I Am Setsuna (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

I Am Setsuna (2016)

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Nostalgia is the core of I Am Setsuna, created and marketed as a conscious throwback to the heyday of '90s JRPGs.  On that measure alone, I Am Setsuna is of questionable quality as its slight tweaks to what made those '90s JRPGs special range from streamlining the experience too much to obtuse mechanisms so poorly implemented I decided not to bother.  But the nostalgia isn't just part of the gameplay - it's fused with the soundtrack, the eternally falling snow, character motivations, and dialogue.  What emerges is an overwhelming sense of melancholy, morphing the questionable quality of the game itself to an overall experience that is an interesting failure.

Folks who grew up on those '90s JRPGs, with Chrono Trigger the most heavily sampled game for I Am Setsuna, will take to the gameplay no problem.  I maneuvered around the top-down world with my party of three without the need for explanatory texts telling me I would get the drop on enemies if I initiated combat from behind.  Those texts were an unnecessary intrusion of flat explanation in this cold world, making me wish I Am Setsuna's developer - Tokyo RPG Factory - took the Chrono Trigger influence more to heart and introduced mechanics inside I Am Setsuna's world instead of signposting around them.  This made I Am Sesuna's opening act cumbersome as semi-silent protagonist Endir, who's supposed to be a skilled mercenary, lurches his way toward meeting the titular Setsuna.

You and me both Setsuna.

This means trekking through I Am Setsuna's overworld, which is easily its least compelling feature.  Overworld trekking has never been much more than a device used to extend the gameplay through random encounters.  Eventually some games found ways to make the overworld more compelling from Final Fantasy IX's treasure-hunting minigame and Dragon Quest VIII's monster recruiting.  There is no innovation in I Am Setsuna's overworld, no random encounters either, just trekking from one nearly identical city to the next.  I got frustrated at one part of the game because I needed to backtrack to a previously visited city only to spend more time than I'd like futzing about as each location is as forgettable as the last.  They're all shacks with snow, sometimes a dock or two, and only the village of former magic users living over veins of raw power makes an impact.  It's almost funny that the names of these towns feel similarly lazy, with the final destination named The Last Lands.

Overworld  trekking can tell its own story, like the way the epochs in Chrono Trigger chart the rise and fall of different civilizations while the planet slowly shifts.  What saves I Am Setsuna's overworld trek from killing interest is the other aesthetic qualities, particularly the music.  There's not much variety in the piano accompanying Endir and Setsuna, but the gentle scales and hesitant if slightly more energetic boss themes place a melancholic weight on even the few tough battles.  The melancholy borders on fatalism at times, with little romanticizing as Setsuna is simply known as The Sacrifice, and the towns - though lacking in compelling identity - filled with people desperate to remember a time when their lives weren't constantly threatened.  It's hard not to feel a bit of the helplessness of this world when the individual qualities, though troubled, form such a melancholic whole.The same applies to the playable characters who, at first brush, are fairly sterile archetypes of JRPGs.  There's the scythe wielding bad guy who may or may not have a troubled past, and the smart aleck magic prodigy child, an archetype I'd be happy to never see again.  What makes these characters feel fresh is how the nostalgia seeps into their backstories and writing.  They're all living with painful reminders of the past that also give them strength and motivation trying to live up to a standard that's either died out or is barely remembered.  The most compelling of these is Julienne, leader of a nearly destroyed kingdom who consumed monster blood to stay alive in a botched defense of her home.  Shame she's one of the least effective in combat and her attacks don't bring to mind any of the monstrous qualities she had to take on to survive.

Which brings me to the meat of I Am Setsuna and most JRPGs - the combat.  I Am Setsuna keeps the turn-based tradition alive by adapting the active time battle (ATB) system of Chrono Trigger and its new addition of "momentum" attacks.  What "momentum" boils down to is a second bar that starts filling up once the first bar is done, and you can store up to three charges to power-up every move in the game.  This is a problem for many reasons, the first that sitting around waiting for another bar to fill is preferable to acting quickly and negates the point of having an ATB system.  The second is that the moves become so powerful in their "momentum" state that I was able to one-shot almost every random encounter in the game.  This leads to the third problem, that following my JRPG instincts to start every fight with an advantage by attacking from behind means everyone in the party gets a tick of momentum.  So most fights involved little strategy and a tiny amount of button presses to highlight the tech, use the tech, then press the momentum button to kill everything.  If you want a challenge you're going to have to put yourself at a disadvantage and ignore "momentum" overall.Boss fights are a bit tougher, but by the time those are an issue Endir and company were loaded with a variety of techniques that made everything a breeze.  Just withstand one barrage of attacks and I was able to give my party status immunity, resurrection powers, stronger attacks, and inflict a number of debilitating effects on the boss.  There was no need to grind because the "momentum" system rains items down for easy profit, which in turn get transferred to new skills, and the already easy combat grows more tiring in repetition.  The battle system is the polar opposite of the cooking system in terms of complexity where I have to find ingredients, talk to the NPC who gives the recipe using those ingredients, then taking the recipe to an innkeep to make the meal, and finally buy the meals individually as they're one-shot benefits per battle.  It's so cumbersome I only got one recipe and didn't bother with the rest as I was never that desperate for stat boosts.

In trying to distinguish itself from its predecessors, I Am Setsuna comes off more as a slogging well-intentioned experiment like Phantasy Star 3 than the streamlined joy of Chrono Trigger.  Even with its flaws, Tokyo RPG Factory is onto something with the overall sensation of melancholy trekking from location to location, knowing there's no spiritual comfort waiting and only death for the escort.  It may be a bit too fatalistic for some, but for my melancholy heart there was more affect in I Am Setsuna's corners than in the most blistering boss battles of others.

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Posted by Andrew

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