Scroll down to read the review, or watch it in video form here!
So we all know that Square Enix isn’t exactly the most proficient of companies when it comes to giving appropriate names or titles to the things that that create. But I will give them props for choosing to give their subsidiary that developed I am Setsuna the name “Tokyo RPG Factory”. Because if there was ever a way to take the beloved style of the classics like Chrono Trigger and final fantasy and turn them into a cold calculated attempt to produce something with all the mechanical parts of those classics and not a fraction of the heart & soul, they have somehow found how to do it.
The story takes place in a typical medieval fantasy setting during winter in which you play as a swordsman for hire who is given a task by a mysterious employer to locate a girl known as “the sacrifice” and kill her. Of course things don’t quite go as planned, and our hero ends up being employed as the sacrifices bodyguard instead to protect her on her pilgrimage so that she may eventually fulfill her destiny by giving her life to rid the world of the monsters that prowl it. And from there, things mostly play out exactly how you’d expect. New characters are introduced and join your party as you continue on your quest and find out more about this pilgrimage the and purposes behind it.
Now I’ve said time and time again that there is nothing inherently wrong with having a cliched or familiar premise for your story. The devil is in the details, and as long as there is depth and nuance to the plot, interesting and likable characters, or at least enough charm or sense of fun to the whole thing, a seen-it-all-before premise is forgivable. The problem with I Am Setsuna you really have seen all of this before. Outside the generally premise there really isn’t any depth or interesting developments to the plot, as the characters simply move from location to location without a lot of memorable developments to tie everything together. It’s nice that the overall goal of our heroes is clear from the start and they never waste time on irrelevant plot points, but it’s all handled in such a rushed manner that even the few moments in the story that pique your interest don’t last for long or have quite the impact they need to.
This is due in large part to the mostly unmemorable characters you acquire along the way. As much as I love the designs both artistically and mechanically of each of them, the actually characterization of nearly everyone, from the main party to the supporting cast to the antagonists, is incredibly weak, with only the most simple of personalities and backstories given to. Not helping matters is the the two weakest characters of the group happen to be the two leads. Setsuna is every ditzy, naive, pure-hearted, heroine you’ve ever seen without any of the nuance that you’d find in the better examples of this trope. And the main character is even worse. He’s a masked silent protagonist with literally no personality or motivation of his own outside of the mostly meaningless dialogue options you make for him. Again I don’t hate the idea of a silent protagonist innately. It supposed to allow for a sort of surrogate avatar for the player and is used well in games like Persona or the older Bioware games as a way of focusing on the rest of the cast while still giving the player plenty of meaning choice that make them an actual driving force in the plot, rather than an observer whose being shuffled along without any real agency of their own.
The best character by far is a female knight by the name of Julienne. There’s are two prolonged periods of the story that are almost dedicated exclusively to her as we learn about her backstory, her goals and motivations, and discover who she is as a person though the choices she makes, making her stand out as a real person rather than a one note trope. It really is a darn shame that the rest of cast and plot are so tired and hum-drum, as there are a handful of genuinely endearing moments sprinkled throughout, but when the majority of the experience is so unmemorable, it’s hard to say it’s particularly good.
Now that’s not to give the impression that I Am Setsuna is totally without merit. Thankfully much of the rest of the game is able to make up for the narrative shortcomings at least to some degree. Combat is nearly identical to Chrono Trigger. It uses a classic and simple ATB combat system that utilizes a dual tech combo system allowing party members to combine their techs together for more powerful attacks and supports. The most notable addition here is the momentum system. Essentially a second ATB meter, upon you first ATB meter filling, the momentum meter will begin to charge. When it fills you will gain a momentum bonus so that upon using any standard attack or tech, if the action button at the right moment, you will receive a bonus for that specific skill. These range from additional damage to improved healing, to stat boosts and so on.
This works great as it adds another level of strategy to combat, especially in boss fights where you must constantly make strategic decision whether or not to pull of an action immediately or wait for the momentum meter to fill for a stronger attack or improved healing and so on. It’s a great example of how one simple addition can add so much to the game.
Unfortunately most of the other changes made to the classic RPG system aren’t so welcome. Unlike in Chrono Trigger, where new techs and abilities are learned automatically upon leveling, your party only gains new techs by purchasing them from a vendor with materials you collect. Now this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea on the surface, but it has two major issues that hamper it.
First, you are able to purchase more than one of each kind of tech, but every tech only works on a single character, so there is no reason to ever buy more than one command tech. However the more notable issues is how this is tied into the talisman system. Similar to Final fantasy 7’s materia system, each character can equip a talisman that opens up new slots to equip a limited number of techs on. The problem here is that this kind of customization is both pointless and user hostile for a system in which every character only has so many preset abilities available. The thing Chrono Trigger’s battle system is that, while each character only had a small number of techs available exclusively to them, every single ability was useful in some way or another. It was a case of quality over quantity. Instead of balancing combat with limited skill slots like other RPGs do, the talisman system only adds another level of needless convolution between the player and the game.
And the convolution doesn’t stop there. There are several new additions that are either unnecessarily complicated or else just not well explained at all. Like cooking. Or the flux system. I’ve spent 20 hours with this game and I still cannot for the life of me figure out what the heck the “flux’ system is or how it works. Admittedly these are more minor annoyances rather than actual flaws, but they just make you go “why is this even here”.
Where I Am Setsuna shines brightest is with its atmosphere & aesthetic design. Despite being rather thinly written, the plot and world are successful in evoking a powerfully consistent tone throughout the whole playthrough. There is a heavy emphasis on themes of sorrow and loss, and this is made no more apparent than through the games frankly outstanding soundtrack. It relies almost exclusively on the use of the piano, focusing instead on creating melodic themes rather than grand sweeping orchestral pieces. Being an innately quieter and more intimate instrument, the piano tracks not only create a vast array of memorable tunes, but also perfectly fits with the heavily melancholic tone of the whole story and can even add more emotional weight that would otherwise be non-existent to a few scenes. I have no qualms in saying I AM Setsuna’s music is easily on par with the 16-bit RPG it attempts to emulate. Making the tone even more potent, is the art direction. I already mention the fantastic character artwork by the elusive toi8, but the overall world design has a heavy winter and snow motif that compliments the cold sorrowful atmosphere perfectly.
That said while the winter design of the world is pretty, it’s also the only real design that virtually every single dungeon, town and location is model in. And this is the other major problem with I Am Setsuna: a heavy sense of monotony. As good as the music and art is, when you’re seeing and listening to very VERY similar seeming environments it’s easy to start to slip into a sense of mundanity and wanting some kind of variety or something new to discover. This extends beyond the world design, though. After about half a dozen hours, you really get the sense that you’ve seen everything that the game has to offer you, and without a strong narrative thrust, it becomes difficult to try and see the game through to the end.
And unfortunately, even if you did, the game’s actual ending isn’t all that great. Without getting into spoiler territory, despite the majority of the story being fairly straightforward and easy to follow for the most part, the final dungeon and ending inexplicably began throwing plot revelations and exposition dumps, all of which come out of nowhere with no build up to them. It makes things so needlessly convoluted to where I instead of being hit emotionally by how powerful the final moments were, I was instead left scratching my head trying to figure what exactly just happened and why. And it’s sad, because there actually a few creative tricks with where the plot goes and how the final moments are presented that, in a better written plot and clearer scenario, could have potentially made the ending so much more emotionally powerful.
In fact that’s almost a good metaphor for I Am Setsuna as a whole. While I don’t get a feeling of cynicism from the games design at all, and there are a lot of elements like the art, the music, the tone, and a handful of evocative moments throughout, the end product still feels very mechanical and factory produced. It feels like the people who made it genuinely loved Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, especially Final Fantasy X, but instead of creating game that drew heavy inspiration while still standing on its own, it seems like the developers of I Am Setsuna felt that the best to essentially try merely duplicate and combine the various elements of those games, but without any clear idea or vision for why exactly they worked individually or how to properly update mechanics.
And yet even with all that negative stuff said, I still kinda like it. If you want a proper food metaphor, if Chrono Trigger is a 5-Star quality chinese restaurant, I Am Setsuna would be “Panda Express”. While it is essentially “fast food, and it will never even remotely compare to the profession top tier quality of that 5 Star joint, at the end of the day, as cheaply produced as your meal might be, it’s really difficult to say that it wasn’t at least a tasty one.