If you grew up with formidable role-playing classics like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy, you know all about the tropes and rigid mechanics that often comprise a traditional JRPG. Back during the Super Nintendo's heyday we saw several games of that ilk come and go, and many of them remain hallmarks of the golden age of role-playing games to this day.
Square Enix was obviously hoping to cash in on the nostalgic rush we often feel when casually speaking on the games we grew up with, as I Am Setsuna is a love letter to a simpler time. It's a tribute to an age where all you needed for a narrative was an amnesiac protagonist and a reason to tug at players' heartstrings to make for an entertaining narrative. Unfortunately, gaming has evolved in several ways since then, and even classics should be held to a higher standard. That's not to say I Am Setsuna is a bad game, but it suffers from bizarre design decisions that force it to deviate from the path that so many other games have walked down with no issue. It's classic, but then it isn't.
I Am Setsuna begins as you might expect, with a world on the brink of the end, suffering routine attacks from a monster whose appetite for destruction can't quite be sated. The world itself is snowy and melancholy, trapped in a nightmarish perpetual winter. Despite the game's name, protagonist Endir takes center stage, a mercenary charged with protecting a young woman named Setsuna who's poised to become a sacrifice to appease the evil that's threatening the land.
It's not especially novel, but the game's overarching theme is sadness, after all. It communicates this feeling quite well, even if it isn't the most engaging narrative you've ever seen in a game. As the journey unfolds there are plenty of reasons to care about your party members as twists and turns abound. Even though they're predictable in the end too, the tale is familiar in warm and comfortable ways.
There are no character voices for the playable party members, and you can name each one of them to make them your own. While they'll vocalize in battle, it's up to players to give characters their own voices. There aren't any opportunities for RPG fans to be subjected to horrible voice acting in this case, but it would have been nice to have a Japanese voice track at the very least. Luckily an excellent piano score aids in keeping things from becoming stagnant.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
I Am Setsuna attempts valiantly at presenting interesting tweaks on classic systems, but ends up making things feel just a bit more "off" than usual. For starters, there are no random encounters. Instead, you'll see enemies on the map that spawn in the exact same places each time you come back to an area. You can attempt sneak attacks on the monsters you find, and you'll get in the first lick if you're successful. Curiously enough, the screen doesn't fade into a new battle environment when you do enter a fight, however. Instead battle commences right where you are on the map. Unfortunately, that's where most of I Am Setsuna's issues are derived from: combat.
The attack system could be likened to Chrono Trigger's, with a special ATB bar that counts down to when each character is able to attack again. You can have three party members in combat at once, and can swap them out outside of fighting at any time. Each has their own unique combo attack so you're free to play around with teams that better fit your own personal battle strategies. It's all a pretty standard affair until you get to the combat system's finer points: Sprinite, Talismans and Momentum.
Sprinite is essentially the game's spell system, where each character has their own to use from healing magic to devastating attacks. You'll have to collect special materials from defeating enemies on the map to take to the Magic Consortium and redeem them for Sprinite, which is a bit of a convoluted process. Equipping items beyond that is pretty simplistic, but bizarrely you won't find the normal sets of armor and equipment in other games here. Perhaps in a bid to keep the game obfuscatingly complex in an artificial manner, instead you have to equip Talismans. This can be frustrating thanks to the game's startling lack of help when it comes to identifying and explaining what each Talisman does.
The Momentum system is strange as well, tying into the Talismans you find and equip but offering augments that appear to be random. These anomalies rob you of what could have been an interesting and complex character customization system, instead taking classic systems and making them more complicated for no reason. When the game relies so heavily on combat to keep things moving along,
The Well-Beaten Path
With I Am Setsuna, on one hand you have a staunchly traditional tale that offers a cursory narrative that's familiar on the surface as well as character tropes and archetypes that feel as though they were torn straight from the pages of "Classic RPGs 101." On the other, you have a convoluted battle system and irritants from games of the present that bring you down from any nostalgia high you might have been riding. It's all wrapped up in familiar dressing to get you hooked, but once you get to the substance it's clear I Am Setsuna needed a bit more time in the oven, or perhaps a master class of what made the games that inspired it memorable in the first place. If you're aching for a familiar and exciting JRPG, there's better to be found out there. While this is a serviceable option, there are plenty other more memorable ones out there.
This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher. I Am Setsuna is available now for PC, PS4 and PS Vita for $39.99. The game is rated E 10+.