“Always winter but never Christmas.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory’s JRPG I Am Setsuna is a modern callback to your favorite titles from the JRPG golden age of the 90’s. It’s no secret that I Am Setsuna takes its cues directly from classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV. I also think of Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy VI and VII, and Earthbound. Nearly everyone who plays the game that’s around my age has commented on how like Chrono Trigger it is. Can that be a bad thing, even if it turns out to be a clone and a copycat? Chrono Trigger is often listed as the best RPG of its time, if not one of the greatest games of all time. It’s my personal favorite game in existence, so you can easily imagine my excitement for I Am Setsuna.
But does it live up to its aim? Or is its reach too short?
So far, I’ve been enjoying revisiting many mechanics that made the JRPGs of the golden age great. But how exactly does I Am Setsuna reminisce about the titles of the past? After all, there are no random encounters and it’s fairly linear. The 90’s were crowded with random encounters and games like Chrono Trigger had tons of sidequests. Yet the mark of the golden age is all over Setsuna, and here’s how:
1. The Active Time Battle (ATB) system
Probably the first and foremost thing everyone notices about Setsuna is its battle system which is lifted entirely NOT from Chrono Trigger but from Final Fantasy IV, which was the first to debut the ATB system in which party members had to wait until their bars filled up before making an action. Introducing real time to turn based battle was an incredible innovation, one which formed the foundation for many others to come. I Am Setsuna returns to a classic ATB with very few embellishments beyond “Momentum” and “Fluxes”.
2. Techs and Tech names
This one is definitely Chrono Trigger. There weren’t “skills”, there were “techs”, short assumptively for techniques. Not only that but the earliest techs you get in I Am Setsuna are Cyclone (which was a Crono tech) and X-Strike (which is a dual-tech). X-Strike is so iconic its the equivalent of Final Fantasy’s firaga, blizzaga and thundaga magic names. Both of Cyclone and X-Strike are name for name the same, and I’m certain there’s more.
3. Party Members follow the leader
You don’t see much of this anymore. While it was never anything that changed the gameplay, it was fun to see the guy who just joined your party following you around through towns and dungeons. This was just about over come Final Fantasy XIII, or even earlier with FFX. But remember Earthbound and Breath of Fire II and Secret of Mana? It’s cute to see the party members following the leader in that top-down perspective.
4. Final Fantasy storyline
While not actually an RPG of the 90’s, Setsuna gets its plot from Final Fantasy X. Consider they are both about a girl accompanied by guardians traveling on a sacred pilgrimage to a land where they are to sacrifice themselves in order to protect the world from monstrous destruction. Endir even matches the colors and quiet of Khimari. Setsuna also reverberates with themes from classic JRPGs: distrust of established tradition, fatalism, self-sacrifice, leadership of necessity, and so on.
5. The silent protagonist
Give me a silent protagonist any day! Oh my ultimate reality, I hate the modern talking protagonist trend. It’s growing more and more prevalent and when you notice it you can’t un-notice it. Gone are the days when a main character could make it through the whole game without saying a word. Contrariwise, how many games have you played which were released over the past few years where the main character is a chatterbox? They just won’t shut up about commenting on everything around them, talking to you and taking you totally out of any experience of being in that character’s mind. They no longer represent you when they’re constantly telling you what to do and how to do it, how you have to press this button to open this door and hurry up doing it. But I Am Setsuna takes us back to the silent protagonists. Sure, it’s got its choice system for Endir to sound his opinions, but he has no text boxes. This protagonist is all yours to project yourself upon, the observer rather than a talking tutorial.
6. Classic Square item names
Not huge but a nice touch. Potions, ethers, even tents. I’m already expecting traditional weapon names eventually. Masamune? Ragnarok? Ultima Weapon?
7. Classic Square-esque soundtrack
The piano soundtrack for I Am Setsuna is phenomenal. I found a set of new songs to write to. As a pianist, what could be better than an OST almost entirely played on the ivories? The broad Square soundtracks of old were more character themed and melodic, less J-poppy and techno-rocky. Songs back then could change in an instant and tell cue you into emotions, rather than blurring together or adapting as you move through areas. I felt like I was listening to any of the Final Fantasy Piano Collection albums. Even my wife, who has never played through a Final Fantasy all on her ownsome, remarked that a certain town track in Setsuna sounded a lot like a Final Fantasy song.
8. Timing for attacks
So this is something I’m still somewhat figuring out since I Am Setsuna doesn’t do a good job of explaining itself and having much internal referential material. The ATB system gives you the opportunity of letting your party members sit on a full ATB bar and charge up another gauge to enter Momentum mode. Momentum points of sorts can be spent to do additional damage and unlock other bonuses if you press square (nice one, Square Enix) at a certain time via a visual cue. This reminds me of the Square/Nintendo lovechild, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, where you could press a button at a certain time to increase attack power. It’s the same sort of thing though less easy to accomplish in Setsuna. It does make repetitive battles more interesting, since you have to focus.
The airship has been a part of Square’s flagship franchise for as long as forever. It’s iconic, instantly recognizable and the big, wooden, propellered aircraft are something I’m looking forward to cruising all over that world map in Setsuna.
Tenthly, finally, and probably most indistinctly, I have this nebulous feeling about I Am Setsuna. Probably that’s because its characters seem to have a nebulous feeling about themselves and their place in a game that’s a tribute to archetypal storylines and settings. The character of Setsuna herself has been making decisions to welcome other characters based on some kind of sensation that she’s met them before. That’s perhaps because we have met them before, in the golden age of the past JRPGs. Whether this will actually play out as a cemented part of this story or if it will remain a clever indication by the developers that these characters are following a set path, I won’t know until I complete the game for myself. SO DON’T TELL ME!
I AM Setsuna sets itself up for a harder task than most games have to face. It of course has to be a great game on its own, but it also forces itself into the position where it has to live up to some of the greatest RPGs of the past. Tribute, trite, homage, cliché, or just a nostalgic trip, it remains to be seen by this reviewer whether I Am Setsuna will honor or disgrace the games of a bygone generation by turning back the clock.
Will Setsuna end of being a gift to gamers of the 90’s, or will it be a case of winter without Christmas?
-The Well-Red Mage