Winter is Coming
If you’re a fan of old-school Super Nintendo RPGs, then I Am Setsuna may have caught your eye at least once. RPG juggernaut Square Enix formed the studio Tokyo RPG Factory, specifically to develop throwbacks to that era, and I Am Setsuna is its debut project. While there are clear comparisons to the time-travel classic Chrono Trigger, this game manages to stand out from its inspirations, but not necessarily in the best way.
Here is my video review for your viewing pleasure!
The story follows the mercenary Endir, who is tasked to kill Setsuna, a young woman destined to save the monster-infested world by acting as its sacrifice. As events unfold, you find yourself in the band of heroes who will assist Setsuna on her journey to the Last Lands. The story might sound familiar if you’ve played Final Fantasy X, but this tale is a more somber take, removing the lightheartedness and whimsy of Square Enix’s classic titles and replacing them with dreary dialogue and gloomy characters. Though there is a place for melancholic storytelling, the game overemphasizes it, making the experience somewhat depressing. Though the core characters are pretty likable, we rarely get to see their personalities aside from their militaristic attitudes towards completing the mission.
At least the gameplay, which borrows heavily from Square’s classics, is more enjoyable. Once you’ve received your assignment, you set out and journey through the snowbound land. Matching the melancholy tone, the environments are completely covered in snow, and the lack of distinctive locales make the world feel smaller than it is. The world map is devoid of enemies, but enter an area and you’ll find foes out in the open, ready to fight.
As soon as you come into an enemy’s range, you begin the battle then and there. I Am Setsuna uses the popular active time battle (ATB) system, first introduced in Square’s Final Fantasy series. Each party member has his own gauge that fills during battle. Once filled, you can perform an action, whether attacking, using special tech abilities, or casting support magic. Additionally, party members can combine their techs to execute combo attacks that look cool and deal significant damage.
Not only is time important, but also space. If you can launch a sneak attack behind your foes, you start with a full ATB gauge, ready to go. During battle, character positions matter. If your enemies are bunched up together, you may be able to swing your sword widely enough to hit multiple foes at the same time. Likewise, stand close to your own party members to heal them with one spell. Though you can’t manually move your characters, paying attention to what attacks shuffle your enemy and party positions adds an extra layer of strategy that most RPGs don’t take into consideration.
Though veteran Super Nintendo RPG fans are likely familiar with the tried-and-true battle system thus far, I Am Setsuna sets itself apart with new mechanics that are honestly hit or miss. For instance, you can build “Momentum” by remaining idle instead of instantly attacking when your ATB gauge is full. When you attack, a glowing light will momentarily appear, and pressing the Y button during that time will grant special bonuses like additional damage or added status effects. Unlike Super Mario RPG and other games that utilize timed button presses, you can easily spam the button here; as long as you hit that critical window, you’ll activate the effect, removing the depth that could have been there.
Additionally, activating Momentum will sometimes randomly trigger “Singularity,” a temporary interval when a single bonus is always in effect. For instance, during a 30-second period, your attacks may cause all kinds of elemental damage, or your characters might be impervious to death. Though these boosts sound phenomenal, the limited time period is very short and the chances of activating Singularity are entirely luck-dependent, so it’s not something you can plan a strategy around.
Winning battles and tougher boss encounters nets you experience for leveling up, though that’s not the only method for strengthening your characters. You can also sell materials to forge Spritnite, mystical stones that you can use to customize your characters with magic, special abilities, and passive power-ups. Though each character has a limited inventory to hold Spritnite, you can also equip Talismans to give them more slots.
In addition, Talismans offer special permanent bonuses to your Spritnite called “Flux,” but this only occurs when you can activate the button press timed Momentum. Again, though it’s great to wield permanently buffed attacks, the random element means that you’ll have to grind for any desired powers. Additionally, it’s a confusing process that requires several looks at the tutorial page.
The journey takes about 20 hours, and a few sidequests and world exploration can raise that number. Though it sounds short by RPG standards, it’s pretty on par with SNES playtimes. As a Switch game, it works well as a handheld experience, though you’ll have to utilize Sleep mode since you can only save at designated areas. Regardless, doing a little exploration or a few battles is great for a break or commute. The game is fairly linear so it’s easy to make progress. As far as replay value goes, there are no deviating paths or a New Game+. Though honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to play it a second time due to the overall depressing tone.
The wintry world is bleak, and the environment is a little boring to look at. You are limited to exploring snowy areas, caves, and towers; so areas start to look the same, making the game feel more tedious than it actually is. The presentation is reminiscent of a slightly better looking SNES or early PlayStation-era RPG. At least the artwork and character designs are gorgeous, even if the visuals are bland. In contrast, the music is one of the best parts of this package, with beautiful, soft piano melodies perfectly capturing the mood for both adventure and somberness. The developers were very careful to effectively sync aesthetics with tone.
I Am Setsuna does a fairly good job fulfilling the role of a throwback Square RPG. The overly melancholic tone of the game and completely snow-covered world work to tell a somber tale, but it lacks the quirky fun of the classic RPGs that this game tries to spiritually succeed. Though the base active time battle system it borrows from established games is solid, the random elements added to the table aren’t as fun or well-executed. Despite these hiccups, I enjoyed my playthrough. If you’re looking for a great Square RPG, I’d sooner direct you to the SNES classics than Setsuna. But if you desire something new and have a lot of nostalgia for those old RPGs – particularly Chrono Trigger – and you don’t mind some hiccups in the presentation and mechanics, then I Am Setsuna is worth a try.