I Am Setsuna may be Tokyo RPG Factory’s first game as a development studio, but its finesse and reverence of past JRPG hits makes it an absolute joy to experience.
Depending on who gamers ask, we are currently in the midst of a RPG renaissance or the end of the genre as we know it. It has become apparent in the way studios are tackling the problem of the modern RPG that many believe the old fantasy trappings and turn-based style of gameplay just aren’t viable any more, and the response from fans has been sharply divided. Even Square Enix, the publisher behind so many RPG classics, has adapted – Final Fantasy 15 will be the biggest departure from the series’ core gameplay values ever. Yet Square isn’t completely ready to give up on the tried-and-true approach to RPG gaming, either, and the Tokyo RPG Factory studio is a tangible example of the publisher’s commitment to preserving the genre for traditionalists.
Enter I Am Setsuna, Tokyo RPG Factory’s first ever IP and a game that was developed from the outset to embody gameplay elements and narrative tropes that hearken back to mid-90s JRPG stalwarts like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6. The result of that philosophy is a game so stubborn about the quality and excellence of its inspirations that it cannot help but be excellent itself. I Am Setsuna is a seemingly impossible mix of a modern JRPG that is completely dedicated to preserving the gameplay experience that long-time fans are so comfortably familiar with.
From the very beginning of the game, RPG fans will experience small pangs of nostalgia as I Am Setsuna mixes the usual features of a JRPG narrative with small updates that help the game feel like it has something new to say. Players assume the role of Endir, a mysterious mercenary who is tasked with killing the latest ritual sacrifice in a world that demands them in order to keep monsters at bay. That sacrifice turns out to be Setsuna, a talented magic-user from the village that always produces a sacrifice, and Endir inexplicably finds himself unable to strike her down before he is subdued by her guardians.
The story proceeds from there, and without giving away too much, gamers can expect Endir to become embroiled in Setsuna’s pilgrimage and for other interesting characters to join them along the way. The story borrows many elements from Final Fantasy 10 and the journey and relationship shared between Tidus and Yuna, and it does it very well – the plot points they share are the most compelling ones, and when the game leans too close to being a stereotype of the genre, it pokes fun of it instead and does something different. The player’s first exposure to airships, for instance, is actually a very clever moment in the writing, which deserves praise for being able to find humor in a story that is dark and somber.
The setting reflects that somber tone, as the world of I Am Setsuna is one that is perpetually blanketed in snow. The graphics, which are definitely inspired by Chrono Trigger, do an excellent job of making the snowfall always noticeable on screen but never distracting. I Am Setsuna looks like some of anime’s best art at times, and minor additions like characters leaving footprints in the snow as they explore add to the gorgeous images that constantly appear on-screen. I Am Setsuna‘s music score, which is entirely done on piano and eschews the string instruments and percussion that often characterizes JRPG boss battles, is incredible as well – this is a game that isn’t trying to be epic, but personal and reflective instead, and it succeeds.
Perhaps the biggest surprise among the many pleasant ones that make up I Am Setsuna is the gameplay, which is decidedly traditionalist yet never fails to be smart or engaging. Tokyo RPG Factory clearly did its homework in developing I Am Setsuna, and it shows in the synthesis of its combat and character-building systems.
Combat in I Am Setsuna is, to be frank, almost exactly like the combat in Chrono Trigger that wowed audiences so long ago. Players can track down monsters on the map and either attack them from behind to gain an advantage or simply charge in with swords held high, and the combat is heavily reliant on its Momentum mode to freshen things up and change the texture of battles as the game progresses. Momentum mode is a meter that characters will charge either as they attack or are attacked or simply by waiting to input commands, and once charged, Momentum allows gamers to trigger it by pressing a button at the right time to strengthen their assault on enemies. Players can also use Momentum to make Combo Attacks with teammates even more devastating.
The effects of Momentum vary by ability, though, and can be further modified by using the game’s Spritnite system, which is like an amalgamation of the good qualities in both Final Fantasy 7‘s Materia system and Final Fantasy 8‘s Junction system. Players can equip different talismans which in turn let them equip different skills, and these skills will be available immediately for battle. If gamers use these skills and trigger Singularity, a RNG function that rewards characters with stat boosts or other boons when they use Momentum attacks, that skill will grow according to what the player has equipped. It sounds complicated, and it can be in the beginning, but it is an intuitive practice that fans will pick up and be glad they did as the game progresses and fights become increasingly more difficult.
Skills don’t just get picked up or learned along the way, however. In I Am Setsuna, skills are developed by picking up different drops from specific monsters and trading in a certain combination of them to a merchant. Monsters drop different items based on how gamers kill them, too, so a drop from an Exact Kill (hitting a monster for roughly the exact amount of HP it had left) will differ from a Fire Kill (this one is probably obvious). This system encourages players to try out new combinations and weapons while picking up items they need to further their character’s repertoire, and it makes the game’s limited number of enemies, who are often just re-skins of previously encountered ones, feel more fresh than they have any right being.
I Am Setsuna isn’t perfect, though. The story is immaculately paced, but character progression feels a little out of sync with what’s happening during the narrative. There are some real difficulty jumps that will punish players who don’t like to grind a little on the side to pick up some rarer item drops and useful skills – or the game becomes easy quickly once one figures out a combination of defensive skills that will make most boss fights a casual stroll through a beautiful, snowy park.
The ability to freely roam, too, feels a bit tacked on, as gamers will really only have the option to explore wherever they would like when there are only a few hours left of main story to go. This linearity is off-putting especially in the context of how much I Am Setsuna draws from Chrono Trigger, the latter of which features a great deal of multiple endings that was revolutionary in its day. There is only one ending to I Am Setsuna, although it comes with a final decision that will wrench on fans’ hearts for hours after it unfolds, and it would be nice to have had at least one other possibility.
Still, these drawbacks feel like nit-picking in a game that set out to revitalize the traditional JRPG and wholeheartedly succeeded. I Am Setsuna might not be the most innovative or technologically demanding game released this year – or even in the past five – but it is one of the most complete, and it offers an experience that near-perfectly blends incredible visuals, a music score that rivals some of Nobuo Uematsu’s best, and superb, polished gameplay into one of the best JRPGs released in years. I Am Setsuna is a must-have for already enfranchised fans of the genre, and a wonderful introduction to JRPGs for the uninitiated.
I Am Setsuna is available now for PS4 and PC. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.