and a chef, which is another really charming touch in the game. Apparently, all of the chefs on the continent of… wherever I Am Setsuna takes place, are completely inept and useless, because between them, they don’t actually have any recipes. Luckily, random strangers you meet in towns will give you recipes, provided you have the ingredients to hand, which you can collect from the world map or from towns/dungeons, and which appear as small blinking lights on the ground. If you have the ingredients to hand, whoever you give them to will give you one helping of the meal, and also the recipe, which you can give to a chef and they will promptly be able to make that meal for you again at any time, for a price. These meals can do things like raise your attack, increase the experience you get from a battle, or increase the number a drops an enemy will give you. Unfortunately, they only last for one battle, and the effects don’t stack, so you can only eat one meal before a boss fight, but it’s still a really nice idea.
And in classic I Am Setsuna fashion, there’s just one big problem with it. See, the people in towns who can give you the recipes? The people who give you a list of ingredients and ask if you’ve collected them all? Well, for some strange, baffling reason, they will only ask you if you’ve got the ingredients if you already have the ingredients. So if you’re missing just one ingredient from each recipe, you can talk to the entire cast of the game and never receive a single recipe (well, except for one guy near the start who acts as a tutorial for the process.) So if you are missing a recipe, it’s impossible to tell unless you already have every ingredient in the game, which is rather unlikely. One of the first things I did when I found the airship at the end of the game was fly back to every town and talk to all of the inhabitants again just in case I’d missed a recipe the first time around and found the ingredients since, and sure enough I picked up another ten recipes in about half an hour of play.
But a single cooking sidequest is small fry compared to the real meat of the game; as an RPG, I Am Setsuna has a battle system heavily-inspired by previous Square Enix games but with its own unique twists, and it’s a pretty good one.
I’ve always preferred straightforward turn-based combat a la Pokémon or Paper Mario in my RPGs but I’ve played and loved enough games that still use separate timers for each character to not be turned off by I Am Setsuna’s traditional battles. On the surface, it’s pretty simple; just wait your – I don’t actually know what they’re called so I’m going to say ‘action bar’ – action bar fills up and then you’re free to attack, or use an item or a special technique or, if two characters have full bars at the same time, some techniques can be combined into even more powerful attacks or buffs. It’s a pretty standard set-up, with a few interesting tweaks.
One of these tweaks is that if you continue to wait after your action bar is already full, you have a second action bar that fills up – it also fills up naturally over the course of a few turns and increases when you’re attacked – and when it’s complete, a small twinkle appears on your character’s icon. This means that your character is now in ‘Momentum mode’ and if you time it right, you can buff up the next move you do. Normally this means that attacks will do more damage or inflict a status ailment, and healing moves will have a greater effect, or buffs for a single character become buffs for the whole party. Speaking of which, it’s not difficult to hit multiple enemies during a battle because if you attack them and they happen to be standing next to another enemy it makes sense that the other enemy will get hit too.
But the biggest and most original addition to the battle system is ‘fluxation’, and I’m going to explain as much of it as I can before I feel unsure about something and tag out, because once again, this addition is a neat and original idea that could have been executed a lot better.
As mentioned before, you can trade with the Magic Consortium to receive ‘Spritnite Stones’ which you can equip to your characters in order to learn ‘techs’, the game’s term for essentially… spells. Also as mentioned before, you can equip talismans to provide a little bonus to your character, like immunity to poison or a slight defensive increase. However, each talisman also comes with a short list of effects like ‘Lower MP (Magic Points) Cost’ or ‘Increased Attack’ and if you get into a fight and use a technique in momentum mode, there is a chance for ‘fluxation’ to occur. I’m already feeling slightly lost.
Anyway, when ‘fluxation’ occurs then one of the benefits listed on the talisman you have equipped is transferred to the ‘Spritnite Stone’, and at the end of the battle, you’re given the option to permanently link the benefit to the stone, and ergo to the technique you can perform. So if you have a technique that costs 10 MP to use, and you assign two ‘Lower MP Cost’ fluxations to the stone, it may now only cost 8 MP to use. However, you can only assign ten beneficial ‘fluxations’ to a Spritnite Stone before your ability is considered to be maxed out. If you’re not happy with the benefits you’ve chosen though, you can always trade some materials for another copy of the stone and try again.
Another interesting feature of the game is ‘Support Spritnite’, which are Spritnite Stones that don’t provide you with techniques but can provide you with a passive bonus, and the bonus is increased the more ‘fluxation’ occurs in a Support Spritnite (please help me) and there’s also a type of fluxation named ‘Support Power’ which can only occur between two Support Spritnite, which means that when fluxation occurs in one Spritnite, it also gains the effect of the additional Support Spritnite, albeit at a limited rate of 10%, which is – okay I’m tagging out, I’m sweating and it feels like I’m answering an essay question in an exam for a subject that I attended every class for but never quite understood.
All confusion aside, I really do appreciate that the developers at least tried to put something new in their game, and I’m much happier not really understanding ‘fluxation’ than I would have been if it hadn’t been included at all. But it could have certainly been done better, and honestly, having read and re-read the instructions on how this works, I reckon they could have avoided a lot of the confusion simply by removing the ‘Support Power’ bonus. But they didn’t, and I’m glad they didn’t, and if it’s a mistake, at least it’s a sincere and interesting attempt to make the game better.
This seems like a good time to go back to another one of the game’s unambiguous strengths; the soundtrack in I Am Setsuna is great. Much like the setting being entirely one big snowy region, every piece of music comes from the piano, and while the reception seems to have been rather hit or miss, it’s definitely a hit to me. From the tense, frantic battle music to the calm exploration of the beautiful world, sombre story moments and daunting dungeon themes, the music is one of the game’s high points for sure. The only issue I would come close to raising is that one or two tunes might feel a little bit overplayed by the end of the game, namely the ‘Oh no, the village is under attack!’ tune that seems to play in every single cutscene when an enemy turns up. Which, considering this is a RPG, happens quite a lot.
As a final inspiration from Chrono Trigger, I Am Setsuna also waits until right before you take a one-way trip into the final area to face the final boss to unlock a bunch of character-specific sidequests, which took me a while to find as you have to place the relevant character in the first slot of your party in order to get the sidequest-relevant characters to start talking to you. The sidequests are all entertaining enough, and most of them also involve special unique boss fights, but unfortunately this had the side effect of making me realise just how few sidequests are actually in the game. There’s recipes to collect, and special monsters to fight that are usually hidden in optional areas deep in dungeons and forests – most of these monsters are more difficult to fight than the final boss because, plot-wise, they’ve apparently eaten or fused with Spritnite Stones to become much stronger, and they drop rare items if you manage to beat them – but other than this, the game is rather low on sidequests, and it’s not particularly replayable either.
Not to rag too hard on the story but it warrants another mention because the story is normally the most important part of an RPG, and the story in I Am Setsuna really doesn’t do anything special. It’s not long enough or detailed enough for you to get any sort of emotional attachment to anyone, and being so obviously inspired by other, better video games really doesn’t help. I have nothing against Evoland – a great 3-4 hour game that basically just exists as a tribute to old Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy games – but I’m not exactly going to care what happens to the characters in it, and while I Am Setsuna definitely does more than that, it’s still not really sufficient for an RPG. For a completionist like me, I Am Setsuna takes about thirty hours, and while I was certainly entertained, the plot rarely if ever earned any reaction from me.
But in conclusion, I Am Setsuna is a very solid, comfortable game. Does it push the boundaries with its revolutionary ideas for the genre? No. Will it go down in Square Enix’s history as one of their most notable titles, for better or worse? No. When I was posting screenshots of the overworld earlier, could I remember the name of the city ‘Floneia’ without assistance from Google? Also no. But is I Am Setsuna a bad game? Also no. Emphatically no.
Not every game has to be a standout experience, a veritable triumph in its genre. I’ve played plenty of platformers and action games and shooters that, for all intents and purposes, were not fantastic, but were still decent, enjoyable, and very much worth playing. I Am Setsuna is just one of the few RPGs I’ve played like that. It won’t blow you away, but it’s pretty good; definitely worth putting on your wishlist if you’re a fan of RPGs and you have thirty hours to spare.
I Am Setsuna is a game that doesn’t quite measure up to the legendary titles that inspired it, but it earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and be compared in the first place. And the worst game from a selection of great games is still a great game.