Squaresoft’s classic JRPGs released during the Super Nintendo’s reign are fondly remembered for many reasons, among them the masterful compositions of composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda. So when I Am Setsuna (IAS) was initially announced as a return to this legacy, fans might’ve expected IAS’s music to approximate their styles. Interestingly, Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Studio have subverted such expectations: excluding a few key pieces (e.g. the combat music), IAS’s 71-piece-soundtrack is entirely piano driven. This might elicit concern about the soundtrack becoming monotonous or of the music inadequately capturing the feelings that arise from players engaging with a diverse range of characters and scenarios. Fortunately, Tomoki Miyoshi’s fine arranging and Randy Kerber’s sensitive playing counter these worries more than might be expected, providing a varied yet cohesive and satisfying experience.
Having a mostly piano-driven soundtrack also offers unique advantages. When considered in its wider context, this artistic direction distinguishes IAS from a recent wave of games looking to the past for inspiration, as such games borrow heavily from the previous generation’s art and systems (IAS’s adoption of Chrono Trigger’s Active Time Battle system is a clear example). Every difference, subtle or otherwise, is crucial for giving the game a distinctive identity, and in IAS’s case the soundtrack provides an integral contrast to its genre’s predecessors. Miyoshi’s choice of instrumentation also facilitates creative ways of conveying the game’s atmospheres and environments (i.e. lots of snowy places): on “Lighthearted” the playfulness of the melody and waltz-like rhythm conjures the joyful moments of winter when snow first falls. Conversely, sparser pieces like “Beginning of the End” underscore winter’s more desolate aspects, each note echoing and slowly trailing away towards indistinctness. These pieces particularly demonstrate space and ambience providing as effective an accompaniment to Kerber as any additional combination of instruments could, rendering every touch of the piano more meaningful as notes briefly glimmer before being swallowed up.
Perhaps most importantly, this direction is especially suited to articulating the game’s core themes. Setsuna, besides being a protagonist’s name, refers to the concept setsunai (or setsunasa). This distinctively Japanese expression lacks a direct English translation (and so developers aimed to have the game articulate the concept more effectively, if more indirectly), but roughly it expresses a feeling of wistful sorrow, or a sadness or bitterness that accompanies resignation to a cruel fate. The soundtrack prioritizes this concept immediately, and a few oft-recurring compositional techniques emphasize this: using minimalism and ambience to establish a melancholic atmosphere, conservatively approaching louder dynamics to sustain the mood, and, when not sticking within strict constraints, gradually expanding and contracting the pitch range to provide warmer and colder articulations of setsunai as pieces progress. These techniques enhance the piano’s natural tendency to grant pieces an intimacy that encourages reflection, even on rather upbeat tracks, whilst pieces requiring a different emotive focus (e.g. combat pieces) still cohere with the wider album due to the choice of instrumentation. Miyoshi’s powerful and consistent engagement with setsunai gives the soundtrack an identity in itself (in contrast to simply a collection of songs from a game), thus also offering something unique for listeners who might otherwise be unfamiliar or uninterested in the game.
With that said, the limited textural range combined with IAS’s emotive focus (which places constraints on composition and performance) sometimes results in pieces blending together, becoming decreasingly distinct and memorable. A positive framing of this would describe the soundtrack as impressionistic, given both how it is unified, and the dreaminess that arises from how pieces interact, the piano’s timbre, and the prominence of ambiance, whereas a negative perspective would simply describe it as (somewhat) monotonous. This might be worrying since it is precisely by listening to the whole soundtrack that its greatest artistic merit is evident; ironically its greatest merit might itself be a barrier to enjoyment. Personally I prefer the positive description, but accept that reasonable people might disagree.
Given IAS’s focus, my favorite pieces were those especially suited to articulating setsunai, such as the intimate and peaceful tracks (“Tender Glow”, “A Sense of Safety”) where one might imagine strolling through a village or an emotive encounter between characters, and pieces that evoked atmospheres of enchantment and mystery (“Ruins”, “Distant Islands”). To be fair, the soundtrack showcases surprising variance, with some pieces (“The Winter Breeze”, “Towards the Distant Horizon”, “The Clouds Above”) effectively conveying a sense of heroism and grand adventure (though things don’t reach the same peaks as, say, Chrono Trigger’s main theme), whilst others (“Deadly Gamble”, “A Fantastic Encounter”) showcase an incredible ferocity freed from within the keys, as Kerber unleashes monstrous chords and soaring arpeggios in stunning virtuosic display. Nevertheless, the soundtrack truly shines where a gentler or minimalistic approach is called for (which is often) as these pieces (unsurprisingly) have the greatest impact emotionally.
Listeners might be surprised by Miyoshi and Kerber’s demonstration of the versatility of the piano (alone) within the RPG soundtrack genre, despite the slight reservations expressed earlier. That said, most people are familiar with the piano and so should be capable of making an informed decision. For daydreamers, fans of the piano renditions of the Final Fantasy soundtracks, those captivated by setsunai, or those looking for something a bit different (at least in concept), this is required listening. As for me, this was a rewarding soundtrack and a thoughtful demonstration of a young composer’s talent and sensitivity. Highly recommended.