It’s clear that we are in the midst of a gaming renaissance, as genres largely dormant since the '80s and '90s are getting revived left and right. Considering its legacy, it is fitting that Square Enix is spearheading the revival of the NES/SNES era of the JRPG. To do this, the publisher opened a new studio, Tokyo RPG Factory, whose sole goal is to create old school JRPGs for modern gamers. That developer's first game, I Am Setsuna, successfully throws back to early JRPGs, but falls short of bringing them into the modern era.
I Am Setsuna is set in a snow covered world full of monsters who must be held in check every 10 years through the sacrifice of a human. You and a band of other adventurers are tasked with escorting the latest sacrifice to the Last Lands. Throughout the journey, you and your party are confronted with countless obstacles and challenges which begin to make you question your goals.
The strength of the story comes from how seldom these challenges are simple fetch or kill quests. Rather, they present surprisingly nuanced and thematically rich scenarios which often change your perspective of the story in interesting ways. The game has a clear focus on character, with its most pivotal moments focussing on the characters, their relationships, and how they develop throughout the journey. The interplay between the game's themes – particularly that of sacrifice – and these characters is what keeps the story interesting throughout.
Structurally, the story is very familiar, closely following the arc of old JRPGs – particularly in how each new story beat revolves around meeting and integrating a new adventurer into your party. However, I Am Setsuna is a tight 20 hour game, as opposed to the sprawling 60-plus hours of old school JRPGs. Despite its comparative brevity, I Am Setsuna manages to maintain a similar level of story depth as those '90s behemoths. The result is a much tighter pace than is typical to the genre, with story beats and combat sections sharing an almost equal amount of screen time with quick succession.
I Am Setsuna has an unrelentingly sombre tone, which though useful for its effect on storytelling, is bound to alienate some players. The narrative itself, with its themes of sacrifice and death, naturally imparts this melancholy, but the creators have strongly emphasised it through both the world design and sound.
The world is an endless snowscape, which while charming, is also depressing in its grey, cold palette. The music is particularly effective in communicating the game's tone, with a simple piano soundtrack that like the world design is beautiful yet chilling. It’s easy to see how this encompassing tone will lead to a lot of love-it-or-hate-it reactions. Personally, I think that the game's melancholic tone is quite unique, and surprisingly cathartic, in the same way that having a good blubber watching a sad movie can make you feel better.
Though story may be I Am Setsuna’s strength, its gameplay is definitely its weakness. If you’ve ever played Chrono Trigger, you’ll already be quite familiar with the basics of the game's combat system, with three person battle parties and an Active Time Battle (ATB) system. However, the battles themselves aren’t nearly as well constructed or balanced as those in their inspiration.
Early on, it is easy to figure out the most effective series of attacks, with which it is possible to finish most encounters in mere moments. The game tries to incentivise varied combat through rewards at the end of battle, however, the right combo will give you all the rewards anyway. I kept expecting the game to mix it up, presenting challenges which stopped me taking advantage of it in this way, but throughout, the problem persisted.
The only time you have to mix things up is during boss fights, where the strength of the enemy and length of the battle allows you to think strategically about attacks and skills. It is only in these boss battles that you see the potential of the battle system, and can lament how poorly implemented it is elsewhere in the game.
Part of the problem is there are multiple important systems introduced that are not well explained. The worst offender is the currency system: at the end of combat you are rewarded items instead of money, which can be exchanged to a vendor for skills. However, the game never explains what approach in combat yields which items, so there is no way to purposefully approach combat to get the skill you want.
Another problem the game has is introducing systems which don’t seem to have much effect. An example of this is the Flux system, which I believe allows you to modify your techs. However, after 20-plus hours of play, I still have no idea of how it works or what its effect is, even though it seemed the game had automatically applied some of them. I read all of the tutorials for the system multiple times, and was still none the wiser. And yet, I made it through the game just fine without knowing how to use it, so how important can the system even be to begin with?
I Am Setsuna is a step forward for the JRPG genre in many ways, but a giant step back in others. It is exciting to see developers using modern game development standards on such an old style, and seeing how contemporary art, design and sound can bring these worlds to life more than ever before. It’s also exciting to see a studio experimenting with tone to such effect. However, the gameplay systems which were so well-loved in the '80s and '90s are not well executed in I Am Setsuna, making much of it feel weaker than similar games that are two decades old.