Ahh, the 90s. Thanks to the internet, it has become something of a mythical era in our history. Almost everyone, regardless of whether they actually remember the 90s or not, seems to be pining for those bygone days. Even JRPG fans seem to think that the genre lost something when it came out of the 90s, and honestly I’m guilty of the same thing.
I Am Setsuna is a game that aims to capture those glorious days when all RPGs seemed to feature action battle systems, overworlds, and inevitably some sort of flying machine. The game comes to us from newcomers Tokyo RPG factory and is designed to be similar to early Final Fantasy titles, as well as the classic Chrono Trigger, so it’s probably a good thing that the game is being published by Square Enix.
The game’s story rings similar to a few other titles in places and mainly follows the adventures of a masked mercenary who gets swept up on a quest to protect a sacrifice he was supposed to be assassinating… I bet this guy gets great Yelp reviews. Along the way, you slowly meet a whole host of characters who join your crew, each with their own motivations and reasons for trying to protect the sacrifice. The whole point of the journey is to take Setsuna, the sacrifice, to a place called the last lands, where she will offer up her life in exchange for the monsters of the world lessening their attacks on humans for a few years.
From the start, there seems to be something sinister going on surrounding the exact nature of the sacrifice and how it works, but most of this gets swiftly forgotten until the later sections of the game. Something else that stands out from the story is that there are lots of ‘twists’ that get no hinting whatsoever and end up sort of blindsiding you, which is a good thing?… I think. It seems like it should be obvious that a twist needs to be well hidden, but there should probably have been at least some clues that there was a twist for that ‘Eureka’ moment when the twist is revealed.
The gameplay follows the style of 90s Final Fantasy pretty much to the letter, even having the overworld/battle areas dichotomy that is so typical of the style. Interestingly, the game attempts to avoid the classic style of random battles where you take a few steps and fall into a battle (maybe there are good reasons for that), instead the enemies appear before you on the map and a battle starts when you run into them. This method has its advantages, such as making it easier to avoid fights when you’re injured, but it also has its disadvantages, such as not being able to easily grind in an area once you’ve cleared it of all hostiles. Another interesting decision is that there are no battles at all on the overworld map, meaning that you can traverse it safely at all times, but it can become awkward when you need to power level to beat a boss.
The battle system is basically the same as those you find in the PlayStation One Final Fantasy games, although there’s a little bit of a flavour to it. You have a basic menu system with three options: attack, tech, and items. This gives the combat a nice, streamlined feel to it, even if it feels slightly lacking in complexity at times. Something that certainly felt missing from combat was the ability to flee with a button command, you instead have to buy a certain item that lets you escape from combat, which isn’t particularly expensive, but gold is actually an important resource on your adventure as you’ll soon see.
The battles also have a bonus system called the ‘momentum’ system, which basically works like Super Mario RPG in that you tap a button at the right moment to activate a special effect on certain attacks or to reduce damage in certain situations. This works quite well, but you can only do it if you have an SP point, which charges once your ATB bar is full, meaning you have to choose between attacking quicker or letting your SP gauge fill up to augment the attack. Fortunately, your SP gauge also fills under other circumstances such as taking or dealing damage, which means that you do eventually get SP points regardless of your level of patience.
The gameplay itself is pretty satisfying for the most part and follows a model that is in some ways similar to Final Fantasy VII. What I mean by this is that you have special stones called Spritnites that you attach to yourself and your equipment which give you different special techniques, unlike the materia system, however, most Spritnites are only equitable by certain characters. This is fine except for the fact that you cannot switch characters mid battle, meaning that you have to plan around having only certain party members in any given fight, which can get extremely frustrating.
Speaking of frustrating, the game has a bit of a pacing issue, or I suppose you could call it a difficulty curve issue. For the most part, you can entirely blitz through the game without having to stop and tediously grind your way up a few levels to beat the next boss. As long as you’re clever with your planning and have good tactics planned out, you can get through the bosses without having to make your characters overpowered. However, this all changed with a boss that is about 2/3rds of the way through the game; when you meet this guy, you hit the brick wall. This is where you notice that even if you wanted to grind for levels, the game doesn’t make it easy.
If you thought random battles were annoying before, then prepare to eat your words as you’ll likely be wishing this game had them before it gets to the end of the 2nd act. The problem is that while it is certainly tedious to level up with random battles, it is more tedious to grind levels in a game where you have to leave an area (with a loading screen) then re-enter the area to make the enemies spawn again. This problem is compounded by the lack of any way to heal your characters completely other than items. In most JRPGs, you have either a free heal place (think the save locations in FFX, for instance), or at the very least inns in each town where you can pay to heal you party. In this game, there is none of that, and you are stuck relying on tents/potions or your characters’ own powers to heal your party.
This is in part the reason that gold is so important. As well as being the only way that you can buy and upgrade your equipment, it is completely important to keep a good stock of healing items on you at all times. In fact, there was rarely a time before the endgame where I left a town with any money on me at all. The way you make money is by selling all of the items you get from killing monsters, most of which drop things that are required to unlock more and more powerful Spritnites for your characters to make use of.
In the end, pretty much all of the mechanics work well together at the very least, even if some of them end up making the game feel a tad more frustrating than it would have ended up being. It feels like the game owes a lot to the 90s style of Final Fantasy, but it could have done with learning from some of the series’ older mistakes.
Visually, the game looks very attractive for the most part, although it does have its share of problems. The entire overworld and many of the towns that you visit have constant snowfall, something that is evidently a stylistic choice. However, this means that everything just looks the same, there is no visual difference to split up the areas that you are in, everything is just white and grey. What’s worse is the fact that when you get to some more visually interesting places, like the ruins that dot the land, they all look the same as each other as well. It’s almost like they ran out of ideas, money, or time before they had a chance to design enough environments to fill the entire game. This problem causes the entire world to feel like it lacks character, something that Final Fantasy games of the day used to have in spades.
Musically, the game really shines and goes a decent way to fitting in with the aesthetics of a snow covered land. All, or most, of the music is performed on piano, and it really demonstrates how versatile of an instrument the piano can be. At times the music is lilting and calm while you wander the land, then in times of deep emotional trauma, the score changes to a sombre and slow tune. It is not surprising that the game offers several versions that include the soundtrack and even sell it separately.
Finally, I feel like I should mention that although the game’s world is a little empty feeling, making the overall adventure feel a little small scale, the world is actually full of many secrets to discover once you unlock the airship towards the end. In particular, there is a secret village to visit that really shouldn’t be missed, you should seriously go there if you play the game and talk to everyone you find there.
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita, PC
Release Date: 19th July 2016