Reviewing I Am Setsuna
Guys, full disclosure–if I could live inside a Super Nintendo RPG, I would. My bias for Japanese RPGs in general is just ridiculous, but any RPG that draws influence from the 16-bit era piques my interest. With that in mind, I Am Setsuna is the most disappointingly flawed game I have played since Lunar: Dragon Song. Every aspect of its design suffers from problems that someone should have spotted during development. The game sells for a reduced retail price, but that can only excuse the game’s small scale. It does not excuse a bland and forgettable experience.
Good Intentions Gone Bad
SquareEnix built Tokyo RPG Factory with the absolute best of aspirations–to create RPGs that recapture the feeling of playing games that were made during the halcyon days of Squaresoft. A translation (that unfortunately has since vanished) of a Japanese interview detailed that the Tokyo RPG Factory team had a discussion about what it was they loved about classic Square RPGs, and they were amusingly in unanimous agreement about their feelings. Had I been in the room (and if I could speak Japanese), I probably would have harmonized with them too. And indeed, I Am Setsuna wears Chrono Trigger on its sleeve, referencing it constantly and using it as the framework for almost literally all of its design decisions. Unfortunately, even when using a masterpiece as its reference material, I Am Setsuna is a stunted creation, rife with rookie mistakes.
For instance, the combat is simultaneously too simple and yet overly complicated. It makes use of the much loved (by me) Active Time Battle system, and it allows for combo abilities between party members as seen in Chrono Trigger. It also introduces a mechanic that enables characters to charge up “SP” over time, which can be spent with a timed button press in order to power up an attack or ability. On the face of it, this is a great, malleable setup. But things are complicated by “Spritnites,” which are basically materia that grant new abilities and stat boosts. These must be equipped individually, and it puts a limit on how many abilities a party member can use in battle at a given time. This is an annoyance more than a challenge to the player, since most abilities are not needed and are difficult to discern between in the first place.
A further complication is that Spritnites are created by items dropped by enemies, and enemies drop different items depending on how they are killed. I suppose this was done in order to encourage swapping party members and to avoid battles where you mash “Attack” to win, but, well, I did not do that. I used the same party for the entire game, demolishing enemies with basic attacks and bulldozing most of the bosses with the same couple of strategies. What good are all of these frivolous battle options if my go-to team with its go-to abilities was able to clobber even the secret boss? And worst of all, the game only ever provides a cursory explanation of how its battle mechanics work in the first place, encouraging players to steamroll the game in the simple way I did.
Unfortunately, the combat is far and away the best part of I Am Setsuna.
Monotone and One-Note
Everything in the game looks the same. The world has one forecast–snow. Snowy villages, snowy forests, snowy mountains, and icy caves. There are also dungeons that consist of bland floating platforms. I have just described 97 percent of what you will see in I Am Setsuna. Of course, this would be okay if every area were given a distinct visual style, but this is not the case. Every village looks like every other village, and dungeon environments all blur together. Even enemies go through numerous color swaps in spite of the game not being lengthy! These repetitive and recycled visuals are almost definitely a result of wanting to limit development costs, which I can understand. But if that is the case, then they should not have picked winter as the visual theme! A game that is entirely white puts you to sleep. It does not inspire you to explore. Or at least that was the case for me.
In my opinion, the soundtrack does not hold up either, due to one extremely peculiar decision–everything is piano. I have never played a game where one instrument (excluding chiptune music) is used as the primary driver of the audio like this. I mean, I love piano as much as the next guy, but using one instrument to convey a whole spectrum of emotions is needlessly limiting for a deliberate genre like the role-playing game. And unfortunately, it only exacerbates the game’s problem of everything looking and feeling the same from one moment to the next. There are a couple standout tracks here and there, but heck if I can remember the melodies off the top of my head. I have a hard time remembering a lot of things about the game, and I finished it only yesterday.
Familiar, Yet Easy to Forget
Story is the backbone of every RPG, and I Am Setsuna borrows its backbone almost exclusively from other games. The eponymous character must travel on a quest to the Last Lands, where she is to become a human sacrifice that makes monsters leave humanity alone for a while. In other words, Setsuna is Yuna from Final Fantasy X. You start the game as Endir, a masked mercenary who receives virtually no development and only speaks when you select his dialogue options. He is kind of a poor man’s Cecil from Final Fantasy IV. And to round things out, there is a gruff old man with a big sword named Nidr, who is almost identical to Auron from (again) Final Fantasy X. Another character screams comparisons to a certain character from Chrono Trigger. The party members who do not directly mimic old Square characters are often the most forgettable, because almost none of these characters receive real development in the first place.
In my observation, the worst sin of I Am Setsuna is that the developer thought players would see these characters and this story and just “get it.” Instead of taking pains to plot each character’s growth at special moments in time, they took the lazy way out at every opportunity. This laziness pervades in countless ways. For instance, at one point a character remarks at how much a child magician party member has grown since joining the group. However, the kid has only been in the party for a handful of hours at best, and he is no different than when he first showed up! It is a critical violation of “show, don’t tell.”
Another piece of laziness occurs in a dungeon, where Nidr collapses at a completely arbitrary moment divorced from the story to that point. In the vision/hallucination that ensues, he realizes something that becomes a legitimately interesting part of his character. But to repeat, it happens at a random moment, like a cutaway gag from Family Guy. And Nidr is the most developed character in the game! He is the only party member to get a true character arc. This complete lack of commitment to storytelling and character building made it so that I never became attached to anyone in the story except Nidr. Suffice to say, that is a bad thing in an RPG.
Can We Turn Back Time?
There is one thing–one thing–about I Am Setsuna that I really appreciate. It maintains the fixed, top-down camera of 16-bit RPGs in all situations. It never drowns the player in melodramatic flourishes and close-ups. I Am Setsuna perfectly preserves its literal framing device taken from 2D RPGs. It is actually a pretty easy detail to miss, but I noticed it. That made me feel a tiny bit of that old RPG magic.
But I Am Setsuna is not a good game. It is a sterile, repetitive experience that outstays its welcome in spite of not lasting long. It puts one-dimensional characters through a succession of similar tasks in visually identical environments and calls it a role-playing game. I played the role of a disappointed gamer mostly. Yet in spite of everything, I hope Tokyo RPG Factory keeps going, because I love what they stand for. I hope they learn from I Am Setsuna, reevaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and produce something that truly stands toe to toe with the old classics. In the meantime, there are probably better uses for your time and money than I Am Setsuna.
Final Review: 6/10
Lingering Final Thought: If you want to play a genuinely good game that rips off Chrono Trigger as shamelessly as I Am Setsuna, hunt down Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled on Nintendo DS. Just watch out for its ludicrously extreme random encounter rate!