Back in September of 2014, a small Japanese studio created by Square Enix set out to make a Japanese RPG akin to those of the SNES JRPG golden age. Tokyo RPG Factory did just that with I Am Setsuna, a nostalgic and deeply moving role playing game with a clear love for the genre.
I Am Setsuna is a beautiful game in narrative, musical composition, and design. The game's world spans across a land gripped with perpetual winter and plagued by monsters and demons, and yet it still manages to feel warm and sweet. The art style is simple and delicate. The music, composed of piano-focused tracks by Tomoki Miyoshi, is brilliant and nothing less than what you'd expect from Square. I truly can't get enough of the score. The piano works incredibly well to capture the emotions of each moment as you traverse the empty snow covered plains, and the frigid mountaintops.
The central theme of I Am Setsuna is sorrow, or sadness. The name "Setsuna", meaning "a moment in time", stems from the Japanese word "Setsunasa" which translates to sorrow. Setsuna is a girl who has been chosen, like many before her, to be a sacrifice. You play as Endir, a mercenary who joins Setsuna and her companions on her journey to the Last Lands. There Setsuna will offer herself as a sacrifice to an ancient evil, temporarily quelling the growing threat of monster attacks. The characters are all unique with compelling narratives and backgrounds of their own. Setsuna reminds me of Yuna from FFX quite a lot, but her story is different enough to make her stand apart as her own character.
Honestly, the weakest character of the bunch is the one the player is tasked with being: Endir. His story is the least fleshed out of all. He's a silent protagonist with the occasional 'choose one of three dialogue options' that have no meaningful influence over the game's narrative. It's weak to say the least. The remainder of the cast make up for Endir's lack of character. My only complaint is that there weren't more details to each of their stories; I wanted more depth. Tokyo RPG Factory successfully made me care about these characters and the world that they lived in, but it felt empty. It lacks an amount of depth that more time in development could have easily cured. I mean this game was only in development for about a year and a half!
The game is very obviously a throwback to old school JRPGs, but most notably Chrono Trigger. The development team even went as far as studying the SNES classic - timing the pacing of the battles and travel distances from one locale to the next on the world map for example. While traveling you'll run into monsters that will be roaming the territories you need to traverse, and getting too close will seamlessly transition your party into a battle. The combat is turn based with the familiar Active Time Battle (ATB) system that many RPG fans recognize. I Am Setsuna puts it's own spin to the ATB with it's three other battle mechanics: Momentum, Spritnite, and Flux systems.
The Momentum system is very straight forward. Your momentum gauge fills with time, actions dealt, or damage taken, and when it's full it notates this with a little star in the corner. Pressing the square button when a star flashes overhead during attacks, and spells trigger these momentum points. The effect of these momentum attacks are either extra damage dealt, health, buffs, or a slew of other beneficial things. These can also be paired well with combo attacks where two characters combine separate moves to deal one big attack. The combat system is a little broken though. I went through the game gaining advantage on enemies by sneaking up behind, and I'd get an instant Momentum point AND advantage to attack first. This plus Endir's overly powerful Cyclone ability, that attacks all nearby enemies at once, made for quick, unexciting battles. That being said, boss fights can get tense at times, and are extremely satisfying.
Spritnite is much like FFVII's Materia system. Equipping Spritnite into an open slot will grant that character the ability of the Spritnite, but unlike FFVII you don't learn the ability permanently. Spritnite is acquired by selling materials that you get from monsters to a specialist who will exchange those materials for gold and Spritnite. This whole process seems a little unnecessary. The only way to earn gold is by selling materials, likewise the only way to gain Spritnite is by selling materials. The materials are worthless on their own. There is no point in keeping them.. so... WHY EVEN PUT THE EXTRA STEP OF SELLING THEM? I get that it's a design choice to force the player into locating certain monsters and defeating them a certain way to get a certain material, but it's not entirely necessary to the game. It's a neat idea, but poorly executed. That aside, Spritnite is actually a lot of fun, and basically a watered down version of Materia.
Then there's the Flux system. This is an overly complicated system that is not well explained. I'm not even sure if I ever used a Flux. Apparently these are buffs that seem to pop at random during battle, but I don't know that I ever successfully used one. That either shows how utterly useless the mechanic is, or how stupid I am. The combat difficulty is too easy to ever call for these random flux events. The game is too easy, and it's attempts at complexity are convoluted and fall flat.
Equipment is barebones and minimalist in a way I can appreciate. Your weapon determines all of your stats. The better the weapon you have equipped, the higher attack and defense you have. There are upgrade materials to improve your weapons along the way, but it's often times less expensive to simply buy the newer better weapon. I didn't use upgrade materials until towards the end of the game because it just wasn't necessary. I'd find new weapons at a fairly consistent pace, and when I didn't find any I'd just buy them at the newest vendor I ran into. They're another unnecessary mechanic. The second, and only other piece of equipment are Talismans. Talismans do absolutely nothing to your stats in a beneficial way. They do however give your party members more available slots for more Spritnite, and come with a variety of Fluxation benefits and additional buffs. Once again, another system that could prove to be extremely beneficial if combined properly, but I found Talismans that worked for me pretty early on and stuck with them throughout most of the game.
I Am Setsuna is not without it's flaws, and I hope I don't sound overly critical because I truly loved the game, but it fails to completely satisfy. It's an appetizer when I wanted the main course. It's comfort food. Should you play it? Of course. Go buy it and play it now. Right now. RIGHT NOW. It is chock full of nostalgia and memories, and an emotionally compelling story with truly lovable and unique characters. The gameplay is a bit easy, but if you ignore the overly complicated mechanics (just ignore them) it's a journey worth your time. I hope this shows Square Enix that we want more titles like Setsuna.
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