I Am Setsuna
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