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   I Am Setsuna - Review  

A Bumpy Stroll Down 16-Bit Memory Lane
by Pascal Tekaia

PLATFORM
PS4
BATTLE SYSTEM
4
INTERACTION
2
ORIGINALITY
3
STORY
3
MUSIC & SOUND
3
VISUALS
4
CHALLENGE
Moderate
COMPLETION TIME
20-40 Hours
OVERALL
3.0/5
+ Visuals depict a suitably gloomy world
+ Combat system is rife for experimentation
- Story lacks that emotional punch it needs
- Enemy and dungeon designs get repetitious
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Coming off the E3 show floor, amid all the flashy bits and games vying for presence, a little RPG from Square Enix's Tokyo RPG Factory commanded a lot of attention. Even with occupying minimal show floor real estate, those who played I Am Setsuna quickly spread word of it. It's not hard to see why: not only did the game look pretty with its snow-capped forest intro level, but rampant, almost reverentially whispered comparisons to the 16-bit masterpiece Chrono Trigger added fuel to the proverbial flames. Even after only a brief hands-on gameplay session, the once-named Project Setsuna emerged as one my personal top picks for RPG of the Show. Now, on the other side of the twenty-or-so-hour game, it seems as though those cursory comparisons were a bit misleading over the long haul. I Am Setsuna is a game with tons of promise that loses momentum at an exponential rate.

   Setsuna revolves around Endir, a member of a mysterious clan of masked assassins who's been sent on a mission to find and kill the titular young village girl. His blade is stayed when he learns that she is actually the "Sacrifice", chosen to undertake a pilgrimage to the enigmatic Last Lands, to give her life in an ancient ritual to protect the world from ever-increasing monster attacks. Rather than end her life there and then, Endir decides to accompany Setsuna, reasoning that helping her give her life for a good cause passes for an acceptable way to fulfill his mission. Thus he and a few others they meet on their journey become Setsuna's personal guard, putting their lives on the line so that she may offer up hers. This setup, especially the friendship between would-be assassin and victim, seems set to offer the kind of satisfying emotional tale that will make it an instant classic.

   Unfortunately, I Am Setsuna puts its best foot forth in the beginning, then fails to cash in on its narrative potential in the long run. It's hard to put a finger on precisely what causes the story to fall flat. Several characters fall victim to one-dimensional personalities: Setsuna will put herself in harm's way to help others no matter who they are, plucky Aeterna is protective of her to a fault and suspicious of all others, young magic user Kir is the indomitable cheerleader who fires his companions on at every crossroads. Nidr, the gruff lone-wolf swordsman of the group, almost breaks this pattern, as one of the only characters with an emotionally engaging subplot, but in the end his story is simply abandoned and becomes an irksome loose end that is never resolved. What Setsuna so desperately needs are hooks that let players connect with its characters more than on a superficial level, to allow players to care about the characters, but the writing sadly never digs deep enough to let this happen.

It's official; dino-robots are the current big thing. Gorgeous, snow-covered forest quota: met.

   Without a strong narrative showing, what's left is a game that still looks great and sounds beautiful, at least for a while. The world of I Am Setsuna is one covered in perpetual snow and ice, with the party forced to carve a path through fresh powder everywhere they go. The gray- and white-covered countryside, coupled with the gloomy story, lend the game a somber, if not always peaceful, atmosphere. It manages to look very pretty even without liberal use of vibrant colors. However, environments do quickly repeat themselves — snowy mountainsides, frosty cave interiors, and white-capped evergreen forests become the norm soon after the game begins. The soundtrack, performed almost excusively on a piano, seems tailor made for the heavy themes the game tackles. While there are some truly beautiful and heart-rending compositions, too many others just seem derivative of each other, feeling quite interchangeable one with the next. At its worst, the soundtrack highlights moments of panic or action, such as boss fights, with crass, grating songs that have no business being pounded out on a piano's keys. All told, it's quite an inconsistent, hit-or-miss soundtrack.

   With music and story having both high and low points, it's nice that Setsuna's combat system stands out as a well-developed and well-implemented feature. The developers have emulated battle systems from some well-known 16-bit JRPG classics, while infusing them with quite a few new bells and whistles. Rather than random encounters, battles are initiated by running into enemies in the environment, and can sometimes be avoided by giving them a wide berth. Battles are turn-based, with each character acting once his or her ATB gauge is full. However, the game rewards prudence by giving each character a second gauge, the Momentum gauge, which only charges while the action gauge is full. Depleting a Momentum point strengthens any attack, grants it additional abilities, or strings together multiple attacks. Other nuances to the combat system include Fluxes, Singularities, magic spells, and talismans, though some of these seem rather inconsequential to combat and not worth the time to fully understand and master.

   The standout feature of the combat system by far is the combo attacks where two or even all three members of the battle party team up, combining attacks they've individually learned into a single, powerful strike. Throughout the game, characters can obtain new special attacks, called techs, by equipping Spritnite, stones imbued with magical powers. The Spritnite themselves are obtained by trading in certain items obtained through combat or found in treasure chests. Most Spritnite can only be equipped by designated characters. This is what makes the tech system the backbone of combat; the number of combinations of party members and Spritnite stones is vast, and tinkering with different combinations for optimal results will likely take the whole game to master. Add to that the fact that each character only has a limited number of Spritnite slots available, and that there are quite a large number of Spritnite stones to obtain, and it's a system that seems tailor-made for a much longer game experience than I Am Setsuna provides, with many nods to genre classics hidden within it.

Airships are sensibly based on the idea that flying through the air is exactly like floating on water. Boss battles offer up a decent challenge throughout the game.

   But even the nuanced combat system isn't without its flaws. While the prospect of lots of battle customization may keep some players interested, battles themselves don't do much to keep things fresh. Enemy types don't evolve a whole lot from early encounters, consisting in large part of birds, crabs, walruses, bunnies, and so on. Rather, pallette-swapped cousins of these same critters fill up a large chunk of the bestiary. A few late-game dungeons throw in some new enemy types, but then these areas have their own shortcomings. Clocking in at a good chunk of the game's twenty-hour span, the last few dungeons lack any creativity. Whereas earlier areas can be criticized for featuring the same mountain passes and caves, players will spend the last hours of the game moving from one bare-bones platform floating in an empty void to the next. While looking for the stairs to proceed to the next floor and do it all again, they will encounter predictable groups of enemies on every new platform. These recycled and just plain uninspired environments snuff out the spark of excitement created by the prospect of tinkering with party members, techs, and equipment in the combat system little by little. By the end, the stairs signaling the end of each dungeon floor just couldn't come fast enough.

   I Am Setsuna is also an extremely linear game for most of its runtime. There are no side quests to embark on or optional areas to find and explore, at least not until just prior to the game's end. En route to the last dungeon, the party finally obtains an airship, making it possible to revisit previously explored areas, as well as find one or two hidden ones. Special locked treasure chests, strewn throughout the dungeons and towns of the game, can also be sought out and opened at this stage, leading to some rare items and an Easter egg or two to find. This, however, seems like a half-hearted attempt to stretch out the endgame a bit, and most players may not be very keen on trudging back through each and every dungeon to find one or two locked treasure chests. The final dungeon, including the game's boss, certainly doesn't warrant spending this extra time either upgrading or grinding, as neither one offers an inordinate challenge. With no New Game Plus mode available after completing the game, this is the only time players are allowed to go off the script. It's just that the payoff doesn't really justify the time investment required.

   In short bursts of play, I Am Setsuna ticks all the boxes one could want from a modern JRPG designed as a callback to the classics: a seemingly emotionally involving story, stirring music, pretty visuals, and a battle system that offers up nuggets of nostalgia like "ATB" and "tech combos". As a show floor demo, it absolutely works on every level. As a full-length game, however, too many aspects just come up short. Chief on this list is the lack of any real emotional hook into the narrative or the characters — try as I might, I couldn't truly identify with the cast. Short glimpses of some nice story touches are there, but aren't fleshed out enough to make a lasting impact. The battle system, on the other hand, is more than competent, and offers up enough fiddly bits to sustain a much longer experience, though the same can't be said for the enemies encountered or the environments where they're encountered. I love the idea of a game celebrating my fondest memories of "the old days", and want to applaud Tokyo RPG Factory for making just such a game. However, I Am Setsuna, while playable and pretty, doesn't turn out to be quite that game.

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