A common refrain within and surrounding the gaming industry over the last several years has been that the JRPG is dying or dead. The genre has seen better days, sure, but it’s not quite as dire as we sometimes make it seem. In fact, 2016 is quite a banner year for the genre with a slew of big name releases across multiple platforms. Still, there’s an undeniable allure to the nostalgia we feel for the retro JRPGs of yesteryear. It’s with that allure in mind that Square Enix, one of the biggest contributors to the JRPG “golden age,” created Tokyo RPG Factory. The studio’s first project, I am Setsuna, endeavors to transport players back to the JRPG’s heyday by implementing their tried and true methods of gameplay and storytelling.
The most heavily promoted component of I am Setsuna’s retro-style design is its battle system, inspired by Square Enix’s own Chrono Trigger. Battles are turn-based and require each character to wait for their Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge to fill before taking an action. Characters can execute a standard attack, perform a “Tech,” or use an item. Fans of Chrono Trigger will be intimately familiar with Techs as they work identically in both games, including two-person and three-person combinations. Many of them are lifted straight from Chrono Trigger, right down to their names and effects. I am Setsuna introduces support Techs as well, which add buffs when equipped and can be incredibly powerful. You may be thinking that I am Setsuna must have a very long list of Techs. In that you would be correct, and the sheer number available to the player is almost overwhelming. This isn’t necessarily a negative in and of itself, but many of the attack Techs specifically seem completely redundant and mostly unnecessary beyond adding to the list of combinations. Paring down the number of techniques would help streamline the system and trim some fat.
Battles against trash mobs quickly become inconsequential after you identify your favorite two-person combo, but that isn’t anything new with JRPGs. The larger issue is the lack of strategy required for bosses throughout most of the game. All you need to do is throw your most powerful physical attacks at them and heal when necessary. That changes around the three-quarter mark, when you abruptly get your rear handed to you by a mini-boss that requires some specific Techs. It is a welcome change of pace but something that should have been implemented earlier.
Characters learn Techs by selling materials dropped by defeated monsters. It’s a simple system with a major twist: the material dropped by a monster depends on how you defeat that monster. Finishing it off with a lightning attack, for example, nets you a different material than if you finish it with a fire attack. It’s an interesting twist made frustrating by I am Setsuna’s less-than-ideal way of tracking where you can get these materials. The Snow Chronicles, the in-game catch-all index, helpfully tracks each material dropped by each monster if you’ve already obtained it. Unfortunately, this bestiary doesn’t keep track of where you encountered those monsters, leaving you to wonder where you fought that one monster that drops the material you need for a given Tech.
The lack of monster locations, which is so important for upgrading a core combat component, isn’t the only simple quality of life issue with I am Setsuna. The world map is a JRPG staple and a welcome feature of the game, but there is no actual in-game map available to the player. Granted the game world isn’t all that large, but this oversight becomes quickly apparent once the player gets an airship and attempts to explore. To make matters worse, you can’t run on the world map, so treks back and forth are an unnecessary chore. The menu is clunky as well, with important character and Tech information split between different sections of the menu and the Snow Chronicles.
The story of I am Setsuna is deliberately steeped in sadness. The game starts with Endir, a mercenary from the mysterious masked tribe, on a mission to save a little girl from a monster. Upon successful completion, Endir is approached by a strange man with a mission to assassinate a girl. That girl, as it turns out, is a sacrifice named Setsuna from the village of Nive. For a thousand years Nive has had the unenviable task of providing a human sacrifice to appease the monsters and keep them at bay. Once Endir discovers that Setsuna is going to die anyway, he decides against killing her himself. Rather, you are given the choice of whether or not to assassinate her. Except, of course, it’s no choice at all. I am Setsuna presents players with several dialogue choices throughout the narrative that mean absolutely nothing. Not only do they not affect the story in any way, if you make the “wrong” choice, the game overrules you. This wasn’t billed as a choice-based game, but the inclusion of these situations is weird and confusing.
Endir ends up accompanying Setsuna on her sacrificial pilgrimage as part of her guard, which definitely succeeds in creating the somber mood for which Tokyo RPG Factory was aiming. After all, escorting the female protagonist to her ultimate death is not something seen frequently as part of a hero’s quest. The party members you meet throughout your journey have each endured hardships and loss, adding to the atmosphere of gloom. The feeling throughout I am Setsuna is done well, it’s just that the actual narrative is entirely average and just didn’t grab me. The characters are likable, if not cliché, and they all develop a bit in their own way; they’re just not overly interesting. By the end of the adventure I didn’t feel the connection with them that I’ve felt with characters in other games. Additionally, the lore of the world was only touched on to move the narrative forward and within the Snow Chronicles entries. It’s a shame because there were opportunities to get the player invested in the world a little more, which could have been hugely impactful for the overall story. For instance, there are points in the story where the monsters appear to be more than simply a mindless horde of enemies. However, I am Setsuna never explores this fully — a missed opportunity to add some much needed depth to its backstory.
The game’s visuals are absolutely gorgeous. From the character designs to the snowy environments and even the battle animations, everything is top notch. And although the snow-covered world is beautiful, it bleeds together and lacks variety. The fact that everything is blanketed in snow was obviously intentional, but it clearly hurt when trying to make the various locations have their own distinct character. The end result is a small game world that’s made to feel even smaller. The dungeons, while again looking good, lack variety and after a while become boring and repetitive. Enemies look great, but the palette swapping occurs early and often. The music is phenomenal as well. It’s pretty much all piano driven, so keep that in mind when setting expectations. The piano-only tunes don’t take much away from the soundtrack, but after a while the missing depth that other instruments provide becomes apparent.
At its core, I am Setsuna is a perfectly average JRPG that doesn’t hold up to the expectations it set for itself. It embodies the spirit of the JRPG, but it does so while falling into the same trappings that critics use to disparage the genre. While the bare bones are in place, I am Setsuna falls short on the great story, interesting characters, charm, replayability, sense of wonder, and overall fun that were the meat of the classic JRPGs it tries to emulate. It’s not all bad news, though. With I am Setsuna Tokyo RPG Factory has announced to the world that they’re serious about creating quality JRPGs. Hopefully this is just their first step and a learning experience. I’m excited to see where they go next.