SquareEnix unveiled ‘Project Setsuna’ at E3 2015 under development studio ‘Tokyo RPG Factory’. They stated that they’d formed this studio to focus on producing games that would bring back the glory days of the JRPG. They brought together a team of people passionate about the genre and worked to bring this dream to a reality. I Am Setsuna was the result of that.
In I Am Setsuna, you play as a member of a reclusive masked tribe of wandering mercenaries named Endir. After completing his training (the game’s tutorial mission), he’s approached by a mysterious young man who hires him for a peculiar task. Every decade or so, monsters begin to become more and more ferocious and a young lady from a remote village is chosen to sacrifice herself to placate the monsters and keep the lands safe again. It is that time again, and Endir’s job? Kill the sacrifice before she departs from her home village on the pilgrimage.
Start to finish, I Am Setsuna is a trip down nostalgia lane. The art direction bore clear remnants of several classic RPGs – for me, I was most reminded of Final Fantasy 9. It did suffer from a bit of repetitiveness, with a lot of different variations on snowy environments (a snow covered forest, an icy hot spring, an ice cave, etc.) but still being all snow and ice. That being said, even though the entire game was covered in snow, I never got tired of looking at the backdrops. It was pretty, clean, and simple. And the characters fit in seamlessly, due to a slightly cartoony, hand-painted style. The soundtrack also fit the same sort of style. It was full of elegant and relatively simple piano pieces. There were several pieces that were simply gorgeous, and overall the soundtrack was quite strong. My only problem… it is all piano. Don’t get me wrong, I love the piano – it’s my favourite musical instrument. When a game has nothing but piano though, it begins to feel a bit shallow.
In terms of gameplay, the game bore remnants of several systems, most notably Chrono Trigger. It kept the same sort of field map, positional combat, and combo systems. They even kept the fact that there was no ‘move’ command, so positioning was more luck than anything else. However, they also added some additional systems to mix matters up. The biggest game-changer is the momentum system. By waiting on your turn, seeking the strategic best moment to act, you built up your momentum gauge, which could be utilized to trigger powerful special effects augmenting your attacks, abilities, and even on defense in certain circumstances. It adds an interesting layer of thoughtfulness to your actions, which was fun, although largely unnecessary as the game was – for the most part – fairly easy.
One thing I always love to see is when games find ways to make even normal battles worth paying attention to. In I Am Setsuna, every enemy has around ~10 distinct drops, which can be obtained by killing them in different ways. In addition to your standard ‘normal’ and ‘rare’ drops, you got distinct drops for killing an enemy with different elemental damage types, using combo abilities, or defeating them using a momentum-enhanced attack. This system could have been a drag, except for the fact that you could earn several of the drops at a time – I think my record was 8 items from a single enemy.
Of course there must be a reason why there is so much vendor trash, right? Of course! You need all of these different items for the skill system. You see, in I Am Setsuna, there is a vendor who will allow you to exchange your items to purchase new spells for your characters. The cool part about this is you don’t have to maintain the inventory. The vendor actually buys the items off of you for money, and then keeps track of what you’ve sold to allow you to purchase spells.
It’s a very clever system, it only has one minor flaw. There are items dropped by early enemies that can only be obtained by killing them very precisely – testing revealed it had to be within a few hp of their max. If you miss these items while leveling, it is very difficult to not dramatically overkill these enemies later… and sadly, there is one spell that is almost required for defeating a certain boss that is created using an item obtained exactly that way. I spent ~2 hours going back and farming low level monsters in order to find some way to do low enough damage to get the ‘exact kill’ on them to get the item I needed so I could make the spell to beat that boss.
It was frustrating enough that, had I not been streaming the game, I might well have just quit there. Aside from that one boss though, the difficulty of the game’s core story felt right on the mark. It wasn’t hard, but there were moments where I really had to pull out all the stops to overcome. And, in a story driven game, that’s usually what I look for. I want to feel like I had to work for the story, but I don’t want to feel like the story is kept from me.
Speaking of story… we’re talking basically Final Fantasy X here. There are definitely hints of other games present, but this is a very clear throwback to the popular story of Spira and Yuna’s sacrifice. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good framework for a story, and it works for this particular game fairly well. I Am Setsuna even uses the save points in a clever way – actually making them a part of the story. The one thing I will say here is that the ending felt kind of hollow. You really get no closure – it just leaves the fate of the main characters a bit too up in the air.
A good story is almost always built on good characters, and Setsuna’s cast is quite interesting, even if they’re mostly throwbacks to classic characters. It was very interesting to see a variety of archetypes from different older games that I loved brought forward and put in one place together. An example is Setsuna herself, whose personality is very reminiscent of Aerith from Final Fantasy 7… or Nidr, who many people compared to Auron from FFX.
The most interesting part about I Am Setsuna is how well they managed to weave together nuances, references and homages to the so many of the genres most famous games without feeling like all they did was copy what came before. While it does lack in a few places, it feels like a fantastic tribute – a love letter, if you will – to the JRPGs that helped shape many of our childhoods. It’s not the best game you’ll play this year, but it’s certainly a great experience.