“Much have I fared, much have I found,
Much have I got of the gods:
What shall live of mankind when at last there comes
The mighty winter to men?”
–The Ballad of Vafthruthnir
The perfect game to play over a Winter vacation: I Am Setsuna. Developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and published by Square Enix, this JRPG is famously evocative of those of yesteryear.
How I remembered them well while trudging through the endless snow of Setsuna, 90’s titles like Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, Breath of Fire II, and of course Chrono Trigger. Yet while Setsuna reminisces about these classics, its biggest triumph is that it never directly emulates them. Not to the point where you feel like you just put money down on a modern price tag for a retro game. I Am Setsuna feels like its own new, fresh experience while at the same time being informed by some of the best of the old.
To rephrase that balance, I recently finished Abzû. It was everything I wanted it to be, absolutely stunning. However, and I think those who have played it might share this view with me, I felt it was almost an exact copy of Journey. Now please don’t send me hate mail. Both games are great. I don’t think this harmed Abzû in any way but it was Journey under the sea, complete with ancient civilization, a catastrophic past, an enigmatic wanderer, themes of the dangers of rampant technology, harmony with nature, and so on, even down to the (spoilers: highlight to reveal) false demises of the player characters.
With I Am Setsuna, I got the vibe of Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger, but I didn’t sense I was just playing any of those games with a swapped setting. If you’re curious as to how nostalgic I Am Setsuna is for the golden age JRPGs, I beseech you to check out this post.
I Am Setsuna is set in an elegiac, melancholy world where many people have given up hope. Every generation, a single town sends out a young maiden on a fateful pilgrimage to the Last Lands, never to return. With great sadness they send the girl off, believing that her sacrifice will prevent monsters from overrunning the world. It is cruel but it is the only hope that humanity has.
When it is Setsuna’s turn to undertake the terrible voyage as propitiation, she is accompanied by a cold and violent mercenary named Endir, a member of the tribe of masked men. How could such a fair and pure-hearted girl trust such a man? Though she senses it, she doesn’t know that Endir was secretly hired to assassinate her and prevent her from reaching the end of her journey. Still, she welcomes him. Can her warmth and unconditional love melt the heart of stone in the hard mercenary?
Even as they journey together with Aeterna, Kir, Julienne, and Nidr, they come to discover that the world is far worse off than anyone suspected, and the bond they form will be their greatest defense against evil. There is more at stake than just Setsuna’s life and there is more horror lurking in the shadows than just the monsters.
I will say this: don’t expect to be blown away by the straightforward, deterministic storyline in I Am Setsuna. If we were to treat RPGs like novels, then this game would be a novella. It has a few surprises in store, but if you’ve played any number of Square RPGs, you will probably already see them coming for a snowy mile. In my estimation, the narrative is what feels like the most familiar ground in I Am Setsuna. It’s as if pieces of it were taken directly from a handful of games, buffet style.
Further, I Am Setsuna seems more about the overall feel of the game and its emotional impact, and its cool combat system, rather than concern for its minutiae. It leaves
a few many hanging plot threads and has little care for tidying them up, though part of its success lies in still being a fun experience despite that fact.
In the end, this is a true Square title. It fits right in. Just as many Final Fantasy games have drawn inspiration from legends, I Am Setsuna also seems to be informed by Nordic mythology. This isn’t too tough to miss. There’s the lands caught in endless winter, the Norse Fimbulvetr proceeding Ragnarök, the end of the world. The main character, Endir, hails from a proud warrior race not unlike the powerful heroes of myth. There are of course the Icelandic, Old Norse names of several characters like Endir, Nidr, Freyja, Tor and others, all of which have appropriate meanings for the characters they belong to. More on that below when we discuss Narrative. I’m not sure if Scandinavian pagans committed virginal sacrifice but they apparently were into human sacrifice for the purposes of invoking prosperity and dominance on the battlefield, so there’s an echo of that in Setsuna’s pilgrimage.
I felt that this reliance on myth was well-done in I Am Setsuna. True, some of its characters and locations have stupidly obvious names (Hiddbury, the forest where a dimunitive people hide from the problems of the world). Ultimately, the inclusion of allusions to myth enriched the world in an admittedly short game, helping it to feel more real and more cultured than its playtime would be capable of achieving on its own.
That brings us to the subject of I Am Setsuna’s length. It is something which I’ve seen widely criticized but here is my take on it. I Am Setsuna is indeed short. Much shorter than modern RPGs and even shorter than several of the Super Nintendo era RPGs. It is certainly shorter than most of the main title Final Fantasy I’ve played. However, I think there’s a benefit to that.
I Am Setsuna has a focused and singular drive to it. There are sidequests and places to explore, but its overarching plot is straight as an arrow. As such, experiencing its story evokes limited responses, limited but powerful emotion from the player. It’s like a minimalist tale.
I may not have as much time anymore to delve into the depths of full-fledged RPGs, so I found I Am Setsuna neither too cold nor too hot but just right. Any shorter and I might’ve felt ripped off (I’d already purchased the game on sale), and any longer and I might’ve lost interest with its restricted, muted world. It was appropriate for the time I could dedicate to it. For others looking for a more vigorous role-playing experience, you may want to look elsewhere. But for those of us careful about which games we make precious time for, I Am Setsuna is a suitable supper to satisfy the palate, especially if you’re a fan of the classics.
I Am Setsuna is about sadness, as has been pointed out by many.
That theme resounds through its world, through the characters hanging on to the last shreds of hope and through those who have given up all hope as well. A sense of loss is everywhere. Dark ruins of a past civilization stand like tombstones in the snow, memories of glory days now gone. And there are those who would play upon the hopes and fears of others for their own gain. Perhaps the game’s brevity also plays into that sense of sorrow. The bitterness of I Am Setsuna’s world is perfectly poignant in such a short span.
I think it is the perfect mirror for our own world. We may not suffer an endless winter, but there is much disappointment, much sorrow, much pain and bitterness. Where are the Endirs with their bravery and the Setsunas with their unconditional love? I know they are out there, unsung heroes and heroines saving and loving others in their own small way.
The 8-bit Review
Tokyo RPG Factory’s interpretation of classic visuals turned out beautifully. The game is in the familiar top-down perspective and the chibi characters are exactly like those we’ve seen before. However, they’re set into a world rendered like an elegant painting, both 2D and 3D at the same time. There’s a kind of softness to everything, as if the trees and the plains and the cottages were put there under attentive brushstrokes. It’s delicate and much less instantly impressive than most game worlds. It is something which must be appreciated in its ghostly details.
A few of the graphical moments which really stood out to me were subtle things like catching your party’s reflection in the icy floor of caverns, seeing snowflakes float slowly across the screen, noticing that rays of light shift as they pierce the snow-laden branches of the forests.
One deviation from my praise of I Am Setsuna’s visuals would be in its monster-design department. I had a hard time believing the world was in any kind of danger of being overwhelmed by monsters, when the majority of fiends you see throughout the game are penguins, walruses, hermit crabs, and seals of varying hues.
These are creepy sharp-toothed penguins, but like, c’mon. Only toward the end of the game do you actually begin to encounter some really supernatural and threatening enemies, at least in appearance. Perhaps this is to highlight the danger in I Am Setsuna coming from greedy humans acting like monsters toward others, preying upon the weak and gullible.
What an amazing soundtrack. When you first reach I Am Setsuna’s title screen, you’re greeted by the delicate melody of a piano. Then you play your first few hours into the game and you begin to realize the entire score is played on the piano! Only “No Turning Back” contains percussion and the closing song has a vocalist. The score demonstrates an amazing dedication to the game’s sense of astute modesty. This kind of score grounds the game it belongs to. The piano accentuates I Am Setsuna’s thematic focus.
It is honestly one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a video game recently, next to the works of Austin Wintory. The score in I Am Setsuna was composed by Tomoki Miyoshi (Soul Caliber V, Ark IX, Project Phoenix) and it is played by pianist Randy Kerber, who is a film performer (Forrest Gump, Titanic).
“The approach for the score in I Am Setsuna is entirely based around the story and themes of the game. The motto that I maintained throughout the compositional process was, “There is no score without the game.” The delicate stories that evoke a feeling of deep empathy in the players had to also be approached in a delicate manner musically. I made sure to stay as true and honest about these emotions while producing the score, and often times would leave me desolated in a sorrowful emptiness at the end of a composition session.
“Having a piano as the main instrument for the game’s score was a virtually instantaneous and unanimous decision that was agreed upon by the directors of the game and myself, at our first meeting.”
The most difficulty the score seems to have is with the action sequences. Of course, a solitary piano cannot hope to match the kind of orchestral broadness we are used to in films and pretty much every other game on the market today. The action and battle songs are still good but they quickly grow old and fail to really heighten the energy of the situation after you’ve heard them a few times. That’s also due to the fact that I Am Setsuna’s OST has fewer tracks than most games do, so you’ll hear a lot of repetition.
What really makes this score seem classic, besides for its obvious choice of classic instrument, is the composition. It’s melodic. Nobuo Uematsu’s work is a good example of this. The melodies in each track begin, follow a distinct musical narrative, and then end, then the song repeats. I think this approach, rather than the noise and filler of a lot of modern soundtracks, is better suited to evoking an emotional response from the player.
Taking the scores from Final Fantasy XIII and XV as an example, they have a handful of memorable tracks each but most of what you hear in those games is genre-music meant to be heard indefinitely, without definitive beginnings, middles and climaxes. Of course there are exceptions but compared to the memorable songs of JRPGs of the 90’s, which I can still recall to mind easily, there’s a marked difference. I Am Setsuna honors those old scores by playing out soft and sad, recurring and memorable tunes itself.
This is my new favorite soundtrack to write to!
One last interesting feature about the audio to take note of is the Japanese voice acting. It’s not a major ingredient in the game, but your party members say little words and phrases during battle. It’s a nice little addition but it actually has a purpose. The characters audibly announce their turn has arrived when their ATB gauge fills up.
And now onto the gameplay and combat system famously influenced by Chrono Trigger and others.
Traditional elements are present. Party members use traditional HP and MP, and level up by gaining experience from battles. Square staples are present in item inventories like Tents and Ethers. The game does not use random battles and enemy sprites are engaged upon approaching them in the environment. There is no separate battle screen and the fights happen right then and there. There is also an overworld the player’s party can traverse to access towns and dungeons, very traditional, and ultimately (spoiler: highlight to reveal) there’s an airship you can access toward the end of the game. But no inns! Gasp!
Many will recognize I Am Setsuna’s influences in its step back to the Active Time Battle system first introduced in Final Fantasy IV. It also allows players to combine spells and skills together to create stronger effects like the Dual and Triple Techs from Chrono Trigger. Here, there are more character-specific abilities than ever and so the amount of possible combinations is huge. The most recognizable of these is the Dual Tech X-Strike, exactly like Crono and Frog’s, though there are many, many others. Too many, in fact, to see them all before the end of the game unless you go out of your way to seek the combinations.
Spells and skills must be purchased in the form of Spritnite stones from salesmen from the Magic Consortium. Purchasing individual abilities, and using loot to do so, is not new for Square’s RPGs, though it should be mentioned that in I Am Setsuna, Spritnites are not consumed upon use. They are very much like FFVII’s Materia.
However, the best part of I Am Setsuna’s combat is how it adds to the blueprints of the classic ATB system. This game introduces SP and Momentum, Singularity, Fluxation, and Kills. This stuff is a little difficult to understand as the game doesn’t do a good job of describing how it works to you, so I’ll do my best to summarize.
Players can accumulate SP by sitting on a full ATB gauge, as if filling up secondary, tertiary, quaternary gauges. The SP eventually builds up into three Momentum points that can be spent by tapping a button at an exact moment when attacking. The character will consume one Momentum point and add additional damage or other effects like recovering health to attacks. This timing mechanism is lifted straight from Square’s Super Marion RPG, and mastering it is the only way to proceed through the latter portions of the game. Unfortunately, it is not a precise or intuitive thing, and tapping at the wrong time is something which takes patience to overcome. Allowing your healer, especially, to build up SP is crucial to surviving boss fights.
Occasionally, when using SP, a Singularity will trigger.The Singularity represents a unique but temporary bonus that lasts for a few seconds during the battle. Examples of Singularities are Chrono Burst, which increases the rate at which the ATB fills up (speed boost), Probability Change which boosts critical hit rate and status infliction rate, and Elemental Inflation which causes all attacks to do damage of all elemental types. These Singularities spice up battles, especially the longer boss fights you have to endure.
Each of these additional elements are cool and they make the repetitive battles more creative, but one of the best of these additions is Fluxation. Fluxation has a random chance of occuring whenever a character uses a tech ability with a Momentum point. The resulting “flux” is a permanent bonus which is added to the Spritnite stone the character has equipped, which he/she just used with Momentum. Talismans, the game’s version of accessories, determine which fluxes a character can randomly add to their Spritnite in battle.
A single Command or Support Spritnite stone can contain up to ten individual flux bonuses. They also stack. So check this out: you have the ability in I Am Setsuna to modify each individual ability on every character, which opens up all kinds of possible strategies. For example, Tech Power is a flux which increases the power of the tech it’s added to. Stacking up Tech Powers will dramatically increase the potency of the tech. Other fluxes reduce MP cost, increase speed, HP recovery, ramp up the power of combos, and so on. It can easily make you OP.
Still, this game is a short one so I’ve seconded the sentiment of a lot of gamers who have said that they want to see this combat system of fluxes again in the future. It’s really a neat interpretation of the classic need for character customization.
Finally there, are Kills. This is easier to explain. Enemies will always drop loot upon defeating them but you can unlock additional and rarer loot by ensuring overkills, elemental kills, or even kills that deal damage close to the monster’s remaining health. Momentum kills are triggered by defeating an enemy with a Momentum-boosted attack. Debuffing also triggers a debuff kill and link kills result from using Dual and Triple Techs. It is yet another way in which I Am Setsuna makes its battles more interesting.
In so many words, I Am Setsuna takes the best of mechanics from old school JRPGing and combines them with innovations which, while complicated, serve to create a more involved, more customizable, more engrossing experience.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this game, please Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip the Narrative portion of this review.
Many will make the connection that this storyline is heavily influenced by another Square title: Final Fantasy X. Like Yuna, Setsuna sets out on a holy pilgrimage to sacrifice her life to protect the world, except the pilgrimage turns out to be a sham in the end. Like Yuna, Setsuna is also accompanied by a group of guardians sworn to protect her. Elements of this basic plot are influenced additionally by the Susano’o legend in Japanese mythology.
Clever players may be able to make connections between I Am Setsuna’s characters and others in Square RPGs. Fides and Magus from Chrono Trigger are both very similar scythe-users, as just one example. Endir is a throwback to the silent protagonists we’ll never see the likes of again in today’s age of chatty protagonists.
The names of the characters are also informative: Setsuna is a Japanese Buddhist term which means “a moment” or “split second”, perhaps referencing her short life or the time loop she’s in (yeah another Chrono reference); Endir is Old Norse for “ending”, referencing the fact that he’s the new variable who breaks the time loop; Kir has a variety of meanings but in Romani it means “bug” or “insect, which is funny considering his stature; Nidr is Old English for “down”, referencing his humiliated state; Aeterna means “eternal”, “immortal”, “endless” in Latin, cluing us in early to her true nature; Fides comes from the Latin for “faith” or “command” and “trust”, reminding us he was a commanded servant of the Dark Samsara; and Julienne is just a French name referring to soup. Huh?
I think the most intriguing discovery here is that the title of I Am Setsuna then translates to “I am a moment”.
Anyway, the narrative: in the Last Lands, where Setsuna and company are bound, the Dark Samsara awaits. It’s some kind of Akira-esque magical experiment on a child that went awry and the thing is gaining power indefinitely. There are themes of the value of every life, self-sacrifice, loving the outcast, social roles, despair, betrayal, technology exceeding ethics. The details are complicated enough to take pleasure in even though the structure of the narrative is rather basic. However, the details themselves have a problem in that the story has many loose ends.
For example, I actually missed the whole reason why Endir was told to kill Setsuna at the start of the game. I had to look it up after I finished the game because the story never really does anything with that idea. It’s like it just forgets about it, even though it’s an awkward meeting when Endir and Setsuna come to face to face with the man who told Endir to kill her. Apparently, Endir is hired by Cornelius who is commanded by Julienne who was under the control of the Dark Samsara, who I guess caused the whole events of the storyline to put itself out of its own misery.
Another very loose end was the idea of determinism and Endir being a variable. The whole time looping subplot is introduced late in the game and it’s almost out of left field. However, characters do occasionally wonder at the fact that everything seems familiar during their journey, as if they’ve met before in past lives. Setsuna and Endir seem especially attuned to this.
The key element of the plot here is the fact that Setsuna and crew have been going on their perilous journey over and over again in a kind of prescribed time loop courtesy of the Time Judge, who is Aeterna’s alter ego (of sorts). It’s complex but what happens is that this is the first time that Endir joins the journey alongside Setsuna. He’s a variable in the time loop and he ends up being the deciding factor in victory over the Dark Samsara.
But the question is, why is Endir special? Only he could see the time portal in the end. No answer that I could find. Some have even postulated that after the game concludes, that Endir returns to the beginning of the time loop himself and undertakes the journey again, no longer a variable. This is cued by him walking through the woods alone just as at the start of the game.
Does anyone have any thoughts on this? I think I Am Setsuna may be an RPG which requires two playthroughs to fully grasp.
So I Am Setsuna is a walking contradiction in terms of its accessibility. Gamers familiar with JRPGs will easily adapt to most everything Setsuna has in store. However, as mentioned above, the game does a poor job of explaining its innovative mechanics. It took me a while to get a full understanding of timing attacks and building SP toward Momentum and gaining fluxes, and so on. At least Setsuna doesn’t needlessly over-tutorialize its players but beyond reading several pages of sometimes abstruse on-screen text, there isn’t much to teach you how to access its advanced mechanics. However, once you do master them, it’s a breeze. Which takes us to our next point…
This is a short and easy game. Completing the main storyline is a piece of cake, with only a couple of dungeons that really even feel like true dungeons. Being able to see enemies as you explore, rather than random battling, makes it easier to avoid them when you need to. Though, that being said, the gameplay during fights is so enjoyable what with the timing and the fluxes development that it is easy to find yourself over-leveled. Once you figure out how to take down some of the special Spritnite-Eaten monsters, you can get some solid experience early on, making the main story even easier.
A few saving graces that prolong the life of the game and amp up its difficulty are the sidequests. During the main storyline, the direction of the game is very linear, however right at the end of the game you can suddenly access several sidequests, one for each character to get their ultimate attack. Some of these are very tough, especially those which require you to fight a boss using just one character. Took me a few tries in some cases and I found the most game overs here.
Otherwise, it’s just an exercise in plowing through baddies to the final boss. Gamers used to the more expansive, lengthy open world RPGs of our time may end up disappointed.
I Am Setsuna feels like its own game. In so many cases, these modern “homage” games seem like cheap sequels to their predecessors, but I didn’t feel that was the case with this one. It has many enjoyable innovations to its classic gameplay, so much so that I think this game deserves its own sequel. I’d love to see more of Fluxation and Singularities and Momentum.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I Am Setsuna is to be a launch title for the Nintendo Switch, which I hope will encourage many to play this game who missed it on PC, PS4, and Vita. Little touches like including the legendary weapons from the characters in Chrono Trigger and the hidden staff village brought a smile to my face. I’ve never fallen out of love with the games of my youth, with Chrono Trigger sitting comfortably right on top of them all, so playing through I Am Setsuna was a real treat.
That being said, I don’t think this game will be for everyone. Gamers born after 2000 might have some difficulty taking a step backward to the way things were, without the modern bells and whistles. No auto-saving here. But those looking for a brief, meaningful RPG experience might really be engaged by I Am Setsuna’s sadness and yearning. I’m still haunted by thoughts of the game, and it’s been some weeks since I finished it. Square and Tokyo RPG Facotry need to put out more games like this. Please?
Aggregated Score: 7.5