We live in an age where JRPGs aren’t as common place, an age where RPG fans instead get their kicks from huge open world games that focus more on letting you forge your own story and tackle everything how you please. Whilst I’ve got no beef with western RPGs, I do miss the plethora of titles that had epic tales, constant grinding battles, dastardly villains (often with long silver hair) and vibrant worlds. Sure, we still get the occasional JRPG, but they’re not like they used to be. I Am Setsuna aims to change that.
I Am Setsuna takes the classic formula adopted by so many RPGs in the 90s and embraces it, offering an experience that’ll remind you of the legends of the genre like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. It’s nice to return to the old school style – especially since the JRPGs it is inspired by are what got me into the genre in the first place. Of course, a lot of the appeal of the game is based around the feeling of nostalgia. If you weren’t there before or don’t have some appreciation of the classic JRGS, a lot of what makes I Am Setsuna so special may be wasted on you.
You take on the role of the Endir, a ‘natural mercenary’ who has been hired to kill a young girl named Setsuna. Setsuna takes on the role of ‘the sacrifice’, someone destined to sacrifice their own life in order to bring peace to the world. Rather than killing Setsuna, Endir instead decides to join her on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands to fulfil her role and bring an end to the misery of the world.
Sounds a little like Yuna’s plight in Final Fantasy X, right? There are plenty of clichés to be found within I Am Setsuna’s tale, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get engrossed in it. From the start to the end I was hooked into the story and despite it feeling a little predictable at times, it even managed to surprise me with each twist and turn it threw my way.
The same applies to the game’s cast. Whilst they feel like a stereotypical bunch of JRPG heroes to being with, as you progress further into the game and learn more about them you realise there’s a lot more depth to their personalities than it originally seems. Everyone has their own story and as you learn more about them you’ll appreciate that they’re not just the ragtag bunch they originally seemed to be.
Combat feels distinctly old school, with battles based around the ATB (active time battle) system. There’s no turn taking with the game instead keeping you on your toes as the action unfolds around you. Don’t worry, it’s not as intimidating as it sounds; each character simply has a bar that fills up, allowing you to perform an action when it’s full.
You have your standard JRPG battle actions on offer with each character able to attack, use tech (magic and skills), and also use items. If specific characters fill their ATB meter at the same time then they’re also able to use a combined attack which is more powerful, but it comes at the expense of both character’s turns. Whilst the battling may feel familiar to JRPG fans, I Am Setsuna also introduces a few gameplay mechanics that changes up the traditional formula a little.
There’s the ‘momentum’ system that sees a character’s momentum bar start to fill when their ATB bar has maxed out. Once the momentum bar is full, you’ll be able to press the square button in conjunction to your character’s action in order to add a bonus to it. Bonuses range from things like extra damage, the attack hitting all enemies or even simply de-buffing your foe. Using momentum isn’t compulsory, but the bonuses it offers can often swing a battle in your favour. It feels awkward initially, but you’ll get used to it with the extra press of the square button with each attack feeling natural by the time you get to the end of the game.
There’s also the ‘spritnite’ which you can equip to offer new tech abilities as well as specific buffs for your character. When you complete a battle, you’ll earn materials that can be exchanged with merchants for a variety of different spritnites. It felt similar to the way materia worked in Final Fantasy VII, with each spritnite offering different tech or advantages to each character in the game.
There are plenty of party members to use in I Am Setsuna that each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s worth toying around with different combinations to see what works best for you in-game – you’re not able to swap them out during combat though, so make sure you’re prepared before you head into battle. You can take three characters into combat and I used the old-school holy trinity of an attacker, defender and a healer. Of course, each to their own and with the exception of certain characters leaving your party for brief periods of time, I Am Setsuna offers the freedom to balance your team exactly how you please.
Whilst combat is pretty simple in design, it still managed to feel intense and required a lot of thought. There are no random encounters with enemies instead spawning right in front of you, whilst battles take place on the main field as opposed to a separate battleground. It actually offers an almost tactical-RPG approach to the game’s battling, with character positions playing a big part in how everything plays out.
Combat feels very satisfying though with each battle feeling like an actual event as opposed to a formality. Sure, you’ll steamroll through weaker enemies later on in the game, but it doesn’t stop combat feeling enjoyable as opposed to a grind that’s forced upon you to add extra hours onto the game.
It isn’t just the combat of I Am Setsuna that takes a classic approach, with the look and feel giving off plenty of vibes of nostalgia too. Towns feel intimate with an assortment of NPCs on hand to repeat their pointless quips to you, whilst NPC’s houses adopt the classic ‘open door’ policy that allows you to make yourself comfortable in the homes of strangers. There’s even a world map to explore – oh, how I’ve missed them!
The game’s graphic style feels old school too, even if it doesn’t rely on 16-bit sprites. Naturally it looks better than its forbearers, but I Am Setsuna’s style will still remind you of those classic SNES and early Playstation JRPGs.
The game’s world is locked in Winter with snow constantly falling all over the land. I love it – I’ve always been a fan of snow in games and it’s used effectively in I Am Setsuna. As characters walk through the snow, the snow beneath them gets crushed and it shows a small trail of each character’s movement. The snow would then re-fill over time, which is an incredibly simple effect but worked so well in-game – especially during battles when the snow became engraved with the remnants of each character’s actions.
Whilst I was a fan of the snow covered terrain, some gamers may be put off by the lack of variety in the game’s environments. Yes, you visit plenty of different locations, but when they’re all covered in white snow it could potentially feel a little stale. The differing locations featured in JRPGs are often one of the highlights, so it’s a shame that everywhere can feel so samey in I Am Setsuna.
The soundtrack on the other hand is amazing, with every piece in the game performed on piano as opposed to the bravado of a full orchestra. It felt incredibly subtle, yet so fitting for the melancholic vibes of the game. That’s not to say there’s no cheerful pieces to be found, with some of the more up-beat tunes actually sticking in my head even after playing the game – it’s been a long time since an RPG has done that, but it’s just a testament to the quality of the soundtrack in the game.
Whilst I Am Setsuna plays like the classic old school JRPGs, it’s probably not as good as the likes of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. That’s not me slating the game though, because I think it’s good. It’s very good. It just doesn’t reach the same heights as the aforementioned classics, though maybe I’d be saying the same thing if the game’s roles were reversed.
There’s a lot to love about I Am Setsuna for both old school JRPG fans and gamers who just want to see what all the fuss about those classic games is all about. Most importantly though, I never felt deceived by it – it never tries to take advantage of the nostalgia gamers feel for their favourite classic JRPGs, but instead embraces it and offers an experience that evokes the feelings of playing them for the first time all over again.
I Am Setsuna felt so familiar, but also felt so fresh at the same time. RPG fans simply need to play it.
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 19/07/2016
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), PC