Since the announcement for I Am Setsuna, the game was touted as an homage to the legendary SNES hit title, Chrono Trigger. From the very beginning of the game, this fact becomes incredibly apparent with the introduction of a ‘mute’ sword-wielding protagonist, the familiar ‘tech’ skill system and the standard field encounter system. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, unfortunately, I Am Setsuna doesn’t quite deliver.
It’s only fair that we look at this game in two ways: what the game does to pay homage to its inspiration and what it does as its own standalone game.
I Am Setsuna follows the story of Endir, a mercenary, who is tasked to assassinate Setsuna. A young girl whose purpose, in the context of the story, is to go on a pilgrimage and sacrifice her life to stop monsters from invading human settlements across the land. Endir is unable to kill Setsuna and instead accompanies her as a guard after defending her village. Obtaining various allies along the way, Setsuna and her party discover the truth of the sacrifice tradition and the mysterious uprising of monster attacks.
The story is relatively straight forward, setting the game for a relatively safe story of ‘the good guys save the world’. There are some small twists that seem to set up a more compelling story as the game progresses. This, however, falls flat as the game reaches a predictable and bland ending. It’s a safe plot that could have been so much more, and likewise that much more memorable.
As alluded to previously, the combat system for I Am Setsuna is very similar to Chrono Trigger. Battles are fought by encountering monsters on the screen as you explore fields. Due to that, it is possible to completely bypass certain monsters should the player choose to.
If monsters are triggered (through proximity) the screen transitions seamlessly to a battle arena where three active party members fight the enemy encountered. From there, an active time battle (ATB) counter begins, in the same vein as a traditional Japanese Role-Playing Game. During combat, each character gets a chance to do an action: attack, use tech or use items. As the player decides on an action, the enemy’s timer progresses actively.
Tech is a familiar concept in Chrono Trigger and are the ‘spells’ that are exclusively available to each characters. When two characters fill their ATB gauge, if each character has a tech that can be combined together, a ‘dual tech’ is performed, a powerful ability using both characters. Likewise, if all three characters have a compatible tech, a ‘triple tech’ can be activated to create devastating abilities.
I Am Setsuna adds an extra layer of depth by introducing the ‘Momentum mode’ mechanic. This mode uses an extra time-based gauge that fills up to three times. When a bar is filled, if the player uses an attack or tech, a spark appears on top of the character model during an action. If a button is pressed (on keyboard, the default key is ‘H’) the moment these sparks appear, these attacks/techs are powered up with extra effects. These extra effects can range from an added attack, an area of effect damage, recovery, special debuffs or buffs.
Now, here is where there’s a problem with how the tech system works in I Am Setsuna. To mirror Chrono Trigger’s cast of characters, there are 7 possible party members to obtain, with one being the throwback scythe wielding ‘shadow’ anti-hero. Each of these characters have a staggering amount of techs that are exclusive to themselves. However, unlike Chrono Trigger, these techs will not be completely available to you, because you have to equip these techs onto characters.
This decision serves to balance the game slightly so that there’s a level of challenge to encounters. However, this decision often makes playing with a constantly fluctuating party a chore. This is further hindered by the fact that finding the correct techs to equip the current party becomes tedious due to a poor ‘guide’ system in the game. There is no way, aside from looking at an internal guide that requires scrolling through many pages, to quickly check what techs will create a dual tech and a triple tech. This is a shame, since the Tokyo RPG Factory has successfully made these dual techs and triple tech moves look incredibly satisfying and gorgeous.
Speaking of which, the art style for the game is simply beautiful. The character designs and models are interesting, and the landscape is surreal. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve played a few hours into the relatively short game, the snow-filled world can start to look repetitive. Thankfully, there are some zones that break the monotony, such as the futuristic dungeons and glacial caves. These, however, are far too few. It’s difficult to condemn the game for this issue, since the blue and white color palette is an integral part of the game’s theme: Grief and sadness.
It’s disheartening to also say (and it’s been a minority complaint I’ve had between colleagues with I Am Setsuna) although the soundtrack for the game is beautiful and sombre, the mostly piano exclusive soundtrack is also one of its biggest drawbacks. There are, without a doubt a couple of pieces in the soundtrack that are astounding and fit the theme and moment in which they are played, such as the battle themes. But for the most part, having only a simple piano melody with a small hint of guitar creates a relatively safe but plain audio experience.
I found myself listening back to the Chrono Trigger OST versus the I Am Setsuna soundtrack. I was trying to figure out why I had this problem with Setsuna’s soundtrack despite being a fan of piano instrumentation. And what I found, was that the biggest problems I had with I Am Setsuna’s soundtrack was that it wasn’t technical-driven. There isn’t variety in the pieces, in terms of the piano melody’s style. Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack is highly regarded because of the powerful emotions it evokes, not just in sad moments, but also in glorious, fearful and so many more moments as well. On top of this, the audio team wove together a powerful soundtrack with more technical applications such as stereophonic sounds and synthesizers.
I Am Setsuna is by no means a train wreck, despite everything. The story, although too safe and plain, is still filled with sincere love for the source material. The music again, although plain, is truly charming and plays to the sombre mood of the game perfectly. And finally, the art style, while beautiful and charming, is only let down by a lack of variety. This short JRPG, while not a perfect hit like its inspiration, is still a simple and beautiful game for the newest JRPG developers on the block. And although veterans may want more, I Am Setsuna is fantastic for a JRPG newcomer. I’m interested to see what the Tokyo RPG Factory can do when they spread their wings further.