I Am Setsuna was announced as a return to form for the JRPG genre – and it largely is. Developer Tokyo RPG Factory have created a game that does more than emulate what made titles from your youth special. Some minor design oversights in item management and combat hamper the effort, but they don’t destroy the pretty presentation nor the sombre story.
The game tells the tale of the titular Setsuna, who must embark on a quest to the distant Last Lands, and offer herself up as sacrifice to stem the rising tide of monsters. The overarching story is predictable, but the poignant plot points stitching it together more than make up for it. Archetypal characters are also given their due, with refreshingly introspective and human writing giving them depth.
The music is created entirely with one instrument – the piano. While it can get a little maudlin at times, it accomplishes what they've set out to do: recreate the feel of a 90s JRPG. Simple melodies underpin a lot of the songs, creating memorable tunes. This is especially refreshing when most modern games are concerned with spectacle, employing the same forceful and sweeping orchestras over-and-over.
The core of I Am Setsuna is its combat, which should be familiar to anyone that’s played Chrono Trigger. Whenever a character’s Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge is full, they can act – choosing from a handful of actions like attacking, or using skills and items. As friend-and-foe clash and activate abilities, their position around the battlefield will automatically change. This adds a slight level of strategy, as certain skills will hit enemies based on their position.
The twist to the combat is Momentum – a resource that accrues the longer you sit idle with your ATB gauge full. By cashing stocks of Momentum in, you can augment standard attacks and most abilities. While quite often this just results in additional damage, protective and restorative spells may endow bonus effects or target multiple allies. The entire system is a nice addition, but it doesn’t exactly promote strategising: if you have Momentum, use it.
Customising and upgrading your character is standard JRPG fare, with minor twists. Damage is handled through weapons which can be bought and modified with rare materials, while talismans provide passive benefits (like seeing how much HP enemies have). Talismans also come with slots which allow you to equip Spritnite, and gain additional skills. They also have Fluxes – think passive bonuses that you can append to skills, but which require specific goals in combat to unlock. These goals are hidden, but you’ll get the majority of them just by killing enemies with Momentum.
Getting your hands on new Spritnite is a bit of a chore though. To purchase them in stores, they require materials that you find out in the world or acquire from enemies. Once you have enough, you have to commit each ingredient to a recipe via the shop’s menu – and you have to do this for every purchase. A design problem that would have been remedied with a single button press is instead solved by constantly having to fumble through menus. By the end of the game it just becomes a chore.
The game isn’t especially difficult, and I didn’t need to grind once in my time with the main quest – which as someone with limited time, is a relief. It does have the occasional spike in difficulty with boss encounters however, and random elements to the combat don’t do much to help the issue.
Singularities are temporary magical effects that trigger in battle. They give significant bonuses like doubling the recharge rate of your ATB, meaning you can act twice as often. These boosts often make the difference between succeeding in a boss fight, and failing outright. Unfortunately, I Am Setsuna does little to communicate how you can reproduce the effects -- leaving some boss fights feeling more like games of chance, than games of skill.
I Am Setsuna doesn’t emulate its JRPG forefathers. It captures the shape and form, not the guts and gore – recreating what you feel about them, and not what you know. Some design oversights don’t undermine what is a very solid first outing for developer Tokyo RPG Factory, and what is also a sombre but heartfelt tale.