I Am Setsuna, a tribute to the “golden era of RPGs,” is a snow-covered trip down memory lane. But does it stand on its own when you remove the rose-colored glasses?
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS4 (Version Reviewed), PC (PS Vita only in Japan)
Release Date: July 19th, 2016
It never fails. At E3, every year, I get a tiny flutter of hope that maybe, just maybe this will be the year and we’ll get a Chrono Trigger sequel. This defies all logic and all statements from the team, who have since parted ways and moved on. And yet, both those who worked on the Chrono games and those at the company who loved them in their time understand well the nostalgia and longing their audience has for one of the best games and RPGs of all time. And that nostalgia has brought us I Am Setsuna.
I Am Setsuna is the story of the titular young woman, a maiden sacrifice to appease the monsters and cease their constant attacks. Leading the party is the silent protagonist–a masked mercenary initially instructed to slay Setsuna. The two, along with other members of the sacrifice’s guard, must journey through a snow-covered, monster-infested world to get to the Last Lands, where the sacrifice will be made, and the monsters kept at bay once again.
The game clings tightly to its RPG roots–there are upgradeable weapons, a cooking system, various magical and technical abilities, and an ATB (Active Time Battle) system to keep you on your toes in combat. Your party will grow as your journey, but fights will always only include up to three of your party members, who can attack alone or use their learned techs in tandem with one another for more powerful combinations. The battles and abilities also make heavy use of space, with enemies and allies moving across the field in at times difficult to predict patterns, often forcing you to reconsider your strategy.
Make no mistake–this game can be brutal, though it’s rarely unfair. There are multiple, enormous dungeons with no save point to fall back on if you die near the very top. Bosses can be cake if you have the right combination of party members, but you may need to reset multiple times to find that magical combination needed to counter a monster’s abilities. There are no inns, money for healing items is difficult to come by without grinding, and battles can take you by surprise. Be cautious, save often, and prepare for a difficulty level more akin to older RPGs than modern ones.
That’s not a complaint, though. The difficulty was a surprise, but once understood, provided an enjoyable challenge. In fact, collecting new techs and using them in different combos to counter specific enemies was what kept the battles fun and fresh. This became necessary as the game entered its later hours, and I began to see the third or fourth reskins of the same monster family reappearing.
I Am Setsuna feels like visiting the grown child of a long-lost friend. Everything seems beautifully familiar, yet inexplicably different.
That type of repetition is the one thing I truly disliked about I Am Setsuna. The last few hours of the game feature some tedious dungeons, all mostly mundane reskins of the earlier dungeons, but longer. The same monsters appear over and over, requiring the same strategies for defeating them. The beautiful, artistic environment of snow, snow and more snow became depressingly familiar. Don’t even get me started on the five or so iterations of “temple with floating rocks.”
But the story makes it worth pressing onward. Though skimpy on the sidequests (some may call that a plus), each character in the party gets his or her own moment to shine, complete with interesting motivations, well-written and translated dialogue, and an “Oh!” moment for almost everyone where things turn out to be not what they seemed. I Am Setsuna managed to invest me fully into every single character, both regarding combat and narrative. That’s a rare feat.
The NPCs and worldbuilding were unexpected treats. As it should in an RPG of this style, the world fully opens up to you in the late-game. There are several secrets to find, including a few optional dungeons and bosses, and peeking back into towns you’ve already cleared yields new NPC dialogue related to what’s going on in the world at the time. Many NPCs had four, five, or more dialogue sets, depending on what had just happened.
There are also treasure chests worth going back for, and hidden materials for obtaining new techs. I’m nowhere near convinced I’ve found all the quirks and secrets of I Am Setsuna, and I’m eager to return to the world after beating the game to seek out what I may have missed.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the nostalgia factor, since so much of this game’s promotion relied on its connection to the “golden era of RPGs.” Make no mistake. This isn’t a love letter to an era; it’s a love letter to one game, maybe two: Chrono Trigger and its sort-of sequel, Chrono Cross. If you loved either or both of those games, I Am Setsuna will have you teary-eyed with memories (the gorgeous, all-piano soundtrack encourages this feeling, too!). It’s not a direct sequel, nor is it a cheap attempt at nostalgia. Rather, playing I Am Setsuna feels like visiting the grown child of a long-lost friend. Everything seems beautifully familiar, yet inexplicably different.
And if you haven’t played the Chrono games, that’s okay, too. I Am Setsuna does just fine on its own. Its tutorials are easily accessible (and skippable, thank you), the world and story are beautiful and engaging, and there are exactly enough extras and collectibles to make you want to revisit areas without the obligation of 100% completion of useless activities.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.