I Am Setsuna (Tokyo RPG Factory, 2016)
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Square Enix created Tokyo RPG Factory specifically to develop the kind of traditional, turn-based role-playing game for which fans have been clamouring for years. The timbre is usually nostalgic lamentation: “Why are new Final Fantasy entries so different?” I Am Setsuna, the fledgling studio’s debut effort, aggressively positions itself as a throwback to the genre’s halcyon days. The risk inherent in this backwards-looking reverence is a tendency to emphasize form over function. Ultimately, I Am Setsuna is little more than a shallow, diminished imitation of the games it hopes to channel.
I Am Setsuna’s design is coherent and stylish. The world is cold and dark. The weather reinforces the gloomy mood and sense of encroaching doom that pervades the tiny settlements dotting the land. In the details, the desolation becomes beautiful. Monsters leave paths in the snow, and trees unburden their frozen branches at your approach. The commitment to the setting is admirable, but the relentless dreariness comes to have a wearying effect. One can only trudge through so many snowy fields and icy caverns before the act of playing itself becomes a slog.
The contemplative piano arrangements that constitute the soundtrack are similarly double-edged. The tone ranges from delicate to harrowed, and the score evokes a sense of mystery, loss, and sorrow. Many of the songs are beautiful, but none are particularly inspiring or memorable. They make good background music, but do not fully or satisfyingly accompany the action. Before long, the piano becomes as plodding and oppressive as the frozen world itself.
Combat is relatively solid by virtue of the fact that it’s built on Chrono Trigger’s sturdy foundation. Battles are fast-paced and intuitive. Over this base, the game drapes a couple of esoteric systems that it casts as core mechanics, but which come into play so infrequently as to be inconsequential. A huge suite of double and triple techs is meant to provide tactical variety, but their existence is undermined by the sheer lack of a reason ever to use them. One technique acquired early in the game—later in game-breaking tandem with a certain piece of gear—is sufficient to win most encounters instantly, straight through to the end. Brute force trumps any complex strategy involving buffs and team synergy.
It is difficult to decipher to what degree I Am Setsuna’s pervasive nostalgia is a genuine expression of fondness or a reflection of something more cynical. Either way, Square Enix leverages it as a selling point to the extent that perhaps the marketing doth protest too much. Despite its brevity, a three-bullet synopsis on the PlayStation store manages to lay it on staggeringly thick, describing the game as a “nostalgic experience […] inspired by the timeless JRPG classic, Chrono Trigger” and a “great homage to JRPG masterpieces of yesteryear” that evokes “nostalgia for classic RPGs”. This rigorously retro sensibility, and the insistent attention to it, are a thin veneer that belies the hollowness inside, like a fragile painted egg.
The Wrong Kind of Retro
From its initial announcement, I Am Setsuna billed itself as the spiritual successor to the golden age of Japanese role-playing games. Drawing huge influence from the heavyweights, most notably Chrono Trigger, it sought to bring the feeling of exploration and of saving the world with a ragtag team, to the current generation. Unfortunately, the Setsuna team took all the old conventions that have, for good reason, long been abandoned and brought them back front and centre.
Exploration is simple enough. There are around a dozen towns and many NPCs, some with stories to tell but most with one line of irrelevant dialog. The problem is every town is the same snow-covered grid of houses, with just a couple of NPCs worth talking to. By the time you get to the third settlement you will already have a “been there, done that” feeling and begin to pray for something new to see. Unfortunately, only one or two places break this mould, and even then, only slightly.
You initiate combat by running into monsters visible on the maps as you walk around. If you’ve played Chrono Trigger then you know exactly how these battles unfold, complete with an active time bar, and double and triple techs. The only new mechanics are either too minor to be of any real use (Fluxes) or so completely random and poorly-explained that even having them happen is an event unto itself (Singularities). Keeping up with weapon upgrades and spamming the same one or two techs is enough to make dispatching enemies a tedious chore instead of the chess game combat is meant to be. Insane difficulty spikes and enemies that one hit KO your entire party with no warning are even more frustrating when the rest of the combat is so bland and mindless. The lack of balance and variety certainly hearkens back to the old days, but not in the way the developers intended.
Some would argue that almost any flaw in the combat or exploration can be ignored if the story is compelling. Well, that is not the case here. Seemingly important character information and backstory is shown and everyone continues on as if it never happened. In one case, a major character who is meant to help the party along simply walks off screen after hours of being front and centre, without actually having done anything, and is never spoken of again. In the end, saving the world doesn’t feel like you saved anything but the North Pole, as the map is so small and snow-covered that you’ll wonder why you can’t visit the rest of the planet.
I wanted to like I Am Setsuna. I love JRPGs and have invested thousands of hours in everything from the original Dragon Warrior to the current Final Fantasy crop, but I cannot recommend this game. It felt like an uninspired paint-by-numbers attempt to pull gamers back into a bygone era. What made that era amazing was that developers were able to come up with fresh story and gameplay ideas that worked well together and made something no one had seen before. Taking those ideas seemingly at random just leads to a mess that doesn’t work, and that is what I Am Setsuna turned out to be.
I Am Setsuna, styled I am Setsuna., was developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and published by Square Enix. It was released on PC and PlayStation Network on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita on Thursday, 18 February, 2016 in Japan and Tuesday, 19 July, 2016 worldwide.
JC and Rob each paid for his own copy of the game. Neither reviewer was in direct contact with Square Enix.
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