I am Setsuna lives in an interesting space between being a heavy nod to ‘Chrono Trigger’ and an attempt at an art-house take on an old-school JRPG. It’s trying to be stylish and original at the same time as reminding players how much they enjoy the old classics. Somewhere in the middle the game gets a little muddled and it doesn’t always reach the high-notes of either approach.
Obviously, I am Setsuna isn’t Chrono Trigger (it even manages to produce some interesting gameplay mechanics of its own) but it’s traded on the nostalgia for games of its kind to garner sales. The Tokyo RPG Factory team are obviously inspired by the title and its systems, and having this game published by Square Enix certainly hands a ‘spiritual sequel’ ring around the title that perhaps is unfair. Tokyo RPG Factory itself is a novel concept in its own right, a company set up by Square to develop RPGs and manned by entirely non-square staff, allowing for more indy efforts with more freedom to develop unshackled by the expectations of the AAA gaming scene.
Visually, the game uses fully rendered 3D character models and environments but uses a fixed overhead camera angle to give the impression of a more traditional style. This works quite well and does allow for some beautiful scenery with nice touches to environments. Trees overload with snow drop their load to reveal barren branches, and lights cast their glow inside as snowflakes drift past windows. You’d better get used to the snow scenery however, because the game is laden with it and there’s little to no relief. The whole game plays as an extended snow-level from other titles, both for theme and emotional effect, and it can cause you to feel quite trapped at times as a result. For all of this, some locations are quite sparse in terms of content and feel empty. 2D artwork for character portraits is lovingly drawn in a Manga style that suits the games tone perfectly and the individual character and monster designs are very elegant.
Musically, the game is almost entirely scored on piano. Played by Randy Kerber who has written for major films such as ‘Titanic’ and ‘Forest Gump’ and who conducts a solo performance. It’s a brave choice that can at times make some events seem less epic when compared to the grand-scale orchestral pieces to which we have become accustomed, but it does a good job of making the game feel personal. This is a smaller scale story than most and it speaks directly to you as the player. The score itself has a variety of pieces and different compositions that stand apart from each other, whilst having a melancholy tone when listened to apart from the action.
The weakest element of I am Setsuna is its opening, which feels like a slightly muddled tutorial that attempts to be a James Bond style ‘end to a previous mission’ in addition to setting up the initial concept that you have been hired as a freelance mercenary to travel to a distant island and assassinate a woman named Setsuna. The game then shifts to the closing day of the journey there and has you reflect on why you may have been hired and by who. This narrative concept would have made for a better framing device for the game’s opening as it recaps almost everything you just saw anyway. However once you meet Setsuna the game begins to fall into a better rhythm and the writing becomes very good indeed. Setsuna does in fact need to die, she’s a living sacrifice, but not before making it successfully to the end of her own journey, which you and others quickly become entangled in. It’s here that the games writing is at its best, because whilst you as the player may think that this sacrifice is wrong, the game’s world is built on its concept and people have died to ensure it happens. The tones of sadness, loneliness and a world without hope are beautifully woven into every location you visit.
On a purely surface-level assessment, casual viewers would assume that the game uses the systems from Chrono Trigger. This isn’t quite true, though some elements are certainly present. A party of three character can be used at any one time, with them following the lead party member around while exploring in typical JRPG fashion. Items are not hidden in barrels and the like, but glint as buried items in the snow that you can discover. The world map is a safe place to wander around, and all encounters are visible on-screen. Aside from double and triple attacks between characters, that’s where the comparison ends, and I am Setsuna adds a few interesting mechanics to the formula. Combat uses an Active Time Battle system that makes quick-decision making a strong factor, but balances this by generating up to three bonuses the longer you wait before acting with a character that when triggered add bonus damage to attacks. Temporary shifts in a battle will also cause background effects, adding to the feel that you are controlling the battlefield. Moves also have their own ranges and radius, which means that controlling the free-moving monsters in order to line them up for the most damage becomes another part of the battle’s flow. Outside of combat you collect items as raw materials with which to purchase new abilities, with each character having passive and active skills to discover. All loot is in this form and can be sold to generate currency with which to buy new arms and armour. The game follows an almost ‘Dragon Quest’ style town to dungeon, repeat formula that is charmingly retro and does keep the adventure rolling forward with a minimum of back tracking.
Overall this is a game that is at times at war with itself. It wants to be fun, addictive to play and make you feel powerful, but at the same time has a narrative premise built around emotional desperation and sadness. Balancing these two was perhaps never going to work, and the player never really escapes the feeling that they ‘should’ be having more fun than they are. There are a few narrative elements that are rushed too (especially the prelude, which is very strangely paced), but the game does hold up fairly well when inspected. Intended as an easily approachable game for newcomers to the genre in a field flooded with some amazing games both old and new, perhaps players would be better aiming their loved ones at ‘Child of Light’ instead if they want them to experience the wonder of RPGs.