|Platform Win, PS4|
|Publisher Square Enix|
|Developer Square Enix|
|Release Date Jul 19, 2016|
When Square Enix revealed developer Tokyo RPG Factory at E3 2015, the publisher made the new team's goal clear: It was created to reclaim the legacy of Japanese role-playing games that had once made Square such a known and beloved name. But that's also a tall order. Many have argued that there's a reason the Japanese style of role-playing game has mostly shrunk into a relatively tiny niche audience.
To Tokyo RPG Factory's credit, none of that pressure to deliver can be felt in I Am Setsuna. This game is packed with plenty of throwbacks to Square's 16-bit glory days, but it also very much has its own identity. And that identity is one of an impressive if imperfect debut.
an impressive if imperfect debut
I Am Setsuna is set in a drab, snow-covered world, where once every 10 years or so, a sacrificial maiden must be sent on a pilgrimage and give her life to temporarily stop the threat of monsters wiping out the remnants of humanity. As the masked mercenary Endir, you've been tasked to assassinate the sacrifice in question.
Yeah, it's ... a pretty grim setup.
As things tend to go in RPGs, however, the tables get turned and Endir ends up joining that sacrifice — the titular Setsuna — as a member of the guard on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands. It's a journey that drags the small group to all corners of the world, pulling in a handful of new party members as you go.
All of this probably sounds by the books, and it is. The structure of I Am Setsuna is perhaps the bit that's most recognizably "old-school Japanese RPG." However, the game shines in the details; it's the first role-playing game of its style that I can remember playing in years where the plot actually pulled me through much more so than the mechanics or the excitement of discovery.
Once you get past the fairly generic opening hours, I Am Setsuna's characters grow into a surprisingly intriguing bunch, full of unexpected, secret motivations. I'm used to guessing my fair share of plot twists well in advance in RPGs, but here I found myself surprised by many of the reveals and by the directions the cast went in.
What impressed me the most is how warm I Am Setsuna felt by the end. For a game so somber and serious, it doesn't allow the gravity of the scenario to create distance between the player and the characters. Put another way: I was not exhausted and ready to be done by the end of the game, despite an overwhelming earnestness in the writing that could easily have worn thin.
Of course, part of my uninterrupted enjoyment of I Am Setsuna is thanks to excellent battle system. It uses Square's standard "active time battle" combat — basically, you watch a bar fill up in real time for each of your party members, and once it's full you can choose to swing your weapon, cast a spell or use an item. Taking a few cues from the Super Nintendo classic Chrono Trigger, if two characters in your currently active party have compatible spells, they can be combined into super-powerful combo attacks.
Nothing about these mechanics struck me as particularly outstanding or new, but the game has mastered the kind of simple, easy-to-understand, well-balanced RPG combat that is too easily underestimated. Most fights in I Am Setsuna consist only of the basics — attacking, healing, monitoring status effects like poison and so on — and yet they were some of the tensest and most satisfying battles I've had in ages. The boss fights, in particular, rest on that razor-thin border between requiring smart use of all resources and just being a frustrating pain in the ass. It's been a while since I've had an RPG remind me of how good that feels.
Other reminders of Square Enix's output over the last 10 years are less welcome. I Am Setsuna has a few underexplained and seemingly undercooked systems, such as momentum, which adds an element of timing to attacks in order to achieve extra damage, and singularities, which are random effects that can trigger for a short amount of time during battles. These mechanics, and a few others in the game, are confusing at their best. They're also entirely unnecessary to completing or enjoying the game, so I mostly ignored them.
The lack of environmental variety in I Am Setsuna is harder to handwave away. As previously mentioned, the game's world is covered in snow in all directions, so every town and outdoor field has the same frigid feel. That's well enough, but this extends to dungeons as well. The game boasts a grand total of maybe three or four dungeon "types" — an icy cavern, a treacherous mountain path, a strange, technologically advanced tower. These templates repeat several times, as do the handful of enemy types within them, draining the game of a sense of discovery and wonder.
Still, even when I was exploring a setting I was already overly familiar with, the presentation is gorgeous. I Am Setsuna's stylized characters and artsy world design sets it apart from the average, cheap-CGI look that many RPGs share. The art direction is aided by a lovely, piano-heavy soundtrack that really sells the game's melancholy tone.
I Am Setsuna is a somber yet joyful nostalgia trip
It's not a new classic by any stretch, but I Am Setsuna demonstrates a great understanding and mastery of what made Square Enix's past successes work so well. It might have benefited from stripping down the mechanics even more, or spending more resources creating a wider range of locations and enemies. But as it is, I Am Setsuna is a soft, sad experience that nonetheless filled me with joy. That should tell you everything.
I Am Setsuna was reviewed using final debug PlayStation 4 code provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews