I Am Setsuna

EDGE - - GAMES - Devel­oper Tokyo RPG Fac­tory Pub­lisher Square Enix For­mat PC (tested), PS4 Re­lease Out now

PC, PS4, Vita

Trad­ing in nos­tal­gia is a risky busi­ness. The prob­lem with mak­ing a game de­signed to pay homage to genre land­marks is that it’s all too easy to lapse into hol­low pas­tiche. Clas­sics are con­sid­ered clas­sics partly be­cause at the time they felt fresh, ex­cit­ing and dif­fer­ent. Try­ing to cap­ture the spirit of beloved games through sim­ple mimicry is a fool’s er­rand, un­less you also at­tempt to evoke that feel­ing of the new. I Am Setsuna’s man­date to fol­low closely in the foot­steps of golden-age JRPGs, with spe­cial at­ten­tion given to study­ing Chrono Trig­ger’s Ac­tive Time Bat­tle me­chanic, sug­gested Tokyo RPG Fac­tory was aim­ing for wide-eyed trib­ute and noth­ing more. Yet if it isn’t as mem­o­rable as the games to which it owes its ex­is­tence, it shares some of their best parts: it has a dis­tinc­tive set­ting, a like­able cast and, yes, some good ideas of its own.

It adeptly es­tab­lishes a me­lan­cholic mood from its open­ing mo­ments. A mer­ce­nary, Endir, is asked to en­sure the death of a young woman, the tit­u­lar Setsuna. Upon meet­ing, she con­vinces him that, since they share a mu­tual goal – she’s mak­ing a sac­ri­fi­cial pil­grim­age to a dis­tant shrine to main­tain an un­easy truce be­tween the hu­mans and mon­sters of the world – he should thus ac­com­pany her on her jour­ney. It’s a strik­ing setup, partly be­cause Setsuna seems to have read­ily ac­cepted her fate, and the ques­tion of whether she’ll end up go­ing through with it (and why the sac­ri­fice’s nec­es­sary in the first place) isn’t an­swered un­til the end.

The story has a strong hook to drag it past any po­ten­tial stum­bles, then, but it doesn’t fal­ter too of­ten un­til the late in­tro­duc­tion of a fa­mil­iar con­cept that need­lessly com­pli­cates mat­ters, when the nar­ra­tive’s strength lies in its sin­gle-minded sim­plic­ity. That’s true of the char­ac­ters you re­cruit to your party, too: from a scarred veteran war­rior to a be­spec­ta­cled young mage, each is seek­ing to re­cover from per­sonal tragedy and finds a new sense of pur­pose in ac­com­pa­ny­ing Setsuna. Broadly speak­ing, these are archetypes, but with in­di­vid­ual idio­syn­cra­sies that help make them easy to warm to, and that’s half the bat­tle in a genre that tends to daw­dle over reach­ing its des­ti­na­tion. No such wor­ries here: your jour­ney should be over within 25 hours.

That length feels about right for a game that shows signs of be­ing reined in by pub­lisher par­si­mony. The devel­oper works small mir­a­cles dis­tin­guish­ing the vil­lages and towns of a world in the clutch of a per­ma­nent win­ter, em­ploy­ing sub­tle light­ing changes, vary­ing weather con­di­tions and del­i­cate en­vi­ron­men­tal nu­ances. But ven­ture in­doors and the houses blend into one, while NPC mod­els are re­peated and dun­geons come in but a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties, most of which are con­tent to re­cy­cle the same struc­ture of larger mon­ster rooms con­nected by nar­rower walk­ways. Yet while it’s ob­vi­ously a Unity game, with all that im­plies, the art is rich in per­son­al­ity and there’s a wel­come at­ten­tion to the finer points; each new weapon, for ex­am­ple, is phys­i­cally rep­re­sented out­side of com­bat.

In bat­tle, mean­while, you’ll find your­self fac­ing the kind of mon­sters that make you won­der why hu­mans need to bother with a sac­ri­fice. Yet whether you’re up against a trio of ro­tund pen­guins or a pair of two-tailed fer­rets rid­ing snow­balls, you’ll find the rank and file hit a lit­tle harder than ex­pected. Which isn’t to say that you won’t be able to fin­ish them off within a turn or two – merely that you shouldn’t rush head­long into a skir­mish. Ap­proach them from the rear in­stead and you’ll be­gin bat­tle with a full ATB gauge, al­low­ing you to strike first. Al­ter­na­tively, you can wait a lit­tle longer and fill up a fur­ther me­ter, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing up to three SP points that let you tag ad­di­tional ef­fects onto reg­u­lar at­tacks and techs, adding more dam­age, in­flict­ing sta­tus ef­fects or land­ing crit­i­cal hits – though you’ll need to press a but­ton in time with a bright flash that ap­pears over a char­ac­ter’s head as they’re about to act. Much of this might seem un­nec­es­sary given you can de­feat most en­e­mies with reg­u­lar at­tacks, with the oc­ca­sional in­ter­jec­tion from your team’s healer. But how you de­feat op­po­nents de­ter­mines the items they drop, which in turn af­fects the techs avail­able to you. As rarer in­gre­di­ents are re­quired for some of the most po­tent at­tacks and sup­port skills, it be­hooves you to put more thought into how you fin­ish off each crea­ture. A pow­er­ful tech on an ail­ing op­po­nent may re­sult in an Overkill bonus; in­stead, you might launch a light at­tack with your weak­est char­ac­ter to ben­e­fit from an Ex­act Kill. Wear­able tal­is­mans, mean­while, don’t just give you more slots in which to equip techs, but will trig­ger a post-bat­tle bonus when you pull off a tech or combo at­tack with an SP ef­fect, per­ma­nently pow­er­ing it up.

There are dozens of these to buy, giv­ing you an abun­dance of po­ten­tial op­tions. This flex­i­bil­ity works well – even if, once you’ve hap­pened upon an ef­fi­cient com­bi­na­tion, you’ll rarely feel the need to stray too far from it be­yond the oc­ca­sions when key party mem­bers tem­po­rar­ily take their leave. Aside from one sec­ond-act dif­fi­culty spike, which is re­solved swiftly enough with a change of tack (and tech), the chal­lenge may be too easy-go­ing for some. Op­tional en­coun­ters fol­low­ing your even­tual ac­qui­si­tion of an air­ship – the most be­lated fast-travel op­tion in JRPG his­tory – will test you more than the fi­nal boss, which we de­feated on our first at­tempt, al­beit by the skin of our teeth.

A beau­ti­ful pi­ano sound­track aside (see ‘Snow tunes’), I Am Setsuna’s ge­nial charms are per­haps best summed up by one of the game’s own staff, who we dis­cov­ered in a hid­den re­treat away from the main­land. “This game def­i­nitely isn’t per­fect,” they mod­estly ad­mit, “but it’s def­i­nitely not bad, ei­ther!” That’s too hum­ble for our money, but not far wrong.

If it isn’t as mem­o­rable as the games to which it owes its ex­is­tence, it shares some of their best parts

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