The marketing for I am Setsuna has essentially been reminding us that role-playing games were once the greatest genre in all of gaming. Its Steam page tells gamers that it was “inspired by the timeless classic Chrono Trigger” and that the developer, Tokyo RPG Factory, has created an “homage to the JRPG masterpieces of yesteryear.” It’s certainly an accurate description, even if it’s never a good sign to see a game constantly comparing itself to others.
To get this out of the way – I am Setsuna is a full blown, unabashed nostalgia play. Everything from its top-down look to how its turn-based battles are structured have been designed to remind gamers of the past. The Chrono Trigger influence is so thick that there is even an ability called “X-Strike” available almost immediately.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its own merits, however. Combat is particularly interesting, as it has a lot of hidden complexity underneath its basic structure of attacks and special abilities. Characters can gain momentum by delaying their own attacks once ready, and can then use that to give bonuses to their own skills. Attacks that have momentum applied do more damage, while healing spells are more effective. It’s an added layer of strategy, and one that is definitely appreciated.
While the battles have depth, they do start to feel repetitive pretty quickly. Maybe I’m spoiled after playing games like Undertale and Severed where each battle was its own interesting puzzle that I had to figure out, but I never became enamored with the combat in I am Setsuna. In each area I’d battle the same two or three enemy types over and over, get to wherever I had to be and do it all over again. There often wasn’t anything interesting going on, and I was just going through the motions after I had learned about the complexity of the fighting.
Just learning the ins and outs of Setsuna‘s combat will take a few hours, as the game does a pretty poor job of explaining its systems. Instead of demonstrating players how to use momentum efficiently or how to use Spritnite to give your characters new skills, the game instead just presents the player with lengthy screens filled with text. It’s a lot to take in at once and a poor way to tutorialize. I would recommend taking a look at this helpful beginner’s guide after an hour or two of the game, just to make sure you understand all of its systems. It took me awhile to come to grips with it, and thus I struggled on what should’ve been some easy boss fights.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of I am Setsuna is how well it sets a tone from the very beginning. The story it tells is a somber one, about a young girl who must be sacrificed in order to keep the world safe. It’s up to the player to guide her and complete this deed, and a heavy shroud of death always lingers in the air. Every village I went to in my playthrough had its own fair share of tragedies to tell, and I got to see a world that was more sad than fantastic. The storytelling isn’t always spectacular (as some characters will go from being evil to good with one line of dialogue), but it always did enough to keep me interested.
This tone also translates to the game’s visuals. I am Setsuna takes place in a snowy world, and just like in real life, the snow can be both beautiful and dreadful. Technically, it’s nothing to marvel at, as it all looks simple enough to where it would feel at home on a portable device (and honestly, I would’ve preferred to have played it on one).
Having one set area type to explore did strike me as quite different from the RPGs of yesteryear. While Chrono Trigger constantly had me venturing into beautiful cities, colorful forests and other locales, I am Setsuna offers up snow, snow and more snow. The scope is pretty underwhelming when you’re trying to remind gamers of something that is so much larger.
While the nostalgia-laden marketing certainly piqued my interest, I can’t help but feel like it ultimately does a disservice to the game. The combat is fun and deep enough to stand on its own, so it doesn’t need to lean on its retro elements as a crutch. I really wish the game, and the developers behind it, were more confident in their own ideas rather than replicating the success of others. What I ended up enjoying about I am Setsuna was what it brought new to the table, not what I’ve seen done better before.
I’m left largely wondering what the game I am Setsuna could have been. Almost all of its issues arise from trying to be so much of a throwback that it feels dated in spots, like having to backtrack out of an area to save. It’s weird considering how forward-thinking it is in other areas. Tokyo RPG Factory wrote a love letter to the past, but it made me more excited for the future of the genre. This might not be the title to move it forward, but it does illustrate why JRPGs need to continue to evolve.
I am Setsuna is very much a throwback to the great RPGs of the ’90s. This works to both the game’s benefit and detriment. Tokyo RPG Factory evokes a sense of nostalgia, which helped hook me in, but also fails to recapture the magic of the games it pays homage to. There are interesting ideas here, and the journey is one worth embarking on, but ultimately it feels like an imitation — even if it’s a good one.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I really want to play Chrono Trigger.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version, which we were provided with.
It doesn't quite recapture the magic of Chrono Trigger, but I Am Setsuna has enough interesting mechanics to stand on its own without the crutch of nostalgia.