Long before the details were confirmed, I am Setsuna caught everyone’s attention over a year ago with a simple screenshot:
The fabled “X-Strike” was a favorite dual tech from the RPG classic Chrono Trigger. Featuring a vibrant cast, robust storyline and terrific combat, Chrono Trigger set itself apart during the golden age of SNES RPGs. Therefore, when this screenshot came out promising a return to games like Chrono Trigger, gamers everywhere could hardly contain their excitement. I know I certainly had some things to say about it. Now that the game has landed, is it everything we hoped it would be?
Let me put it this way: I was really hoping the heavens would part and angels would deliver this game on a golden cloud accompanied by trumpets and harps. As it turns out – it landed on my doorstep with a squish.
A continuous stream of softly-falling snow blankets the landscape. A young girl with striking red hair sets out to complete a ritualistic pilgrimage to the sacred “Last Lands” in order to appease the monsters that grow more and more ferocious by the day. By sacrificing her life, the monsters will be driven back and the world will be safe for another generation. Everything seems to be in order, but shortly before her departure, a mysterious young man seeks to take her life. Ultimately foiled, and recruited into her guard, a small band of heroes now sets out for the legendary last lands to help rid the land of monsters and secure peace once again.
Borrowing elements from Final Fantasy X, the concept of a sacrificial pilgrimage is not entirely unique among RPG fans. While I Am Setsuna does its best to create a memorable journey, it all feels a bit too shallow. The world they occupy is forever blanketed with snow (winter isn’t coming, winter is here), which certainly doesn’t help the towns stand out. When they do arrive, there’s typically someone missing or some monster terrorizing the residents, at which point you find yourself falling into an achingly similar formula for the first few hours of the game. Granted, you often find yourself with a new party member at the end of it, but the early hours can feel increasingly boring.
The characters are all perfectly likable, but they fail to evolve into anything memorable. The trademark of a great JRPG are the moments gamers carry with them afterwards, and the characters that are involved. We remember the moment that Crono sacrifices himself in Chrono Trigger, Celes’ torment during the Opera scene from Final Fantasy VI…moments that are hard to find in I Am Setsuna. There are some interesting twists, though I can’t tell you how hard I face-palmed when the scythe-wielding kid known as “Reaper” is introduced as the antagonist. Really Tokyo RPG factory? That’s the best you could come up with? The weakness of the characters was a particularly painful blow for me, as the cast of its spiritual ancestor remains among the upper echelons of many gamers.
Besides lacking memorable characters, I Am Setsuna is unfortunately hamstrung by the muted landscape, and as a result it features no interesting or unique towns to explore. Fans of Chrono Trigger can recall the distinct atmospheres of the various times they traveled to, from the prehistoric jungle of 65,000,000 B.C. to the bright and cheerful festival setting in 1,000 A.D. Adventuring through the world of I Am Setsuna feels very much like wandering down a long hallway of identical doors.
While I Am Setsuna offers up a perfectly decent story, the shoes it has to fill are far too big to overlook.
Chrono Trigger remains, without a doubt, one of my top RPGs of all time. The combat in it is second only to Xenogears in my opinion (Legend of Dragoon is close as well). 7 characters with 8 distinct “techs” that could mix and match with other team members made for an engaging combat experience unlike any that had been seen before or since. Chrono Cross featured a loose extension of this system, but failed to capture the spirit of the tech system that captivated so many, including myself. The ability to breathe new life into this system is where I Am Setsuna really shines.
To start, there are no random encounters, so you don’t encounter monsters on the world map. When it comes to exploring a cave or mountain, the enemies are out in plain sight and simply require you to engage them first in order to gain initiative in the battle. Leaving the area and coming back respawns the monsters so that you can properly grind out levels as needed.
In order to use skills, characters equip “Spritnite”. By equipping these stones, characters are able to execute a variety of skills including physical attacks, offensive magic, defensive magic, and more. Certain characters can interact with other characters and perform a “combo” depending on which spritnite they have equipped and how they interact with the other party members. Take the X-strike screenshot for example – this combo is the result of Endir having his “Cyclone” spritnite equipped while Aeterna has “Charge” equipped. When this condition is met, a new combo, X-strike, becomes available.
There are a wealth of skills available, some that are unique to specific characters, and others that can be equipped/used by any of them. The flexibility of the spritnite certainly allows for some varied party configurations, and helps to keep you from leaning too heavily on a particular character.
Adding to this system is a timing-based element known as “Momentum”. Essentially, once your character is ready for action, an additional meter will begin to slowly fill. Every time it fills up the character gains an “SP” point, which can then be used for a momentum bonus. By pressing square just before an attack or spell, that action will receive a particular bonus. For physical attacks it makes them stronger, healing spells might have a guaranteed critical, or offensive magic could deal bonus damage. By balancing your SP and timing your attacks you can make difficult fights much more manageable.
So, to recap: Spritnite dictates the abilities characters can use, and there are numerous combinations among the characters techniques that result in dual or triple combos resulting in higher damage. Momentum is a bonus attack powered by “SP” points that require a bit of waiting on the part of the player, but can provide a powerful boost in combat.
Sounds pretty good so far, right?
Ok. Here’s where things go sideways.
First, to obtain spritnite, you have to trade specific items in to the local representative of the Magic Consortium. These items may be as trivial as tree sap or as legendary as rainbow dragon scales (well, not really…but you get the idea). The trading system isn’t what bugs me – it’s the fact that there’s not really much direction in terms of where you can find these items. Even a vague flavor-text line like “This rare stone is typically found in hot environments”…something that could point you in the right direction. Instead, you typically find yourself unloading all of your materials at the nearest town and then scrolling through the list of spritnite to see what new spells may or may not be up for grabs.
In order to equip spritnite, characters need “Talismans”. These talismans have a number of bonuses linked to them that can be triggered by momentum attacks. If triggered, you can then select a particular bonus to grant to one of the character’s equipped spritnite. The main problem is that you have no control over which bonus you get. In addition, there’s no real indicator in terms of how many momentum attacks are required to trigger the boost. Besides providing characters with additional spritnite slots, I’m hard-pressed to really explain the benefit of talismans as a result.
Even further removed from understanding are “Singularities”. These battle-bonuses occur completely at random during fights, typically the result of a momentum attack. The bonus can range from increased attack or magic power, to increased ATB gauge speed (i.e. your characters turns come up very quickly). I understand that these are meant to be random, but the inconsistency of them combined with fairly lackluster benefits resulted in a system that seemed only half-realized.
In the end, I Am Setsuna’s combat starts out with a great foundation, but is tangled up by half-baked systems that do nothing to enhance the combat experience, and actively serve to make the player feel less in control.
On this front, I Am Setsuna continues to take 1 step forward and 2 steps back. On the plus side, the character models all have a unique design, and even though it seems like a small thing, I did appreciate that the weapons appearance changed as you obtained new equipment. The various abilities and combos were all designed well, and certainly convey that feeling of awe when you land a powerful triple-combo.
However, there were still quite a few graphical glitches that I encountered during my playthrough. One of the early bosses has a spin attack, and on a couple occasions I wasn’t sure if the game was frozen because it didn’t actually perform the move, but my characters all took damage. The movement and placement of enemies during combat was also off at certain points. Finally, as I mentioned before, there wasn’t much opportunity to showcase vibrant and engaging environments since the majority of the world is covered with snow.
The one gleaming beacon of excellence that shines through in I Am Setsuna is the fantastic soundtrack. The story is a bittersweet one from the start, with Setsuna’s impending sacrifice weighing heavily on those around her – and the music is an apt reflection of this mood. Traversing the snow-laden landscape with the soft melody of the I Am Setsuna soundtrack captures the feel of the old-school JRPG, even when the rest of the game may be botching the overall execution. If nothing else, you owe it to yourself to add the soundtrack to your music library.
I Am Setsuna, Chrono Trigger, and the JRPG Legacy
Overall, I Am Setsuna falls painfully short of the expectations that I, and many others, had for it. Tokyo RPG factory captured particular elements that made Chrono Trigger an amazing experience, particularly when it comes to the combat. However, even that was plagued by an overcomplicated series of systems that, if properly explained, could have made for a deep and much more engaging combat experience.
I hope that the reception of Tokyo RPG factory’s first title doesn’t dissuade the studio from further projects. There were elements of the game that certainly stoked the fires of nostalgia for me, and an elevated experience in a forthcoming title could make up for Setsuna’s disappointing performance. Until then, I hope they take the feedback of the gamers out there who accompanied Setsuna on her journey, and work hard to create the next heir to the classic JRPG legacy.