The early nineties were, for many, the pinnacle of the console RPG era. Both the Megadrive and SNES saw releases of a range of high quality titles, from the Shining and Phantasy Star series, Landstalker and Soleil on the former, and Zelda, Earthbound, and the Mana and Final Fantasy series on the latter. Top-down RPGs were huge, especially in Japan, and one of the most celebrated and successful of that ilk was Chrono Trigger, which struck a perfect blend between story and action, and its time-travelling twists were unlike anything gamers had seen before. It’s surprising, then, to think that it has taken over two decades for Square Enix to revisit its past successes and try and bottle that JRPG lightning once again. I Am Setsuna is a return to the days of save points and text-only dialogue, and it succeeds in capturing the spirit of the 16-bit era, if not fully realising its potential.
Once you get past the first few hours of setup, you’ll begin to understand where the game’s strengths lie - namely its story. Taking cues from Peruvian history where children were regularly taken on long journeys before being sacrificed on mountains to appease vengeful gods, the titular character is a maiden who has been chosen to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to placate the many monsters plaguing towns and villages in the area. Enter Endir, a bounty hunter who has been tasked with killing Setsuna before she reaches her goal, but instead decides to spare her life in order to help her...well, end it. It’s a dark story, which helps counter the overfamiliarity you’ll feel as you play. Many of the tropes you might expect from two-decades-old JRPGs rear their heads: NPCs described by their appearance (Unhealthy-Looking Man, Scatterbrained Old Woman, Scrawny Boy), an airship to navigate the world map, a benevolent city ruler who is blatantly anything but, chests that you discover early on but won’t be able to access until later on in the game - it’s all here. All that’s missing is a blue-haired main character to complete the set. But while it is tempting to roll your eyes, it is these same tropes that so endeared the genre to a generation of gamers, and many of their components still hold up today.
Take the Active Time Battle system, for example. On the surface, it’s a simple concept. Each of your party has a time bar which, when filled, allows you to perform an action such as attacking, using an item, or activating a Tech ability. Some party members can team up to utilise more powerful Combo abilities, or you may decide to hold back and build up Momentum, which gives you the option of utilising a boost to your attack or support skills at the cost of delaying your action and potentially leaving you vulnerable. Bonuses include critical hits and the ability to inflict status ailments when attacking, and increased duration of effects or extra HP and MP when healing, and Momentum is initiated by hitting a button just after your attack or support action lands. It requires a little more skill than choosing a standard action, and the more you use Momentum, the more chance you have of triggering a Singularity - a random bonus effect which affects your whole party. They may appear to be garnish on an already established system and in many respects - particularly the Singularities - they are, but Momentum grants slightly more agency to the player than just waiting for a bar to fill up.
Battle strategy doesn’t end there though. Killing enemies with different elements or in different ways yields different loot drops. For instance, if you have a time-based weapon, you can inflict a Time Kill which may provide a different item to a fire-based one. Similarly, killing an enemy with close to - or exactly - the right amount of damage will trigger an Exact Kill for a different drop. The bestiary provides notes on which kill methods yield which items for each monster, so you can plan accordingly if you're after a particular bauble. On top of this, your characters also have Spritnites (magical items), to which you can apply Fluxes in order to enhance them. Furthermore, you can employ tempering which allows you to combine your weapons with some of the metals you pick up from chests and defeated foes to increase their power. There’s a huge amount of combat gubbins to get your head around, but when you’re actually in battle most of it can be ignored. If you have the best possible weapon equipped - not difficult, since you move monotonously in an upward trajectory stats-wise with each new store you visit - the rest of the combat comes down to your use of character abilities. Area attacks are a gamble in many cases due to a lack of any sort of AoE marker, and you’ll find yourself juggling item and Tech usage to try and keep your party alive, ailment-free, and still kicking butt.
In short, it’s an early Final Fantasy gamer’s dream, spoiled only by a few balancing issues where some overpowered Techs make the majority of encounters, including boss fights, a doddle in the later stages of the game. There are some unique, optional bosses which offer a bit more of a challenge than the main story’s critters, but without them you could likely breeze through the core game in less than twenty hours. Each companion also has their own quest which you’ll have to discover yourself, as they are not part of the main storyline - and it is highly recommended to do so, since they greatly flesh out each individual beyond the usual chirpiness of JRPG sidekicks. This isn’t necessarily a happy game, and it’s all the better for it.
Aesthetically, I Am Setsuna is a mixed bag. The characters are sharp (literally - their feet are needle points), but the environments are dreary and repetitive. Whilst the house interiors look lovely, the outside world contains nothing but snow. There are no lush forests, barren deserts or otherworldly plains. There’s only snow and ice, like an anti-kaleidoscope consisting of whites, greys and tinges of blue, almost as if the world visuals were an afterthought once the story was finalised. Conversely, the soundtrack by Tomoki Miyoshi is a wonderful, almost entirely piano-based affair. It hits the usual JRPG notes with jolly jingles for taverns, high tempo rhythms for battles and slower melodies during the more emotive periods of the game. It’s not got the hooks of similar piano-driven soundtracks such as To The Moon, but it conveys far more than the world it’s representing.
I Am Setsuna is unlikely to be a game you’ll rush to replay, since the story mostly follows a linear path. This is actually beneficial in this scenario as it feels a lot tighter and less bloated than many RPGs which stack their playtime with fetch quests and back-and-forth travel. It also helps minimise the amount of time you'll spend wandering through the same identikit environments. Though there are a few balancing issues which detract from the combat and a rather bland setting, the story bolsters what could have been an average game, and you’ll look back on it with both sadness and fondness once the credits roll.