I Am Setsuna is an attempt by Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory to recapture the glory days of the JRPG. From the mournful piano overlaying the title screen to the world map where your character stands tall like a rampaging kaiju next to a diorama village, it aims to intoxicate you with nuclear-grade nostalgia – but does it live up to their legacy or is it just a pale, snowy imitation?
The main character in I Am Setsuna is a masked mercenary called Endir – unless you change his name – who’s asked to go to an island and murder a teenage girl. It’s an interesting setup and the opening moments have you pondering where the story could go, but it soon turns into something more predictable. The girl is Setsuna – or Bernard, if you change her name so you can pretend you’re playing I Am Bernard. Setsuna has been chosen as the island’s sacrifice, the latest in a centuries-old tradition that requires a young woman offer her life to appease increasingly aggressive monsters and give the world a decade of peace.
You join Setsuna as she travels to the Last Lands in order to fulfill her duty, which in turn allows you to complete your contract in the process. The transition is awkward; one minute you are trying to kill Setsuna and the next you are best friends. The game’s Japanese title translates roughly into “Snow, Sorrow, Sacrifice”, but there’s a sickly optimism permeating the game. There is a lot of snow, though – everywhere you go, blankets of the stuff. The UK would have been brought to a standstill, but here you are, a jolly band of travellers on your way to help a young girl top herself.
As you aim for your ultimate destination, you’ll travel between towns and dungeons, all reachable on that aforementioned world map. One of the things I Am Setsuna severely lacks is a single memorable location. Remember the joy you felt the first time you visited the Golden Saucer in Final Fantasy VII? Here it’s just snowy towns with no distinguishing characteristics and a handful of dungeon variants that repeat throughout. When you’re told to return to a previously visited village, you just head back the way you came and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, it’s the same for the characters. While none of them are completely terrible and they don’t irritate you, you probably won’t remember most of their names. The shopkeepers look the same in every town and the same NPC models show up wherever you are. The best RPGs have the NPCs tell a story or a personal character arc, but I Am Setsuna instead uses them almost exclusively to prod you to your next destination, making them blend into the scenery even more. Later on, when you are finally given a way to navigate the world map more quickly, you won’t feel compelled to visit old friends, because you won’t remember which identical town they dwell in and, worse, because you won’t care.
This lack of imagination extends to the main antagonist, a forgetful emo who wields a scythe. His name is Reaper. I’m not even joking. He’s evil, if you hadn’t guessed. Even the main quests fall into predictable territory far too often, with each bit of progress you make put back by another hiccup. At one point my party needed to cross a sheet of ice, but they couldn’t do it without a guide. This splintered into a bunch of other quests where we had to solve a town’s monster problems, eventually leading to a quest where I was told to go farm a specific enemy for a crafting component.
One of the game’s saving graces is its combat system, though even this, too, is flawed. You sell monster drops to a mage in exchange for abilities called Spritnite. These allow you to kit characters out with whatever spells or abilities you want, assuming their equipment has the slots for it. If you want to swap Setsuna out for another character but you’ll miss her healing powers, then no problem: just equip a couple of healing spells on someone else. The freedom is great and it’s a lot of fun experimenting with what works.
The problems appear when you do find something that works. Enemies appear in the world and you can get a combat advantage by approaching them from behind, just like in real life. This means you begin the battle with all three characters ready to attack and with a full SP gauge. The SP gauge allows you to add effects to whatever ability you use: use Drain to sap an enemy’s health and a timed key press will spread the health benefits to the entire party; use Aura to cure nearby allies and a timed keypress will remove status ailments; and if you use any damaging ability, a timed keypress generally takes off another chunk of damage.
The timed keypresses keep you engaged in the combat, but I soon found a tactic early on that allowed me to destroy any group of enemies before they could even react, as long as I approached them from behind. Each of my characters had a devastating AOE ability, and once they’d all taken their turn the battle would be over. When it came to bosses, my tactics would shift slightly so that my main guy would do a large damage attack with a timed keypress while another character did nothing but heal and keep his MP topped up. I died three times during the entire game, and all of these deaths were to bosses – the boss that killed me twice only did so because it could heal faster than I could hurt it, so I eventually ran out of items for myself. A quick trip to the shop solved it.
The low difficulty and the ease at which you can find a winning, catch-all solution really hampers an otherwise inventive system. When you reach the end-game you can hop back through dungeons you’ve visited for special items in previously locked chests and you can take on stronger variations of monsters you’ve faced before you confront the final boss. I chose not to bother and still put the last boss down on my first try.
Those golden-era JRPGs are beloved because they were packed with memorable locations, characters, and combat. I Am Setsuna unfortunately falls short on all three counts, and instead delivers an average and forgettable adventure, albeit one with wonderful music.