Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PC, PS4
Release Date: July 19th, 2016
After the positive reception with Bravely Default, Square Enix saw that fans were hungry for the classic RPG design of old. As such, Tokyo RPG Factory was formed with the goal of bringing that feeling back in a modern game. Now, their first game I am Setsuna is here. Was the endeavor worth it? While some flaws of older game design are present, I am Setsuna is a welcome return to a style of game I didn’t even know I missed.
I am Setsuna starts out with Endir, a mercenary who is hired to kill a young girl from a village on Nive Island. Upon meeting her, the titular girl is determined to sacrifice herself to help dispel the looming monster threat. Endir decides to accompany her at her request Along with others on the way, your party makes their journey to the Last Lands.
The story is reminescent of Final Fantasy X in particular with a similar sacrificial journey. The overarching plot does also get lost in the shuffle of the moment-to-moment story beats. Still, I am Setsuna never loses its charm and it manages to stay coherent.
It’s also appreciated that many of the characters are well developed. Some I liked from the get-go, but other not so much.Those I didn’t like eventually grow on me as their characterization improved. For example, Setsuna’s immediate trusting of the man who tried to kill her is a bit weird, but her later character growth makes up for it.
There aren’t many RPGs in which I like every character, and I love that about I am Setsuna. My only gripe with the characters (and thus the story) is that the dialogue isn’t very great. It’s by no means bad, but it can feel stilted at times.
Fortunately, the dialogue isn’t enough to blemish the other unique aspects of I am Setsuna’s presentation.The starkest of all is the winter climate. Snow and ice as the main aesthetic certainly leaves an impression, and the snowfall ranging from dusting to blizzards helps with variety.
It isn’t a total fix for the sameyness of the environments. Because of its lower budget nature, it’s clear that identical assets are used in a variety of locations. Towns appear to have 3-4 palettes, while dungeons may have 4-5. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to find where you need to go by town or area name alone.
Character and enemy designs also reflect the cold environment really well. Penguins, walruses, and other cold weather-inspired monsters make sense, and each party member looks great in their winter attire. Some aspects of the art direction for characters looks weird when viewed up close (like the proportions on hands and feet), but look just fine from a distance.
The sound direction for I am Setsuna is also unique when it comes to the music. With the exception of a few tracks, the main instrumentation of the soundtrack is piano. While the visuals make it difficult to differentiate areas, the music certainly does the contrary. The range of emotions and tones in just one instrument is amazing and it makes for moments that stick with you.
Unfortunately, in some situations the tracks line up in just the wrong way to be annoying. For example, in the opening chapter of the game, Nive Village is attacked. The danger, battle, and victory themes all play here and sound good on their own, but when put side by side the audio is jarring to say the least. For a taste of this as well as a look at I am Setsuna’s other qualities, you can check out my gameplay of an early chapter here.
I am Setsuna also does a good job with its other audio cues. From exploring the world to triggering techs in battle, they strike a good balance and feel natural. While there’s no voices normally, you can enable voices to play during battle for your party members. The bummer about these is that they’re only in Japanese, and frankly some of the lines are more annoying than charming.
As far as technical performance, the game runs like charm (most of the time). The simple, clean art style helps to lower performance hurdles for a smooth running game all around. This can drop during hectic battles, and is most noticeable when using advanced tri-techs against large mobs. Occasionally, the game does hitch before executing commands, usually when done at the same time as an enemy’s attack. These are few and far between and only really start happening more frequently in the late game, so they won’t really impact your overall enjoyment.
I am Setsuna is also rather short when compared to modern RPGs, but the story and gameplay elements are so well thought out that this isn’t bothersome. Besides that, there’s not much else. While there are side quests, the noticeable scarcity of them is disappointing. On top of that, a lot of them either have cryptic triggers or aren’t available until late in the game.
For example, one NPC mentioned something about another villager stealing a spiritnite stone which resulted in monsters attacking. Later on, I found the NPC that stole the gem, who then said that it was attracting monsters and that he tried to lead them away. Naturally, I thought, “Maybe I should go talk to that first NPC and tell him what happened.” Nope. Nothing happened, just repeated the same lines again. If there were triggers, they weren’t exactly clear.
As expected of a successor, I am Setsuna’s combat uses the active-time battle system from games like Chrono Trigger. As such, the battles include three party members, each with their own techs which can be combined with certain other tech for new skills. In dungeons, enemies have vision cones so you can position yourself before approaching to get the advantage.
How combat plays out is also based on the positioning of both allies and enemies. Healing and support techs require users to be within range and attack techs have different ranges and arcs that affect how many (if any) they will hit.
The raw gameplay may be a Chrono Trigger clone, but I am Setsuna has quite a few added mechanics that tweak the formula just enough. The first of these is a wait system called Momentum. If your party members wait to attack while their ATB gauge is full, you build up SP that can be used in a couple of ways.
Triggering Momentum when using a tech modifies its effects. For attack techs, you can add traits like debuffs, status ailments, and HP recovery. For healing and support techs, you can add traits like enhanced healing, increased duration, guaranteed criticals, or the ability to affect multiple targets.
With certain spiritnite configurations, you can also obtained the resist/counter incoming attacks by using Momentum at the right time. The mechanic gets even more interesting once enemies are introduced that block your ability to use it. This system adds another layer of depth to the combat and is a great way to differentiate this game from its heritage.
What exactly is spiritnite, though? Well, instead of learning new techs by leveling up, spiritnite can be equipped to increase your tech library. Most spiritnite is unique to each party member, but some is shared between all. These can be found as treasure in dungeons or can be crafted using materials dropped from monsters.
Since spiritnite is equipable, each party member has a limit to the amount of techs they can have on hand at once. This means that techs aren’t introduced as part of your progression, but rather have to be found or crafted. While I can appreciate the mechanic for its uniqueness and the fact that it isn’t an issue in the late game, it takes away a lot of the fun of having your full arsenal ready to test party composition with.
Alongside spiritnite is the somewhat perplexing Flux mechanic. When using Momentum, you have a random chance of triggering a Flux Bonus. These are permanent bonuses to techs and the type is determined by what talisman you have equipped. These come to be useful and somewhat essential in the late game, but they way that the game explains the mechanic may as well not exist.
As you may have noticed at a couple of points in this review, I am Setsuna has a tendency to be cryptic like RPGs of old, and that may be the game’s biggest flaw. The problem systems would be served better with a bit more detail, but the game half-heartedly gives you a paragraph or two that vaguely explains it.
How does Flux work? How do you trigger side quests? Where do you find NPCs to get recipes for meals? These are all questions that I had to look outside of the game for. While it doesn’t damper the core game (you can certainly get by without knowing these things), not having a means to figure it out without the internet feels like being taken for a ride instead of having full control of the game. I can appreciate a game that demands attention from the player, but when paying attention is still not enough that’s a bad sign.
I am Setsuna is clearly a game made by fans and developers of classic RPGs. It isn’t content to just sit on that either. Its unique winter aesthetic and the soft melody of piano music helps it stand out, and the Momentum system adds a lot to the formula. It does take the good and the bad from old RPG design, however. Cryptic side quest and underexplained mechanics can put a damper on an otherwise enjoyable experience. While it may not be as long or in depth by Final Fantasy standards, I am Setsuna is a lovely game for older players and newcomers alike.