Even though turn-based games aren’t my usual pick, it’s always good to get out of your comfort zone and explore an unfamiliar genre more closely. With Square Enix’s I Am Setsuna, the further I progressed, the more I realised I might need to ask some of my colleagues what is considered normal and expected for a game such as this. The problem is that I’ve dabbled in loads of similar games, but only ever got hooked on one: Chrono Trigger. As such, many of my comparisons had that game in mind. It turns out I’m not suffering RPG hangover and seeing parts of my most recent endeavour all through Setsuna; it was apparently inspired by Chrono Trigger, but with much of its own flair thrown in.
The most standout aspect of I Am Setsuna would have to be its overall presentation; even the thumbnail on the PS4 home screen stood out with its minimalist tree in the snow. The music played us in with pensive notes and no introduction as to what we were getting into. The chibi characters had a chat to set the scene briefly, but I was distracted by the way I could walk and crunch through the snow around us. The trees shook and shuddered in the wind, releasing little puffs of snow into the air as I left trials in the thigh-deep snow that slowly filled in again before my eyes. Walking in snow may be a small detail, but it’s a good reference point for the rest of the game; details weren’t missed but were included to draw you deeper into the narrative and its surroundings. The chimey accompaniment throughout was enough without taking over the scene, though it was definitely reminiscent of Chrono’s soundscape.
In saying that, there isn’t a lot to set this apart from the few other turn-based games I’ve played; it was more about finding the similarities. The use of tents to restore the HP/MP of your party, the ever present buy and sell NPCs in every tavern, the inability to move during battle aside from choosing your next turn – it was all natural and familiar. A new feature, however, was Momentum. I accidently missed the explanation because it was so convoluted and hoped I wasn’t missing out. However, during the first boss battle, which featured some rather jazzy Broadway-fight music, I found out how to use it by trial and error. It was so simple I had to wonder why they bothered with a wall of text to explain it in the first place, here is the basic how to: when the snowflake has a light, press X after your attack. TADA! It took core competencies and added oomph behind well-timed use, giving you an edge in battles if you used it cleverly.
I have to admit it wasn’t so much the story that first caught my attention, but rather the title and title art. I Am Setsuna means “I am sorrow,” so I knew the game would attempt to be a heartbreaker of a ride. It reminded me of Ni No Kuni with the contrast between the look and darkness it hinted at. The beginning doesn’t give too much away until your first meeting, followed by the sudden absence of music and imagery, with a few simple lines telling you to kill an innocent teenager as the trees gently rustle in the wind. Next, title credits slowly follow your character as he crunches through the snow with almost peaceful music, marching towards the arranged murder of a young girl. That’s when I got hooked, and suddenly I cared that I got to make narrative decisions. I don’t know about anyone else, but knowing she was a destined sacrifice and I was supposed to kill her triggered my morals and guaranteed I’d see this story out.
While I’m not finished with the game yet, I’ve seen enough to be glad I went out of my comfort zone with this one. Yeah, the towns are filled with all the same NPC models, the offensive side could move in battles but I couldn’t, and some plot points were inevitable, but it played well. Someone like me coming back to the genre (after several failed attempts) could pick it up and enjoy playing it my way without stumbling around, even after missing the novella that was every explanation. It was heartfelt and had so many nods to Chrono Trigger I eased right in. The first special move learned by our sword-wielding hero was Cyclone, Athenian Water revives your party, and every damn chest is locked. It’s almost like a prettier version with less punishing bosses and an aspect of control in battles thanks to Momentum.
The bottom line of I Am Setsuna is that grasping what they were aiming for comes naturally through the momentum of the game, but somehow it still feels as if it’s missing something. It’s beautiful, it manages to cut back on some of the long-windedness of turn-based RPGs, the narrative is not so fundamental as to risk losing interest, and the characters are relatively easy to invest in. The difficulty progression also suits the game, and with so few deterrents, I’m hoping it holds up as I progress to the end-game content. That being said, I don’t feel it does anything new for the genre, or that it goes out of its way to deliver an unmissable story to match its level of presentation or playability. However, If this is the first in the new range of games from Square Enix’s new studio, Tokyo RPG Factory, I think it’s a pretty solid start.