Where do you draw the line between homage and rip-off? That was one of the big questions plodding through my mind as I made my way through the snow-covered banks and mountains of I Am Setsuna, listening to familiar story beats and watching characters play out cliched arcs. If you’d asked me to guess, I’d have assumed this game belonged to the same swathe of Kickstarter-fuelled retro-revival titles that seek to return their audiences to nostalgia-washed days of their youth like Shovel Knight, A Hat in Time, and Yooka-Laylee. In reality this was a traditionally funded effort, the first from the then-nascent Tokyo RPG Factory, itself an internal subsidiary of industry giants Square-Enix, but that doesn’t preclude it from trying to engage the same audience. While the reason that this brand of retro-revivalism thrived on Kickstarter was due to major publishers being unwilling to greenlight old-fashioned single-player titles in the era of live service models, massive open-world sandboxes, and a continuing dominance of multiplayer games that continually generate income, if there ever was a AAA publisher that might have seen the worth in creating a game like I Am Setsuna, surely it was the venerable peddler and genre-creators of JRPGs, Square-Enix.
I Am Setsuna (PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, Switch)
Released Feb 2016 | Developed: Tokyo RPG Factory | Published: Square Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 20 hours
Our story begins with Endir, a masked mercenary who makes his weary way through a snowy land plagued by monsters. He is hired by a mysterious stranger to perform a solemn and grim task: the murder of a young woman named Setsuna. Endir however is a fairly straightforward sort: he’s been paid to do a killing, so off a-killing we will go. He arrives at the sleepy hamlet where Setsuna lives and finally comes face-to-face with his mark. However, just then a truth that Endir wasn’t prepared for comes out: Setsuna is in fact a sacrifice, one in a long line of young women who make a great and lengthy pilgrimage to the mystical Last Lands every generation in order to give their lives in a ritual that reduces the monster presence in the world. Unable to strike her down, Endir instead reneges on his contract and joins her personal guard, determined to lead her to her scheduled doom instead for the good of the world.
Final Fantasy veterans might well be making some sort of noise right now. Yes, I Am Setsuna’s plot is, give or take, pretty much lifted from the classic JRPG, Final Fantasy X. Setsuna is Yuna, destined to sacrifice herself to give the world a temporary reprieve from an unstoppable force of monsters. Endir is Tidus, her sworn bodyguard albeit without any of the character of Zanarkand’s star blitzaball ace and forced-laughter master. A later character, Nidr, is a roaming ronin-like, a grizzled warrior with a penchant for brooding and big swords – he’s Auron, is what I’m saying, although once again he lacks the emotional depth or story significance of Final Fantasy X’s best character.
Despite lifting the plot from a great game, it might be clear from those character descriptions that I Am Setsuna hasn’t chosen to recreate the sheer quality of its progenitor. The writing could best be described as plain, or functional maybe; there are cutscenes aplenty and there’s a fair amount of text but not much is really said. Situations crop up and resolve quickly with little fanfare. Characters aren’t just occasionally nicked from other games, but mainly they’re also devoid of any real significance or development, and instead typically progress along typical tropey lines. Setsuna, for example, begins the game entirely resigned to her fate, even welcoming it, and never really breaks out of that rut – she’s just a virtuous sacrifice, with a side order of sometimes-wilting, sometimes-chirpy responses. Although you get options for Endir to react during conversations, it never has any weight; you can try to play him in different directions (by which I mean he can be aloof and mildly mean, or he can be always nice) but it’s very limited in terms of roleplaying scope.
In the same tradition of nabbing things from other, better JRPGs (sorry, I of course mean generously hearkening back to a perceived golden age of the genre) the gameplay of I Am Setsuna is pure Chrono Trigger. It’s almost impressive how brazen and unchanged it is; this is what I was getting at when I pondered the gap between homage and simple unchallenging recycling. I do find it intriguing that the director, Hashimoto, describes Chrono Trigger as an “influence”, when what they meant was “we lifted it wholesale”. For those who are unfamiliar, this means you take your 3-person party out into the world and when you inevitably get into fights with the local monsters it all happens in a classic turn-based ATB format. Each character has access to a spread of attacks and magic, many of which care about the positioning of both the party member performing the attack and of the enemies, which can all wander about freely except during your turns.
In fairness, there are some little differences between I Am Setsuna and Chrono Trigger; for example, the way you learn abilities is basically the materia system from Final Fantasy VII. Throughout the game you can gather up items called “sprinite”, each of which can be equipped to specific characters and, once equipped, enable them to perform both special attacks or magic. Many techs and spells can be combined together in dual or even triple attacks; these represent some of I Am Setsuna’s flashiest attacks, although they’re not always good enough value for MP to use that regularly. The difficulty of Setsuna’s combat isn’t terribly high; I made my way through a large part of the game with basic attacks, and then once I’d unlocked a powerful area-of-effect combo attack that took out most groups of enemies in a single strike I defaulted to that obviously. While that makes it a fairly relaxing game to play, I don’t think Setsuna has anything to offer folk looking for especially hard challenges; even the extra-powerful super monsters that are scattered around the world are often little match for an appropriately-leveled party backed up by some basic tactics.
The momentum system is a new idea for Setsuna at least. During your turns, if you idle with a full ATB gauge you start to fill up a second bar. This bar can fill up to 3 times, storing a spark each time. These can in turn be used whenever you use an attack or defend an enemy strike by timing a button press to activate “Momentum”, which grants you a brief alteration to the properties of your chosen attack or momentarily augmenting your defensive prowess. The game is fairly generous with giving you momentum charges to the point where you’re probably going to find the majority of your attacks are enhanced by it, and that’s a part of why the combat isn’t terribly challenging.
I also just want to say that Setsuna’s approach to money and loot is really weird. Of all the things to nick from another game, I can’t believe that basic economy stuff wasn’t one of them. I mean, I thought we’d solved this as a mechanic decades ago – in most games, you beat an enemy, they drop some cash, and if you’re lucky you might get an item you can use or sell for a bit extra dosh. That’s not how Setsuna carries on though. Enemies do drop loot – a staggering array of it, in fact – and you’d think you can just hawk it off at the nearest shop, but that’s not quite right. Each settlement has a squad of vendors hanging around to serve you, and you can only sell your looted materials to precisely one of them: a cloaked and hooded person from the Magic Consortium – quite why you can’t sell to anyone else is left unexplained. The vendor you can actually sell to seems to store your sold loot in some sort of super-inventory which acts as a pool for you to fund your spritnite purchases. Other vendors sell regular items and new weapons, but you always need to hit up the spritnite seller first to actually sell your crap.
The game is full of huge wall-of-text tutorials that you frankly will just tune out entirely. The problem is, it also features a few mechanics that are basically extraneous and I barely engaged with, but when I wanted to engage with them they were obfuscated by this mass of unfocused tutorialization. Take the chefs, for example. Each town has one but they never sell anything; you’re supposed to not sell some of your look to the Magic Consortium and instead save anything that’s also an ingredient. Around the world you can find people who need specific ingredients in order to cook a recipe, which they in turn teach you once you’ve fulfilled their request. The game hasn’t got anything that points towards this; you just have to talk to every single one of the otherwise utterly banal people who inhabit the snowy wasteland of Setsuna in the hopes that one of them might feel like cooking. Once you’ve finally hit someone up for a meal, the chef in each town can actually stock that food for you to buy – and you’ll want to since food gives you an EXP bonus as well as having other passive effects depending on what meal you’ve made.
The food isn’t the only mechanic that I missed out on until far, far too late in the game. Each town also has a smith; they mainly exist to sell you weapons, obviously, but they also have a tab dedicated to tempering and improving your weapons. This might as well have been blank for me though – after hours of play I hadn’t found a single item that interacted with the tempering screen so eventually I just gave up caring and wrote it off and stuck to buying whatever sword had the biggest numbers. It once again wasn’t until the latest stages of the game where I started to finally find the requisite consumables for this, by which point I was loathe to spend them on improving my gear since I didn’t know when the next new one would show up.
Oh, and while I’m griping, the decision to make the soundtrack almost entirely piano based was such a poor one. I get that the piano is one of the most effective sombre instruments, able to carry a melancholic tune and elevate it into beautiful aural waves of tragedy, and that’s thematically consistent with Setsuna’s story, but when it’s the only primary instrument other than some sparse percussion it really loses all of that power. It’s another decision that seems bizarre for a game with Setsuna’s nostalgia-fuelled remit; none of the greats ever had a single instrument soundtrack, so why does this one?
I feel like there’s a lot to grumble about with I Am Setsuna, and that does feel like a shame. I love a good JRPG, and I’d had a hankering for something new – given how many Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games I played over the last couple years for this blog, a small change of pace was a welcome thought. Unfortunately, as crisp and as polished as Setsuna is, it’s all on the surface, and what we’re left with is a game that can’t escape its influences to blossom into an identity of its own. If you must play it, in all fairness you’re unlikely to hate it, just as I don’t; it’s too bland to be something I can expend that much energy on. It works, it’s functional, but it stumbles when you ask it to have any heart.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.