Satisfied with my completion of Breath of the Wild, I was free to singularly devote time to another game on the Switch. Next in the queue: I Am Setsuna.
Originally released for the PlayStation 4 and Vita in early 2016, Square Enix announced I Am Setsuna would be a launch title for the Switch shortly before the platform’s launch. The game was developed by Tokyo RPG Factory, a newly minted subsidiary of Square Enix with the primary intent of creating RPGs inspired by classics from the 1990s. The story and characters were fairly rote although a series of late game reveals caught me by surprise. Narrative and dialogue were compelling to the end, as was the soundtrack, which I’d go beyond and describe as exceptional! Lastly, the gameplay was immediately familiar thanks to the implementation of the Active Time Battle system. Considering the studio’s narrow purpose, I Am Setsuna was a success, albeit unambitious.
Designed around a theme of sadness, the game’s inevitable conclusion was foreshadowed from the outset and often thereafter. Setsuna was a young woman, just chosen as her village’s sacrifice in the continuation of a long-running tradition. Meant to appease the spread of demons, sacrifices underwent a lengthy pilgrimage before eventually giving their life at a sacred shrine. Setsuna’s selflessness and unyielding trust were ever-present character traits, no better displayed then when Endir, a reserved mercenary and the player character, arrived in her village to assassinate her. Ignoring the reticence of Aeterna, her sworn protector, Setsuna enlisted the help of Endir. After all, her journey would be long and treacherous and successful or not, Endir’s benefactor would get what they desired.
As Setsuna and her party journeyed though the perpetually snow-ridden lands, they were accompanied by fellow warriors devoted to the cause. The banter between party members and their contributions to the pilgrimage defined their individual personalities and characteristics. Anomalies and abnormalities, such as the growing number of demons, caused them to question the successfulness and necessity of the sacrifice. Through a series of late game revelations, they learned that the pilgrimage was not as straight forward as it seemed, which caught me by surprise in the way Star Ocean 3’s reveal did. Sacrifice however, was still necessary. Knowing what they knew, they were able to ensure Setsuna’s sacrifice guaranteed an end to the demon scourge rather than a temporary fix.
Accentuating the theme of sadness was the game’s minimal, piano-driven soundtrack. Tomoki Miyoshi composed while Randy Kerber performed. Nearly all tracks were solo piano pieces, each uniquely stirring up feelings of sadness and solitude with haunting accuracy. Percussion accompanied battle themes which were more up-tempo as a rule of thumb. Historically, solo piano music hasn’t done much for me but I found this soundtrack to be fitting and enjoyable. In general, the soundtrack reminded me of the chamber compositions of Ryuichi Sakamoto. The most damning evidence of my appreciation is the fact that upon reminiscing on some tunes while writing this, I’ve purchased the soundtrack. I’d say it’s worth a spin whether you have played the game or not.
Gameplay was in keeping with genre classics. Narrative progression followed the common town-world map-dungeon-world map-town formula. Towns were often the backdrop for the completion or acquisition of new story beats. The game was bereft of sidequests although there were a few optional dungeons with super tough bosses. Dungeons varied in length and challenge but were universally straight forward. Demons were on-screen at all times so battles could be avoided if desired. Alternatively, the party started battles with an advantage if the demon was caught off guard. When encountered, the game seamlessly segued into a battle sequence.
Combat implemented the Active Time Battle system popularized by Square RPGs of the 1990s and was instantly familiar. Turns were dictated by each character’s ATB gauge which when full, allowed me to select an action. Additionally there was a second gauge, the Momentum Gauge, which filled when a character’s ATB gauge was full, but before a selection had been made (ergo, the character idled). Triggered by well-timed button presses like in the Mario RPG games, Momentum added benefits to attacks and spells. I relied on these benefits in the latter parts of the game, managing the Momentum Gauge with on-the-fly risk/reward calculations. Overall, the difficulty curve was pretty even, with a few challenging boss fights, and those super tough optional ones.
Besides weaponry, characters could be outfitted with talismans and Spritnite. The former granted benefits such as boosted experience and visible enemy HP while the latter granted spell usage and passive buffs. Spritnite was most commonly obtained by selling enemy drops; each Spritnite required a specific combination of enemy parts before it was available. Spritnite could be enhanced through Fluxation, a random byproduct of Momentum usage that granted permanent bonuses. For instance, an MP Consumed Flux would decrease the amount of MP a Spritnite spell required. I never fully understood this system and didn’t feel the need to considering their occurrence was quite rare. Nonetheless, the bonuses I managed to get were impressive and I imagine if I studied Fluxation a bit more, I’d find to it be as addictive as Lost Odyssey’s accessory system.
Even though it was foreshadowed from the very beginning, the game’s conclusion was still impactful. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I continued believing that there’d be a way to save Setsuna without sacrificing all that her pilgrimage was for. Like so many things in life, I couldn’t have it both ways. It was a sad ending, but it was a hopeful one, bittersweet. Life could go on because of her. I thought the narrative and dialogue were well-written and engaging; the ending wouldn’t have been as impactful if they weren’t! Of course the soundtrack was exceptional, emotionally resonant like the plot. It will continue on with me for a long time to come. More so than anything else, the gameplay was a clear homage to the games that inspired it. A few annoying quirks and bouts of grinding did little to dampen my enjoyment of the combat, or the game in general. Tokyo RPG Factory colored inside the lines with I Am Setsuna. It’s polished and entertaining but a mere facsimile of genre masterpieces. And I was okay with that.