The world has been been plunged into an eternal Winter for as long as humankind can remember. Although monster numbers are under control, roads never seem to be safe from attack. Neither are many of the towns, needing the help of fortified walls or active militias to keep their people safe from harm. Accompanying this daily strife and the perpetual cold is a palpable sense of loss as many have outlived someone they love.
Yet, none are more aware of death and sacrifice than the inhabitants of Nive Village. Every generation, to keep what little control humans have over the monster menace, they have to choose a girl to be sent off to the Last Lands, where she must die as a sacrifice. Accompanying the girl are the Sacrifice Guard, friends and able protectors tasked with seeing her safely to the final destination.
I Am Setsuna follows the journey of Endir, a member of a ruthless clan of deadly mercenaries, who has been tasked with killing this generation’s sacrifice. Yet, when the decisive moment comes to pass, he finds himself unable to complete his mission. Instead, he chooses to accompany Setsuna. And thus their journey begins. Along the way, they meet several other stand out characters that, for diverse reasons, will join them, bolstering the Sacrifice Guard.
Although the main plot is very basic, questions such as “Will Setsuna really be sacrificed in the end?”, “What really lies in the Last Lands?” and “Why has the world fallen into this state?” kept me engaged. Also, every playable character and new town the party encounters comes with its own sub story. These have to be resolved before moving forward but never slowed down the action enough to feel like the game was “stalling”. Once done, I was highly satisfied with how the story went and even somewhat surprised by a few of the plot twists towards the end. The themes of sacrifice and pure kindness within such depressed world still linger fondly on my mind.
From a gameplay standpoint, the game follows many of the classic Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) conventions of the late 90’s, especially Chrono Trigger. Players control a growing party of characters that traverse through towns, where they interact with the world’s denizens and keep their gear and abilities up to date. Then, they head out into the over-world map where they can move around, monster encounter free, to other villages and “dungeon” areas.
When in dungeons, instead of random monster encounters that take place on an alternate screen (like Final Fantasy I through X), monsters are visible. Coming in contact with a monster will start the turn based battle sequence right on the same screen. A cool extra is that, if players “touch” monsters from behind to initiate a battle, they will begin the battle with with some nice bonuses making the encounter much easier with the right strategy.
Three characters are allowed in the “active” party at once and are always displayed both in town, dungeons and the over-world map. Players have the ability to change party composition any time outside of battle. This encouraged me to consistently rotate characters to keep them all at a competitive level. Inactive characters do earn a portion of the active party’s experience points but will still lag behind in levels without the proper attention.
During battles, party members and monsters have an Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge that is gradually filled up based on each participant’s Speed stat. When the gauge is full, that monster or character can take their turn, choosing from standard attacks and MP consuming abilities.
Although players have no direct movement control during combat, certain abilities and attacks will bring characters closer to enemies or farther away. The same is true for enemies, although they tend to wander about the battle area a bit more than the characters do. This can complicate strategies as several of the game’s abilities have small circular area-of-effect ranges or a linear/column effect area. The game alleviates this a little by granting a few abilities that cause enemies to be pulled closer together.
If two or more characters have full ATB gauges, they can perform Combos. These are specific combinations of abilities between two and even all three characters that tend to have increased damage and effects. Yes, Chrono Trigger fans, there is a “cross slash”! This is a combo where two characters dash towards a single target, slashing through it and across to the other side of the battlefield, forming an “X” pattern. It is, by far, one of Chrono Trigger’s most memorable “Double Techs”.
Here is an interesting twist: when a character’s ATB gauge is full, the SP gauge starts to fill up and will continue to fill up until the character takes an action. Each time the SP gauge fills up, a “Momentum” charge (represented by a light orb) is granted to that character. Each character can store up to three charges during combat. So, what is the benefit of not taking immediate action and gaining these charges? What the game calls adding “Momentum” to actions. This is done by pressing a button just as characters starts performing an action, very similar to timed press bonuses in Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy VIII. Doing this will consume one SP charge and modify the action in some way. Momentum on standard attacks adds additional damage. Momentum on abilities has different effects depending on the ability. Some offensive abilities do additional damage and add status effects to enemies, while others will actually heal HP or MP on top of doing its normal damage. Support abilities under Momentum also gain bonuses. For example, adding Momentum to one of the games area-of-effect healing spells will also make it cure all status ailments! Momentum is a very useful mechanic and certainly adds a fresh layer of strategy to combat.
So, how do characters gain new abilities in I Am Setsuna? In simple terms, monsters in the game will drop bits and parts that can be sold to special merchants for money. Sold materials can then be used to trade for Spritnite (i.e. Materia), ability stones that characters can equip in order to use the ability contained within. Unlike other titles with similar stone-to-slot ability systems, all standard ability Spritnites (called Combat Spritnites) in the game can only be used by specific characters. This means that each character has a set list of abilities they will be able to use in the game and there is no “spill over” across characters. The only exception are the game’s Support Spritnite which can be equipped freely by any character. These provide passive bonuses like increased attack stats, more HP/MP and even some cool effects like “attacks have a chance to stun”.
As characters level up, the amount of Spritnite they can equip increases. Also, each character is allowed to equip one Talisman. These add various amounts of additional Spritnite slots and bonuses to their wearer, like increased stats. Here is where another interesting mechanic of the game comes into play. Most Talismans have potential bonuses, called “Fluxes”, that can permanently modify Spritnite when used in combat. Example: Equip a Talisman with an “Increased Damage” Flux Bonus and there is a chance that, when an ability is used with Momentum, it will gain “Increased Damage” permanently. Even better, multiple stacks of the same effect can be applied to a singe Spritnite, or completely different effects, to a total of eight per Spritnite. Although it requires some grinding and luck, this allows players to customize or improve abilities in a myriad of different ways.
But, enough about the battle system. One definitely unique quality of ‘I Am Setsuna’ is its music. The entire musical score was recorded with a single piano. The calm and pleasing tunes complement the dreary setting quite well. Actually, maybe too well; I had to forego playing the game at night as it would make me sleepy. Also, something about the action/danger theme, used in many cutscenes, always made me imagine Schroeder, from Peanuts, playing aggressively on his little piano.
As for cutscenes, I Am Setsuna’s entire story is presented using the game’s standard graphics and character models. The camera does change angles a bit and zooms in and out depending on the scene but the game is no movie. Although actually interesting and entertaining, all dialogue is delivered using text bubbles with no voice acting. Oddly enough, Japanese voice-overs were recorded for combat and can be enabled through the settings.
The graphics themselves are a bit of a mix. While there are many areas of the world that look like beautiful watercolor paintings, there are also plenty of icy caves, forests and high tech dungeon areas that are just generic, and reused several times. The same can be said for villages and castles. Overall, there is not a lot of visual variety in I Am Setsuna.
Also, it is snowing everywhere, all the time, and the game does a fantastic job of rendering varying degrees of falling snow and snowstorms. Snow also accumulates on the ground and, as characters walk through it, trails are generated in a pretty realistic manner. It might not graphically save the game but it certainly supports the oppressive mood and theme of the game’s world.
Keeping to the classic spirit, I Am Setsuna has just a handful of sidequests. These become available just before the final encounter of the main storyline and further expand the stories of each of the playable characters. They also reward their respective party member with a powerful Spritnite.
Several special dungeons and tough boss-like encounters also become available towards the end of the main storyline. Across some of these special dungeons, players can fight every boss they have already faced as many times as they want; just by leaving and re-entering the dungeons. This opens up good way to grind experience points or farm for any material drops missed the first time each boss was beat during the story. Chests with strong recovery items are littered across these dungeons too.
Something worth noting is that, even though the final encounter of the main story is located at the end of an excruciatingly long dungeon, developers were thoughtful and placed a save point AND a teleporter right before the fight. This teleporter takes players back to the very start of the dungeon, where they can exit freely to the world map to go do end-game things. Once taken, a teleporter also spawns at the entrance to take players all the way forward to the end of the dungeon. It really allowed me to do all the end-game content and grind for levels without having to worry about suffering the final dungeon all over again.
Now, here is an area where I Am Setsuna should have stayed modern: Saving. There is no Autosave feature in the game. Players have to manually save and need to remember to do it often since having the party wiped out in battle will return players to the Title screen, where their only option is to load a previously saved file. Players can save their progress anywhere on the over-world or by standing in Save Points within dungeons. These are usually located at the end of a dungeon, right before boss fights. Early in the game, this felt fine as most dungeons were relatively short. But, in the latter half of the game, dungeons get much longer meaning that, if a party dies close to the end, players could potentially lose twenty to forty minutes of gameplay. It happened to me once and it really stung. So, tread very carefully! Also, I feel this goes against the spirit of the Nintendo Switch. Granted, players can put the console to Sleep and pick it back up later right where they left off. But, what if they want to swap to a different game?
Another gripe of mine is that most of the game mechanics are “thrown” at the player without any thorough explanation. All merchants have menu options that explain these in some detail but I would have preferred the tutorial approach, where the game carefully and gradually incorporates and explains its mechanics as they become relevant during the initial parts of the game.
Lastly, enemy encounters seem to rely too much on the “surprise attack” bonus in order to overcome them neatly. Missing out on the surprise bonus usually leads to longer, more drawn out fights, causing the characters to lose more health and spend more MP on abilities. Worse, in some tougher encounters later in the game, surprise attacks are almost mandatory in order to survive. What this means on the surface is that cautious players will probably find most fights in the game easy while, at the same time, always being afraid of easily dying. It definitely makes every battle relevant but exacerbates the saving issue mentioned earlier.
So, where does this all leave us? Coming out of finishing Breath of the Wild with all side-quests and Shrines, I wanted to play something a bit more “streamlined”; focused on main content without distractions like a plethora of side quests or collection activities. Also, I realized that I was hankering for a nice, interesting RPG story. I Am Setsuna seemed like the perfect choice to scratch both those itches. The release price tag did feel a little steep but, after about 40 hours of playing the supposedly 20 hour game, I was highly satisfied with the experience. Combat was fun and kept me, generally, on my toes. The story, although simple, was well paced and interesting. This, combined with generally fun and memorable characters, kept me drawn into the game throughout the whole journey.
Classic JRPG fans should definitely consider giving ‘I Am Setsuna’ a shot. Others that do not have the nostalgia to draw from or enjoyed prior ventures into to this type of gameplay, may be too bogged down by the presentation to find the game enjoyable.