Take a walk down nostalgia lane with I Am Setsuna
It's the day SNES fans and JRPG lovers have all been waiting for – Christmas arrived in July as throwback entry I Am Setsuna hits PC and PS4 today.
Now for the question we've all been waiting with baited breath to be answered: was it worth they hype, and can it possibly live up to spiritual predecessor Chrono Trigger?
The short answer: in a lot ways, yes, it absolutely does. There's nostalgia galore here with some updated systems to keep the game relevant in 2016.
The longer answer has a bit of “no” in there when you really drill down into what is offered with I Am Setsuna, but its still a more fun retro experience than many naysayers predicted, even if there are problems.
Returning To A Classic Style
There are plenty of clear nods to Chrono Trigger across the game's entire 20 hour play time, as well as other RPGs of yesteryear (the hazy character portraits have an FF6 feel).
There's an overland map featuring miniaturized versions of your party with no random battles, enemies roam around the dungeons and don't initiate combat until you bump into them, battle includes group tech moves like X-Strike, and so on.
The graphical style and art direction are an entirely different beast though, with many of the objects in the background bringing to mind Shadowrun Returns (take a look at those boxes and trees in the towns) much more strongly than either Chrono Trigger or the watercolor Saga Frontier, which was touted as an inspiration.
There's an interesting attention to graphical detail even in this limited 2D/3D mashup format though, like leaving trails in the snow (remember when everyone was wowed by leaving wet boot prints in the original Wild Arms?)
A couple of obvious homages to CT seem to have been overlooked and forgotten (at least so far in my playthrough), like having a secret object hiding behind a stone monument at the edge of the bluff or having a monster jump out of a shrub and drop something behind.
In many ways, I Am Setsuna is uniquely its own experience. The snow-covered world offers a different visual appeal than most JPRGs, and the enemies are appropriately themed around this: walruses, seals, penguins, etc.
Most of the characters and NPCS are also appropriately bundled up in thick jackets rather than traditional fantasy peasant garb. Monsters encountered in dungeons also tend to be cuter, which might make you feel bad about slaughtering a bunch of adorable penguin creatures.
Thankfully you don't rummage through people's barrels and dressers or break their pots... but there are chests just lying around everywhere waiting to be opened, and that's a JRPG trope that needs to fall to the wayside. Does no one else see these clearly valuable chests sitting in plain view across every town and forest?
I Am Setsuna's Combat
Since you are likely to spend more time in combat than other portions of the game, its a good thing the system is both a throwback to Chrono Trigger and features some updates to keep things fresh.
The sound effects will bring to mind Chrono Trigger quite a bit, and you can still avoid enemies by running around them if you want to get through a dungeon quicker.
Enemies also move around the battlefield and must be close together for AoE tech abilities to hit them, changing up your strategy slightly from the traditional turn based JRPG where you'll use the same strongest attack every time.
A new feature has been built in that lets you sneak up on monsters, starting the battle with full gauges if you approach from behind rather than the front. Once in battle its the same active time gauge system you will be used to, just with the new Momentum mechanic added in.
Momentum is raised by keeping your gauge filled but waiting and not taking any actions, or by getting hit or dealing damage. When you activate Momentum you get increased damage, extra healing from spells, and so on, and Momentum can be built up to three different tiers for particularly devastating combos during boss fights.
Story and Dialog
The iconic story that unfolds during I Am Setsuna is both a strength and a weakness. How many times can a silent male protagonist have to protect a woman to save the world?
While there's an attempt at a twist – your initial job is to kill Setsuna and not save her – it gets predictably thrown out the window almost immediately.
Even with that curveball present, don't expect something like Obsidian's upcoming Tyranny RPG on the good/evil options or anything approaching a dark tone. While there's a sad undercurrent to the story of sacrifice, this is light and fluffy JPRG all the way where goodness and kindness suffuse every character.
Honestly, I'm not sure why they even bothered with dialog choices in a lot of instances, as the two options are almost always essentially the same thing.
You can choose to swing your sword at Setsuna... but Endir still doesn't swing his sword at Setsuna. You can refuse to help protect the village against monsters... but then you just help protect the village against monsters anyway because someone remarks that “saying no isn't an option.”
Weirdly, the exact same thing happens again later in the same scene. When asked if you can keep fighting and you can say “no,” which of course means “yes.” These options all feel pointless unless they are being saved for something in the end game I haven't reach yet.
Titular character Setsuna herself is long-suffering, forgiving, and hopeful to the point of absurdity – a true shining light of never ending goodness in a dark world. She would happily sit down to dinner with Hitler while asking the Jews to please just give him one more chance.
Immediately after Endir tries to kill her, she goes with him alone on a walk to a secluded monument. Strangely, no option is given to finish the job he's been paid for, as by then he's sort of just accepted he will be her guardian for no clear reason.
All that being said, there's an undeniable charm to the characters and story that will take you back to your days as a youngster playing on the SNES, and that's overall a good thing.
Bottom Line and Final Considerations
There are some caveats to consider before diving into I Am Setsuna, especially if you are buying on the premise of it being a Chrono Trigger successor.
Although the graphics have gotten an upgrade, the areas feel smaller. Dazzshire Woods for instance is probably a fourth the size of Guardia Forest, and there's a lack of diversity in the primarily-snowy environments. On the whole the game is also much shorter than the average mammoth modern RPG like Fallout or Skyrim.
Combined with the linear and derivative story, there's reason to take pause before buying if you don't have an emotional attachment to old school RPGs. On the flip side, the piano-driven soundtrack is absolutely stellar and perfectly matches the tone and feel of the game.
Frankly, the $40 asking price is steep for the amount of content, but if you are the kind of person who keeps wishing we'd get a proper Chrono Trigger sequel or that SquareEnix would release something as good as Final Fantasy 6 again, you won't be disappointed pulling out the wallet anyway.
Although published by SquareEnix, the game was actually developed by newcomer Tokyo RPG Factory, and at this point I'm very interested to see what this team does next if I Am Setsuna does well. Maybe something on a bit grander scale?