written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
With the current gaming landscape so intent on innovating, sometimes it’s nice to take a few steps back while leaping forward. Take I Am Setsuna for example, despite the upgraded visuals and beautiful setting… this is very much a retro-JRPG under the hood. Developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and published by JRPG powerhouse Square Enix, I Am Setsuna tells the story of the titular character from the perspective of a masked mercenary originally tasked with assassinating her.
The tale opens in a land gripped by a perpetual winter. We first control Endir, the aforementioned merc tasked with killing Setsuna. Despite this, he eventually joins her mission when it’s revealed that Setsuna is given the bittersweet role of being this world’s sacrifice. She must travel to a sacred shrine and offer her life in return for appeasing the monsters that ravage the world. With the monsters growing more aggresive, Setsuna sees her mission as her one chance to save her world.
It’s a story we’ve all heard before, what starts with a simple quest eventually evolves to a planetary defining adventure. The setting is far from fresh, but it does carry with it a sense of nostalgia… especially if you are like me and grew up on classic RPGs from the SNES and Playstation era.
Featuring a large overworld map with various towns and dungeons littered across the landscape. While it may look unfamiliar to those who grew up with open world RPGs, it’s the little things like this that tug at my nostalgia. You view the world from above in an isometric sort of view, very much like classic JRPGs from the SNES era. While you can’t actively control the camera, towns and dungeons do manage to give you a decent view of the terrain around you.
In the vein of Chrono Trigger, enemies are littered all over in real time. You engage in battle when coming into contact with enemies. If the enemy spots you first, you are at a disadvantage… but if you can get the drop on them, you start the encounter with a considerable advantage that can mean the difference between winning or losing.
Combat is similar to Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series. Utilizing the FF ATB (active-time battle) system with the ability to perform combo maneuvers (like in Chrono Trigger) give I Am Setsuna a unique feel that’s instantly recognizable for JRPG veterans. Aside from the standard attacks, you can equip Spritnite crystals that offer a variety of active and passive benefits. Active abilities, or Techs, run the gamut from combat skills to offensive/defensive spells. Spritnite crystals can be found in treasure chest or received from vendors in exchange for materials dropped by slaying monsters. Speaking of materials, in a very realistic way… enemies don’t drop odd items like Potions or Accessories, something I never understood from retro RPGs… like, did this wolf swallow a Fire Ring and 150 pieces of gold before crossing paths with my party? While it did force me to backtrack a bit… it’s the little touches that further immerse you in this world and Setsuna’s adventure.
Fans of classic RPGs will get alot out of I Am Setsuna’s combat, though I feel that it’s almost too wrapped up in nostalgia that players not accustomed to the slower paced flow of combat will be left behind. It’s a slow burn and at times quite repetitive, though while I am very much accustomed to this type of battle system; I feel that it’s not for everyone. Along with finding more powerful weapons, the game has a built in augmentation system to give your current armaments that little extra “omph” when you’re strapped for gold… providing you have the materials.
While crawling dungeons, you have access to your full team of playable characters; but you are only able to designate three characters for combat at any given time. Switching out active parties members is as simple as opening your camp menu and designating who you want in your active party. This turns out to be super convenient, given that save points aren’t as numerous in dungeons as I’d hoped and forcing you to only swap at save points would be super annoying. As for the save points, despite being somewhat of a rare sight… they do manage to place them in opportune locations in dungeons. It’s a given that when you come across a save point, you should absolutely save before continuing on.
Visually, this is one of the prettiest games on the market. Character models are simple yet manage to emote quite well. Very reminiscent of the days of 16bit sprites and trying to convey complex emotions with limited tech.
Wonderfully stylized with a unique aesthetic all its own, I Am Setsuna looks like a classic 16bit RPG with a current gen coat of paint. Like a painting come to life, it sucks you in and grips you from the very first scene. The game’s score feels perpetually melancholic, in lieu of a full orchestral soundtrack… I Am Setsuna’s original score is played entirely from a single piano. At times, it feels like watching a high school play when the story’s narrative beats are set to a single piano.
While I Am Setsuna does offer quite a bit for seasoned JRPG vets like myself, I can understand anyone who hesitates getting in to an RPG with such a slow paced burn. From the music to the character’s walk animation, it moves at a scenic pace. This isn’t entirely a bad thing mind you, I felt that it brought out much of the beauty in the game’s world and allowed me to appreciate the little things that I would otherwise pass by in a faster paced game. It does suffer from being a bit repetitive at times, but the easy to pick up combat system coupled with a surprisingly deep Spritnite system for equipping techs somewhat make up for the game’s repetitive moments.
+ Refreshingly retro gameplay and presentation
+ Easy to pick up combat system
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Fantastic original score
- Might be too slow paced for modern gamers
- At times repetitive
- A story we've already heard before