Long gone are the days where Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) were the peak of gameplay and storytelling in the video game world. Before technology replaced the simple yet charming pixel art with polygons and 3D models, and before western influence pushed the need for maturity and realism, JRPGs represented a simpler time in gaming history. I am Setsuna borrows influence from the great JRPGs of that era. Chrono Trigger is its largest (and most evident) influence, with traces of Final Fantasy VI (III in Japan), and other timeless classics. I am Setsuna borrows a lot from these games in terms of exploration, equipment customization, and combat, but it doesn’t add anything groundbreaking to the genre. This isn’t as much of a problem as you might think, because I am Setsuna never intended to redefine the genre, merely to pay homage to it. What gives I am Setsuna the ability to stand apart from the games it pays tribute to is its wonderfully melancholy story.
I am Setsuna is a beautifully sad game. The world is plagued by monsters who attack human settlements, and the only way to keep them at bay is to send a human sacrifice every decade to the Last Lands. Enter Setsuna (the game’s namesake), the young sacrifice who is tasked with giving her life so humanity can continue their miserable existence. The world is stuck in an endless winter, and the sacrifice does not bring summer or happiness to humanity upon completing her journey. When the sacrifice completes her journey, the monsters cease to be as aggressive with the humans, and they go back to scraping by. Is this world truly worth the effort it takes to save it? Setsuna certainly thinks so. She pushes towards the completion of her journey without protest, and is often the cheeriest member of the group. A lot of moments help strengthen Setsuna’s character, but one moment defined it. When Setsuna is talking to a child in Blackwhelm cave about the passing of his mother, she acknowledges that “When living things die, time stops for them.” This shows that Setsuna understands the how absolute death is, and demonstrates how she has come to terms with what awaits her at the end of her journey. She has never tried to find a way to change her destiny, but always walks towards it accepting it for what it is: the means to save a world she will never live in.
Over the course of the game, you play as Endir (or whichever name you choose for him), a masked mercenary who is initially tasked with killing the sacrifice. Through various decisions, made by the player, Endir decides to accompany her to the Last Lands to complete her journey. Through story events and dialogue options, the player witnesses Endir genuinely grow as a character, perhaps distancing himself from his vocation. Whenever Endir speaks, you are given the choice between something upbeat and optimistic to contribute to the conversation, or something blunt and derisive. These options let you play into the ‘heartless mercenary’ role, but as you progress in the story his comments have more weight behind them. Even his more calloused dialog options have consideration and logic behind them, and are not just meant to show how little he cares about saving the world. Without spoiling too much of Endir’s story and character, the strong suit of I am Setsuna is the cast, and Endir is definitively the member of the team who develops the most.
Apart from Setsuna and Endir, I am Setsuna hosts several other characters, and each of them has their own depth. Since story is so important to this game, I won’t talk about them too much, as it’s more rewarding to discover them on your own. Nidr, the mysterious skilled swordsman, binds a lot of narrative pieces together even though he keeps all of his cards close until midway through the game. Kir, the black magic user who is just a kid, fits the build of a character that I would typically dislike (snot-nosed brat who has to bicker with the adults), but turned out to be someone I enjoyed having in the group. There are many more characters in I am Setsuna whom I will leave for you to encounter.
One of I am Setsuna‘s most derviative mechanics is the ATB (Active Time Battle) system. Lifted from early Final Fantasy games, the ATB system gives all members of the battle a bar that fills to determine when it’s your turn. Once your bar is full, you can attack, perform a technique, or use an item. Attacks range from basic melee attacks to ranged attacks. There are many things keeping battles from feeling stale. Enemies can move around the battlefield freely, so if you wisely plan your techniques, you can hit multiple enemies at the same time. There is also the potential for each character to take on multiple roles during combat. Endir, my heavy hitting swordsman, is adapt with healing magic, and when things got hairy, I could switch him to a healing role, then back to melee once the battle come back into my favor. In true Chrono Tigger fashion, if two or more party member’s ATB bars fill, in addition to having the required Spiritnite (the technique enabling, mystical anomaly similar to Final Fantasy‘s materia), you are given the option to perform a combo attack that deals massive damage. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an incredibly wide variety of enemies to dispatch. In the starting hours of the game, you will see the majority of enemies I am Setsuna pits against you. Later in the game, these same opponents will reappear with a change of colors and some boosted stats, but are essentially the same ones you’ve already encountered. There are some more unique ones towards the end, but they get the same treatment as you get closer to the finale. Thanks to these factors, battles eventually start feeling tedious, and I had to weigh the options of running past groups of them (in exchange for not getting the experience I need for later combat), or gritting my teeth as I conducted another repetitive and time-consuming fight.
Another issue I had with the battles were the boss fights. The boss encounters earlier in the game were properly balanced and were the perfect mix of difficult yet fun. As I progressed in I am Setsuna, the bosses became more irritating to fight, especially one in particular about mid-game named Stout Sheep. Stout Sheep was one of the most frustrating bosses for me in recent role-playing game memory. He has the ability to regenerate massive amounts of health, and then without warning, kill your entire party. During one attempt, I was able to debuff him and cause enough status effects that I felt confident in my victory. Then, he regenerated his health completely, and (to add insult to injury) wiped out my whole party. If I were a more easily deterred gamer, this would have been the point where I turned off I am Setsuna, never to play it again. Instead, I laid down, practiced my inhaling and exhaling, counted to ten, and tried again. Even after grinding and leveling up to a far higher level than should have been necessary, I still struggled to beat Stout Sheep. There are a few other bosses who are more challenging than they should be at the point in the game that they’re present, and encountering them made future boss fights feel like a necessary evil to progress the story instead of an empowering accomplishment. The final boss suffered from the opposite issue. It was not difficult to beat. I stuck to my normal routine, which was to have two melee characters beating down on it while another healed, throwing debuffs in when they are needed, and I didn’t struggle at all. There was no point where I needed to switch tactics, which was disappointing considering how much of a high-caliber evil monster it’s built up in the story to be.
The music in I am Setsuna is composed by Tomoki Miyoshi, and is performed on a single piano. The piano is a great instrument to perform emotional and evocative pieces, and I am Setsuna takes full advantage of that. From its flagship track Beginning of the End to my personal favorite, Endless Crusade, the emotional range of the piano plays an important role in the game. While I am a sucker for piano, I would have loved to hear more instruments add to the musicality of certain sections of the game. A solo piano is wonderful in certain parts of this sad game, but there are also a lot of triumphant sections which could have used a wider variety of instruments to help create the proper atmosphere.
While I am Setsuna doesn’t try to be anything unique in terms of combat and decades old role-playing standards, it brings an intensely emotional story with one of the most bitter-sweet ending I’ve experienced in all my years of playing games. For the casual gamer, or someone who has only ever played the War Shooter games, I am Setsuna is a decent enough game to get into the JRPG genre with. Although you may struggle with some of the systems until you are more familiar with them, it’s still fairly accessible. For traditional JRPG fans, it’s worth picking up I am Setsuna not just for the story, but also for the nods to the classic JRPGs that brought many of us into the gaming world.