Let’s get this out of the way: I am Setsuna is not Chrono Trigger.
But maybe that’s okay.
Developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and released as part of Square Enix’s push to reconnect with lapsed fans and capture the hearts of those yearning for classic JRPGs, I am Setsuna relies upon budding 90s nostalgia and tried-and-true methods to make its case. But what it nails in presentation and gameplay, it lacks in narrative and character development. Even so, I still found myself mostly enjoying this 15-20 hour love letter to some of gaming’s most treasured titles.
The premise is simple, and its execution is done mostly by the JRPG-book. As a mercenary, the player is charged with seeing a young woman safely to her final destination, the Last Lands, to sacrifice herself in order to save humanity. Like most JRPGs, you’ll meet characters along the way that join your party and come equipped with varying skills and abilities. Towns you come across feel lived-in and feature shops where you can purchase items, weapons, and various meals that add stat boosts to your party. Dungeons filled with monsters are where most of the action takes place.
For the most part, I am Setsuna proudly wears it’s influences on its sleeve, and the battle system will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has traveled to Zeal in 12,000 B.C. or ventured across the many continents on Gaia. Essentially, it’s a 1-to-1 recreation of the battle system found in 1995’s Chrono Trigger. The turn-based battles make use of ATB meters, which fill as the battles play out, and party members can team up to unleash powerful combos. What I am Setsuna does to set itself apart is introduce a mechanic the game calls “Momentum.”
Momentum is achieved by waiting for the SP meter (the circle to the right of the MP bar) to fill and then timing a button press with a character’s attack. Momentum boosts attacks and spells by adding additional physical or magical damage or by a number of other varying measures like spell duration or effectiveness. When the player kills a monster using a Momentum attack, the player is awarded more or rarer loot. I found this mechanic to be a simple, yet engaging way to spice up the conventional JRPG battle blueprint.
For a good chunk of the game, every battle required my attention because I wanted to get as much EXP and loot as I could. I wasn’t mindlessly tapping ‘X’ to cruise through encounters like I have while grinding in many other JRPGs. Battles were tense. Timing Momentum button presses while also selecting the next character’s attack to ensure I maximized my ATB felt like juggling, and some of the game’s bosses forced me to rethink my strategy by crippling my Momentum tactics.
The only issue I had with I am Setsuna‘s battle system is that by the last third of the game I was completely overpowered. Since I’d been so focused on maxing the amount of EXP and loot I was getting, the battles near the end of the game consisted of doing one Momentum combo and killing everything in sight while also refilling my MP meters. The game is easy. If you’re playing for Momentum kills, there won’t be any need to spend time near the end grinding, which feels weird considering the game’s influences. Throughout my playthrough, I only hit a wall twice while facing off against two separate bosses, and even then, all it took was switching out my party members to use more effective attacks.
I’m hesitant to hold the lack of difficulty against the game, though. Like I said, the first two thirds of the game are challenging, and I loved what the Momentum mechanic did for normal enemy encounters. And for those actively seeking something more challenging than what the main quest has to offer, the game features a few challenges that can only be accessed after a point very late in the game.
Throughout the game, you’ll come across chests that look different from the other chests in the game. These chests can only be unlocked after reaching that set point in the game and contain high-powered weapons or rare items. Since there is at least one of these chests in almost every dungeon and town in the game, it encourages players to retrace their steps and return to these locations. There are also a few previously inaccessible dungeons that provide gauntlet-style rematches with the game’s bosses or mysteries that I’ve still yet to solve. Couple all of that with a smattering of seldom-seen, high-level monsters that drop rare loot, which can in turn be used to acquire rare and powerful Spritnite (spells), and you have a wealth of challenges that feel tuned to economize and make the most out of the small world of I am Setsuna.
Outside of emulating and adding flourish to Chrono Trigger’s battle system, another thing I am Setsuna does well is establish and maintain a consistent affective character. By that I mean there were several moments where I was affected in ways that both touched and moved me as a player. It’s not just it’s tone, and it’s not just its atmosphere. It’s a marrying of both, uniformly and effectively. From its almost piano-exclusive soundtrack to its snow-laden landscapes, I am Setsuna’s affective character works to elicit strong emotion in the player.
As I escorted Setsuna across the frozen land in search of the Last Lands, I could almost feel the bitterness, the sorrow, the cold, that blankets everything in this world. NPCs and party members have personal histories that stretch back beyond the events of the game, and each one felt more harrowing than the last. The game’s visual aesthetic paints this world in an almost-impasto style, which seems fated to be paired with the fantastic and somber piano melodies sprinkled throughout. And even when the game’s budget started to show, when the locations and enemies began to feel unvaried, I wasn’t necessarily bothered by it. The affective character is so cohesive that these moments felt intentionally claustrophobic—like I was forced to face the harsh realities of this world and the premise, even if I didn’t want to.
When considering the twist at the end (which I won’t spoil), this facet of the game’s composition almost acts as its saving grace or transcendental moment. And the best part about this is that the game accomplishes it without having to say much. Most of what affected me was visual and aural. In fact, the narrative actually detracts from the power of I am Setsuna’s affective character and keeps it from joining the ranks of the masterpieces that inspired it.
A Tale of Sacrifice
The narrative that’s told in I am Setsuna is, perhaps, the game’s biggest folly. However, it’s not bad. It’s serviceable, coherent, and at times engrossing. There are moments that highlight very real human emotion in ways that bring the player closer to some of the characters. And while the premise of escorting a woman who must sacrifice herself in order to save everyone else isn’t a new concept, the narrative does work to ensure the player’s attention never strays along the way.
That’s my biggest hangup with I am Setsuna’s narrative. For the most part, it merely kept my attention. It didn’t capture my heart or move me in any profound way, and I think the biggest reason for this lies in the composition of the game’s titular character. For lack of a better word, Setsuna is boring and devoid of any human quality outside of doing what’s right. I couldn’t help but pickup on the narrative potential that surrounds Setsuna’s predicament and feel disappointed when that potential goes unrealized.
If the game is about Setsuna’s plight, I find it odd that her character feels so underdeveloped. She starts the game as a blinded-by-tradition do-gooder with a soft heart and never leaves that frequency. I kept asking questions like: how does Setsuna feel about what has been thrust upon her? Her mother and her aunt were also chosen to leave on a sacrificial pilgrimage in the past—that’s got to mean something to her, right? As my party and I journeyed through frozen caves and frigid mountains, I kept waiting for Setsuna to open up and come alive. I wanted to feel the weight of what she’s been chosen to do. I wanted to see how this all affects her, and I wanted to feel her struggle with it. It never happens, and the game’s ending suffers because of it.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. The game has its moments. In fact, I found that I was more invested and moved more by the ancillary characters and what they go through. Whether it is coming to terms with a past they just can’t seem to put behind them, finding themselves indebted to predisposition and expectations, or struggling with a very basic, but potent, existential quandary, these characters’ struggles felt real. This is because these are human qualities—things we’ve all felt from time to time. I could relate to these things even though I’ve never had to slay a monster or pilot an airship. I wanted to feel this way about Setsuna because I wanted to feel like there was something worth protecting, like the stakes were more tangible than simply saving the world.
As the game ended, I began to wonder if we, as players, are conditioned to make concessions for video game narratives—particularly JRPG narratives. Is it okay to sacrifice deep characters and storytelling if the game is fun, or if everything but the story affected me? Sure, there are a handful of standouts that get it right, like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IX, but they always seem few and far between. There’s a reason I am Setsuna hearkens back to this era of JRPG; a reason the aforementioned are often touted as masterpieces. Unfortunately, I am Setsuna’s narrative misses the mark. It only marginally touches on things that are worth thinking about after the credits roll, and it relies upon the event itself (Setsuna’s looming sacrifice) to do the narrative legwork Setsuna’s character should be doing.
By all means, I am Setsuna feels designed for 20 to 30-somethings that cut their teeth on classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. With how ardently the game endeavors to mirror its inspiration, it might seem easy to say Tokyo RPG Factory couldn’t have come up with a better moniker, and in some way, it’s true. I am Setsuna feels like a game manufactured from a JRPG schematic that’s missing a page, but it’s also clear that this game was made with love, respect, and admiration for those classics. I think every fan of said classics owes it to themselves to give it a shot. Just temper expectations accordingly.
I am Setsuna is available on PS4, PlayStation Vita, and Windows platforms. Also available via Steam.