I Am Setsuna Review: Sacrifice and chill
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I Am Setsuna is a JRPG from Square Enix, developed by Tokyo RPG Factory. Despite the mass-production imagery this name might bring to mind, what results is a very unique title that evokes memories of classic RPGs gone by. After launching on PS4 and PC in July, Square Enix has brought I Am Setsuna to Nintendo Switch.
Set in a world of perpetual winter, I Am Setsuna tells the story of the titular character, a young woman with a dark destiny. The world is constantly under siege by monsters and the only way to turn the tide is for a human to give its life as sacrifice, returning the land to relative peace for a few years. Chosen as the newest sacrifice, Setsuna assembles her guard and sets out for the Last Lands, where she will give her life.
While the story may revolve around Setsuna, you instead take primary control of Endir, a masked mercenary. After being given the task to kill Setsuna, Endir travels to the village she calls home and prepares to take her down. After a very RPG series of events, he instead finds himself a member of her personal guard on her journey to the Last Lands. Played as the standard silent protagonist, Endir communicates only through the occasional dialogue choices during story scenes. While your choices usually boil down to ‘service the plot’ and ‘sassily service the plot’, it does make Endir effectively bland – increasing the connection to Setsuna and her narrative instead.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t a happy-go-lucky narrative either. When the development team states that the key theme of their game is sadness, you know you’re in for a ride. While there are moments of levity, I Am Setsuna has no qualms about embracing the fact that it’s a story about going on a road trip to die.
Backing this fairly heavy narrative is a beautiful world. While Setsuna isn’t a triple-A project, it’s made the most of what it’s got. With the worldwide winter it finds itself in, it’s not surprising that snow is present basically everywhere you go. Yet, environments still feel varied enough to stay interesting. The singular focus on winter also means that the snow effects are top-notch. Constant flurries of snow drift past the screen and trees will occasionally shake off a load of snow as you pass them. Your movement through the thick snowfall also leaves deep divots that slowly fill in, allowing you to see your progress around each area (helpful to prevent doubling back, to boot). The same applies for enemies and weapon strikes in combat, leaving trampled paths around the map as you journey on. As minor as it is, it does make you feel like more a part of the world. And before you ask, yes of course I carved out a giant snow penis the moment I knew it was possible. Obviously.
Icy genitalia aside, I Am Setsuna’s cold and quiet world is accompanied by a rather lovely low-key soundtrack. While there isn’t a huge volume of music in the game – you’ll come to recognise the different tracks relatively quickly – it is composed entirely of a solitary piano directing you through the world. The quality of the recording is fantastic, and it never feels bland despite the lack of variety in instruments. In contrast, it actually reinforces the solemn nature of the game’s story while pairing perfectly with a world that looks clean and crisp, covered in snow. Even the combat music works without having a full orchestral backing.
Combat itself is going to feel incredibly familiar to any gamer who has played Chrono Trigger. Coverage for the game has made a big deal out of this similarity, and with good reason. Much like its predecessor, Setsuna has its party and enemies visible on the map at all times. Run into an enemy and combat initiates seamlessly on the same screen, with barely a fraction of a second taken to load you into the fight. From there you have the often-overlooked Active Time Battle model in play, with all combatants waiting on their bar to fill before being able to take an action. It’s a delightfully simple system that doesn’t feel the need to overload itself with gimmicky subsystems – cough cough, basically every modern JRPG, cough cough – and so is immediately understandable without an excessive tutorial.
Increasing the similarity to Chrono Trigger is the ability to perform combo attacks between your party members. Certain attacks and spells – accessible by equipping your party with “Spritnite” stones that contain them – can be used together to create more powerful attacks. The first one made available to you also pays homage to its predecessor, being the same ‘X-Slash’ move used by Crono and Frog in Trigger.
Despite its console and PC origins, I Am Setsuna feels at home in handheld mode on Switch. The gameplay and visual style suit the small size of the portable screen. Although, its archaic limited save point system disagrees with the nature of a handheld and clearly wasn’t originally intended to be released on one — if you’re planning to play in short bursts, make sure your Switch is going to survive in sleep mode for a while.
I Am Setsuna is the good kind of nostalgic. It utilises the best elements of the past to its benefit, rather than to excuse an otherwise lacklustre game. And yet, while playing to the nostalgia it also makes sure to do something different to set it apart. The more sombre tone of the story means you’re not going to be adding a chivalrous frog knight to your party here, but the package you get it doesn’t suffer as a result. Clocking in a bit shorter than the average Square Enix RPG, I Am Setsuna is a great game to play between the big releases ahead.
Review: I Am Setsuna
I Am Setsuna was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4 and Nintendo Switch, as provided by the publisher. The original review appeared in June 2016. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.