I am Setsuna wears his influences on his sleeve – also on his company branded pants, shirt, shoes and baseball cap. The game draws heavily on SquareSoft’s classic SNES RPG Chrono trigger insofar as the inspiration is mentioned by name on the front page of the game’s website.
That means when you enter you know you’re in for a top-down, turn-based JRPG time taps off active during battles, and you can see your enemies on the screen before you face them. There are no surprise encounters here – except for the ones written into the story.
The story follows the titular Setsuna through the perspective of Endir, your masked, silent figure of a protagonist. Setsuna has been selected as a sacrifice – like her aunt, mother and many other women before them – on the theory that sacrificing a girl every few decades will ensure that the monsters that inhabit the world will leave them alone .
By the time Endir enters the picture (on his own quest to kill Setsuna for unrelated reasons), monster activity ramps up and these beasts seem more organized than ever. Lead a fateful encounter between our hero and heroine where he decides against cold-blooded murder, and suddenly a journey ensues that draws a growing group of party members in its wake.
I’ve been here before…
The story of a girl with a tragic fate and her ever-encouraging entourage isn’t the most original backbone for a JRPG. The bigger problem with I am Setsunais that it sprints through these clichés and archetypes without even letting them take root. Trust me, I’m not against the familiar tropes of airships, evil kings and feral swordsmen. In this game, however, there’s not enough to stick so tightly to those oh-so-traditional RPG elements.
Setsuna is a good example of this. She immediately falls for Endir, despite the fact that he barely speaks and tries to cut her head off during their first meeting. Of course, he promises to be her bodyguard until she reaches her place of sacrifice in the aptly named ‘Last Lands’. It’s as if the developers at Tokyo RPG Factory decided that credible personal motivations weren’t important. Instead they had to pull off predictable storylines dictated by the structure of games from more than 20 years ago.
Characters aside, everyone should be able to appreciate how beautiful the game looks in a gritty way. Almost the entire story has been washed away with snow and ice. As a native of North Dakota, I know ice from snow, and this is a pretty good rendering (even if it melds with the game’s plain-shy-from-gloomy tone for a one-note emotional ride).
But aside from the characters and the setting, I am Setsuna is full of concepts that are only half explained. The game tends to dump dense instructions on your party without demonstration, but at least the Active Time Battle (ATB) system needs no explanation for an entire generation of 16-bit RPG players. The system ditches the predetermined turn order in favor of “action bars” for characters and monsters, and these bars keep filling up even as you rummage around menus. The first action bar to fill gets the next move, just like in those games of old.
While that is not the case the simplest way to do things, ATB should be recognizable (or at least easy to understand) to almost anyone who’s played a JRPG by now. However, there are more than a few wrinkles that add to the complexity.