Do you miss playing Squaresoft RPGs on your SNES? Then have I got the game for you: I Am Setsuna.
Like many in their late 20s and early 30s, I was introduced to JRPGs back in the days of the good old SNES. While my first was Final Fantasy VI, these days I feel that Chrono Trigger is pretty much the pinnacle of classic JRPGs. So when I heard Square-Enix was releasing a game that played like Chrono Trigger, I couldn't hand over my money fast enough.
I Am Setsuna is exactly what I was led to believe it was: a 90s RPG reborn.
As I've talked about in depth before, the battle system clearly uses Chrono Trigger's ATB system as a base. It is built around the movement of enemies, the use of double and triple techs, and knowing when best to attack and when best to wait. It also has more than a few new additions to the system that make your characters change locations on the battlefield based on their attacks and those of the monsters you encounter. Each attack and tech in the game can also be "Setsuna" boosted, adding one extra effect or another. These boosts do a myriad of things from adding more damage to buffing the party.
One thing that is completely new is how you obtain techs and support skills in the game. Everything you kill drops some type of crafting item or another. However, which item an enemy drops is based on how you kill it. For example, just barely killing it will grant one item. Overkilling it will get you a different one. And killing it with fire will give you yet another.
There are two cool things about this system. The first is that one monster can be killed several ways at once. Let's say you cast poison on an enemy and then kill it with a boosted Delta Force triple tech. That would grant you the debuff drop, the ice drop, the lightning drop, the fire drop, the setsuna boost drop, and likely, the overkill drop. So that's six different crafting items with one kill. Now consider doing this to a large group and you can imagine how quickly you can amass crafting items.
Of course, it's not like you start the game with triple techs at your disposal, which brings us to the second great thing about this system: It forces you to change it up. Each character is specialised in a type of fighting or magic. The titular Setsuna is lightning-based while the rogue of the party, Kuon, uses time/gravity magic. Thus if you want lightning drops, you need Setsuna in the party. For time drops you need Kuon. Because of this you'll constantly be rotating through your party instead of just using the same powerful attack ad infinitum. In other words, the game rewards experimentation. Conversely, not experimenting will hurt you deeply in the long run.
This also leads to one of the downsides of the game. There is just too much to keep track of. By the end of the game you have dozens of attacks per character and a far too limited number of slots per character to equip them. I had to resort to wikis and spreadsheets to keep track of what I needed to equip to get the double and triple techs I wanted.
The skill crafting system is also your main way of making money. Basically, you sell all the items you find around the world to the mages in the various towns. When you have sold them all the items they need to make a tech or support skill, they simply give it to you.
And unlike in many JRPGs, money is actually important in I Am Setsuna. Even though you can occasionally find the odd weapon in a dungeon, the fact is you'll be buying most of them. And by the end of the game, you'll be popping magic- restoring ethers like candy, especially since save points are few and far between.
Simply put, no matter how large or small the dungeon, I Am Setsuna follows in the steps of the classics by giving you only two save points: the world map before you go in and a glowing point of light at the end just before the boss.
The mean thing is that each dungeon or area contains within it at least one rare monster encounter. These rare monsters tend to look only slightly different from the normal ones, usually having a slightly different shape or colour palette. The problem is, like in many JRPGs, you encounter the same type of monster with slight variations many different times over the course of the game anyway.
So when going through a dungeon for the first time, it can be hard to tell whether you're encountering the latest upgrade of a normal monster or a rare monster that will murder you effortlessly in one turn. I easily lost an hour or two of gameplay because of this and was incredibly paranoid in the final few dungeons. I wouldn't fight any monster until I had seen it spawn at least twice in different rooms.
While I Am Setsuna plays like a 16-bit RPG, it doesn't look like one. Rather it looks more akin to a remake of one of the classics using 3D modelling instead of sprites. The key bit of graphical fun in the game — besides the flashy tech attacks — comes in the form of the ever-present snow. Whether walking through a forest or fighting in battle, your characters and the enemies leave trails in the snow in real time. It's a little touch, but one that adds to the game in unexpected ways.
Now that we've finished detailing how it looks and plays, let's take a look at the plot.
The setting is this: In a world covered in snow, the monsters are getting restless. To calm them down, the people choose a young girl as a sacrifice to the monsters and send her to their lands. This time, the chosen sacrifice is the kind young girl Setsuna.
But your first playable character is not her, but rather End, a mercenary hired to kill Setsuna. When End finds Setsuna and tells her why he has sought her out, she is not afraid. She will gladly let him kill her. She only asks that he wait until her journey reaches its end. When he agrees, she is overwhelmed with joy. After all, at the end, she won't be alone.
Yeah. I Am Setsuna is not a happy game.
When it comes down to it, I Am Setsuna is a story about two things: loss and failure. Each main character that joins your party — be it the noble princess or the carefree soldier — is suffering from one or both of these. But more than that, the story explores various people who are pushed to the point where they take extreme measures in their attempts to do the right thing. Of course, you know what they say about the road to hell. The consequences of their actions not only affect them, but those they care about as well, and seemingly never in good ways.
The plot of I Am Setsuna isn't particularly complex or lengthy. Rather, each location you come to has its own story on the themes I mentioned above. Though that's not to say there aren't a few unexpected revelations along the way.
I Am Setsuna is a game that plays hard on your nostalgia for the golden age of RPGs in general, and Chrono Trigger specifically. If you have played and loved Chrono Trigger, I Am Setsuna is quite literally made for you. If you love classic JRPGs or stories where even the best of intentions spawn disastrous results, you are likewise its target. And as a fan of all three, I can tell you I enjoyed every minute.
...except those I lost and had to replay thanks to surprise rare monster attacks. Sneaky bastards.
I Am Setsuna was released in Japan for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita on 18 February, 2016. It is scheduled for a Western release (only on PS4) later this year.