It would be accurate to say that I am semi-retired from JRPGs. Final Fantasy X struck me as the apogee of the genre, bringing forth voice acting as the final missing feature. I realized then that there are only so many Japanese tropes and animated mannerisms and cultural capital that a man can ingest! Yet what repulsed me the most was being reminded of how grinding is a core mechanic. It was not necessary for me to fully train a Blitzball team or dodge 200 lightning bolts, but I did, and it was these sort of “mini” quests which artificially prolonged playtimes and underscored the tedium of spending hours gaining more exp or items just to proceed to the next phase of the game. Now contrast the traditional mechanic of grinding in JRPGs with a game such as Dark Souls, which can be beaten at level 1 given enough skill. Grinding: ain’t nobody got time for that!
After noticing that I am Setsuna (Ikenie to Yuki no Setsuna in Japan) was being heralded as a return to the old-school style of the 90’s JRPGs with a modern twist, I suspended disbelief that the genre could be redeemed until I could try it for myself.
Violence: Friends and foes on the receiving end of harm suffer in cartoonish fashion.
Language: A character named Nidr fancies dams, but the kind with an “n” on the end.
Spiritual: I mention FFX because those playing I am Setsuna players will immediately draw parallels to it given the theme of a party escorting a virgin female to her doom so that everyone else can continue to live in peace. This is because the themes of many JRPGs are borrowed from the myth of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, god of storms (brother and rival of Amaterasu, god of the sun, portrayed in Okami), who descends from heaven and saves the eighth and last daughter of a mortal family from an eight-headed serpent who had come yearly and devoured the previous seven. He retains the daughter and a sword hidden within the serpent as compensation.
The stories of games like FFX and I am Setsuna derive their stories from this kind of mythos, complete with the concept of a worthy, magic-enchanted sacrifice. Of course, we remember that Christ died to redeem us of our sins, yet lives again and will return. Thus, we need not worry about pilgrimages or human sacrifices; Christ is a one-and-done.
I resist the urge to concur that it is nostalgia at play when my brain processes what the ear hears and the eye beholds from the beginning of I am Setsuna to its finale. Yet the game indubitably evokes both the novel and the familiar, with the novel including an exclusively arctic world inhabited by characters reminiscent of FFVII/FFIX design, enchanted by an all-piano soundtrack that enhances the ambiance of melancholy; the familiar includes party recruitment, turn-based battles, leveling systems, and linearity. If I were concede to nostalgia in my perception of the game, then that would include fascination with characters, wandering to the four corners of the map, or anticipation of plot twists or a grand revelation at the quest’s conclusion. In other words, nostalgia is pleasant and fun.
“Fun” would be an inaccurate description of I am Setsuna where “a chore” would suffice. As I slayed every new monster, acquired a new party member, or arrived at a new location, my interest in the game would rekindle only to be tenderly smothered by predictable tropes, archetypes, conventions, and mechanics. In terms of characters for example, the first playable character, Endir is a silent, masked, lone warrior who plays an intimate role with the titular character, only speaking when the game provides the illusion of choice through prompt selections. Aeterna is the atavistic thief class with a few spells, Kir is an actual mage (who enjoyed perhaps the most interesting character ark in the game), and Julienne is a lancer complete with leap as a starting ability. Setsuna initially establish herself as little more than Aerith or Yuna’s distant cousin, as she is (also) a martyr to save the world; as the game progresses, she at least manages to evolve her interactions from those of a maudlin teenager with naive faith in the inner goodness of all creation to possessing a grotesque intuitiveness of even a stranger’s innermost being. She is an incarnation of goodness so wholesome neither the darkness nor the light understands it when she shines. Nidr epitomizes this lack of creativity in I am Setsuna not only because his name is a scramble of Endir, but also because he is a shameless counterfeit of previous tropes.
While I enthusiastically welcome linearity in an era of gaming that celebrates open worlds in (W)RPGs, I could place my gamepad on my desk next to a drinking bird during dialogue sections and need not worry about selecting the wrong option when Endir speaks because no choice in this game has any bearing on its outcome. In this way, I am Setsuna preserves its its tone of icy gloom. On the other hand, why give players choices in dialogue if all paths lead to the same sorrowful outcome? Combined with a level of writing reminiscent of the puerile scribbling a third grader—and make no mistake, every speech bubble contains less words than a Twitter post, and the most complex word used in the game is “portent”—the main plot points of I am Setsuna are woefully predictable.
The battle system in I am Setsuna tries for something simultaneously accessible yet also complex. However, it accomplishes one or the other but not both. The “momentum” system allows players to “bank” their ATB gauges to fill another gauge so that the next command will gain an additional effect such as bonus damage, healing, or a status condition. Fortunately, I was able to decipher the usage of spiritnite, this world’s version of materia, yet my delight was foiled by the absurd drop system. Upon defeat, enemies will drop items that oftentimes assist in the creation of new spiritnite…one hopes. I managed to finish the game still using a basic lightning spell that Setsuna acquires near the beginning of the adventure because I never found the one drop needed to forge Lightning II; because spiritnite unlocks abilities such as diffuse (if one character uses an item such as an elixr, the other two characters use this item not at the cost of inventory, but the caster’s MP) in addition spells such as magma, these drops are key to providing I am Setsuna with diversity in combat. Grinding for drops by dispatching foes with different types of kills certainly holds the game back.
And that is where combat and menu systems cease to be intelligible. I am Setsuna makes mention of battle perks such as singularity and fluxes, but I never did understand how to trigger them, or what exactly happens when they are triggered. I *think* fluxes is an upgrade system to spiritnite, but because most of mine were “tech,” I never caught on to their use. Stat management is as simple as buying the newest weapon in town, but talismans dumbfounded me. I would just give a character a “make enemy HP visible” item and did not touch them again for the final seventeen hours of the game. The result was…I managed. If a boss smacked me down, I would reload and try a different combination of party members. Eventually, I could brute force my way into progress, benefiting from RNG such as a boss not using haste to wreck my party in three consecutive turns, or enduring the onslaught of an enemy doing only zero damage for some reason after doing upwards of 300 per turn. Do not get me started on food. I encountered two people up until the end of the game who offered me recipes, and when I made my final lap around the world, it seemed as though everyone wanted to offer me victuals.
It has been some period of time since I genuinely wished I could like a game more than I actually do. I took the liberty of a few extra days after finishing the game to find more merits than flaws, and I simply could not. I am Setsuna borrows from JRPGs of yesteryear not in innovative ways, but in almost complete mimicry. It lacks basic menu and combat features (after being able to actively switch party members during fights in FFX, static parties is a demerit), recycles terrain and environments, and while the soundtrack is actually one of the game’s stronger features, does not offer but a few memorable melodies, most of which would lull listeners to sleep as is the mood of the game. I am Setsuna is a budget JRPG that is consequentially worth purchasing at a budget price.
The Bottom Line
If I am Setsuna stands as an example of what developers would accomplish if they more frequently looked back toward the golden age of RPGs, I enthusiastically urge the industry to continue pressing forward in further modernizing the genre.