After the disaster that was Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, I can’t say I was especially pumped to play another Square Enix JRPG. They dropped the ball pretty hard on that one; frankly, they dropped it hard enough that Kobe himself would have trouble picking it up. Nevertheless, my dedication to my art meant that when I Am Setsuna came in, I bit down, hooked up the ol’ Steam Controller and got to work. I ended up being pleasantly surprised!
I Am Setsuna has gotten a lot of attention for being the spiritual sequel to the beloved JRPG Chrono Trigger. The game’s pedigree is certainly obvious; characters, environments and even the world map boast a similar art style to the 1995 classic. While Chrono Trigger embraced the emotional spectrum, however, I Am Setsuna seats itself firmly in the morose. Don’t expect any hilarious prehistoric binges here – this one’s all about sad piano strains, depressing plot notes and an overall sense of gloom.
You control Endir, a silent protagonist from a clan of masked mercenaries who is tasked with assassinating Setsuna, a young girl from a remote village. That mission loses focus when it’s revealed that Setsuna is a willing sacrifice, with a duty to make a pilgrimage to the far corners of the world before dying to stem the tide of vicious monsters that’s choking the land. The point is made that if she’s going to die anyway then killing her isn’t really necessary, so instead Endir joins Setsuna and her other guardians to help ensure her journey is successful.
Naturally, I Am Setsuna’s combat system feels like a modernized version of the system seen in Chrono Trigger, including that game’s signature combo attacks. Battles utilize the traditional Active Time mechanic seen in Chrono Trigger and many of the Final Fantasy games; characters and enemies alike have a regenerating time bar that determines when they can take their turns. Waiting for multiple party members to have turns ready allows them to team up and use special techniques, consuming all of their turns at once. Setsuna adds in a couple of twists on the concept; it’s possible to charge a sort of second ATB bar after a character’s turn is ready, generating special points that can be used to add some extra oomph to your abilities.
There’s also an increased focus on elemental affinities in combat, which plays into Setsuna’s other innovation: the loot system. Slaying baddies will generate experience points and loot as usual, but Setsuna mixes this idea up a little by encouraging you to slay them in different ways to earn unique loot. Slaying a foe using various elements will result in different loot; so will eliminating it using a combo attack, vastly over-killing it or striking the killing blow without going too far over the enemy’s remaining HP. This adds a nice reason to replay battles, since you’ll need these various sorts of loot to upgrade your characters’ gear and obtain new techniques for them to use.
As interesting as this is, it’s really the only reason to replay fights aside from grinding up levels. I Am Setsuna doesn’t have much in the way of sidequests or optional exploration aside from a couple bits toward the end, so you’re primarily building up strength to keep from being roadblocked by bosses. This is a bit disappointing, both because Chrono Trigger was known for its enormous amount of optional content and because I Am Setsuna isn’t an especially long game.
It’s certainly a beautiful game, though. In particular, the piano-based music is some of the best I’ve heard from a JRPG, and while the game’s graphical style and small character models hold it back a bit, it still looks gorgeous. As mentioned, the most notable aspect of Setsuna’s presentation is that it’s not exactly the happiest game you’ll play this year. The premise above should make it clear that sunshine and rainbows aren’t anywhere on the horizon for this one. You might want to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind if you plan on binging I Am Setsuna. Don’t get me wrong, I take pride in stating that a video game has never made me feel anything but hungry, but here…well, I was pretty hungry toward the end.
While I Am Setsuna is held back a bit by its length and lack of optional content, it’s still a journey worth taking for fans of classic JRPGs. The game’s excellent presentation and storytelling are nice additions to a genre that’s been hurting for a more serious plot. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the bombastic anime nonsense that the various Final Fantasy, Tales, and Neptunia series deliver these days, but I Am Setsuna offers a more personal, introspective story that helps it stand out.