I Am Setsuna - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
I Am Setsuna is a throwback to the turn-based RPGs of our childhood from the creative minds of the crowned kings of the RPG genre, Square Enix. As gaming has evolved over the years, the formula for how to make an RPG has also evolved to the point where turn-based combat has been replaced with a more action-oriented experience, and subtle quality of life changes have been added to make the experience less of a grind (excuse the pun) on the player. With this in mind, Square Enix opened a subsidiary company called Tokyo RPG Factory, dedicated to recreating the RPG’s of old that defined our childhoods. Let’s see if this faithful recreation from 2016 can stand the test of time.
One Hour In
You start the game playing as Endir, a member of a tribe of mercenaries for hire, willing to take any job if it pays enough gold. I was walked through a short tutorial section and ran into my first roadblock of sorts: this game is packed with different mechanics and tries to throw them at you all at once within a short amount of time. Luckily for me, there is an option where you can re-read each one over again, but I can’t help but feel like this could have been spread out a little more, giving the player time to grow accustomed to each mechanic before introducing a new one.
One upside to the battle system is the sense of familiarity it has with the Final Fantasy series. The Active Time Battle system from those games carries over to I Am Setsuna, and was one of the only aspects of combat I didn’t need to grow accustomed to. After following an old man who gives me my first Tech ability through an item called Spritnite, this game’s equivalent of Materia, I defeat my first “boss” enemy and am greeted by a mysterious man who wants to give me a new job. This is where the game suddenly grabbed my interest and didn’t let go.
Endir has been tasked with killing a young girl from the island village of Nive, and he apparently has no issue with it as long as he gets paid. His target is the title character, Setsuna, a girl destined to sacrifice her life to rid the world of monsters once and for all.
Five Hours In
After finding Setsuna, she convinced me to escort her to the Lost Lands where she is destined to make her grand sacrifice, and allow her to follow through with the sacrificial ritual. As Setsuna’s death will fulfill Endir’s end of the job, he accepts her terms and begins the long journey to her doom, accompanied by the spunky assassin-like girl, Aeterna.
The farewell celebration hit me a little differently than I expected. Setsuna is a daughter, friend, and hopeful romantic partner to many in the village, but very few are sad to see her go. In fact, the majority of the village is proud of her and her sacrifice, knowing what it means for her to make such a grand gesture for a benefit she will never have. It’s a unique take on what amounts to a full-length escort mission, though Setsuna never felt like dead weight in battle.
Combat has remained largely the same, though I was introduced to Combo attacks and Momentum, two more mechanics that took me a while to get the hang of. I also discovered that each character has a Talisman equipped, but I have no idea what they are there for as they don’t have any obvious effects in battle from what I could tell. Spritnite-Eaten monsters are also introduced, incredibly powerful enemies that are difficult to beat but offer better rewards than their standard counterparts. My first few attempts to kill them didn’t go very well.
It is here I also run into two major annoyances that have been taken from 90’s RPGs. Save points are few and far between, with no pause menu save option that is commonplace in many modern games. There is also no overworld map at all. I ended up Googling whether this was an unlockable item to save myself the pain of getting lost in an unfamiliar world, but apparently this was a developmental oversight that was never put into the game. In the individual areas it’s less of an issue, but traversing the overworld with no way of knowing where these areas are except for old-fashioned memory got old very fast.
Ten Hours In
I only just discovered that you can save at any point in the overworld area, and not just at the glowing green circles scattered through the main explorable areas. Had I known this beforehand, I would have saved myself a lot of time backtracking when I wanted to save the game.
Two more characters have also joined the cause: Nidr, an older warrior who escorted the previous failed sacrifice, and Kir, the standard human-animal hybrid with strong magical powers. Even though the skeletons of the characters have so far been fairly generic, their individual storylines are unique and interesting enough that I haven’t grown bored of them yet. Nidr’s backstory was particularly heartbreaking to watch unfold, as he and Endir see the ghosts of his past replay their last days and give us a major plot twist that I won’t spoil.
At this point, I’m comfortable enough with the combat mechanics that I can breeze through most encounters without too much thought, although the Spritnite-Eaten monsters still kill me with ease.
Twenty Hours In
I have unlocked the final members of my team: Julienne the warrior princess, and Fides the brooding Dark Magic wielder, but I can’t help but feel like they have come in way too late in the story. It was obvious from the first time I met them that they would become a playable character at some point just from their designs, and I’m a little disappointed that it took so long for them to finally join the cause. They also both turned out to be characters I hardly ever used, except out of curiosity to see what they could do.
The RPG standard “flying-thing” ability has also come into play far too late for my liking, but at least there was no story reason to backtrack across the world until now. However, this is where the lack of a minimap really shows its impact. Even though the airship flies significantly faster than walking speed, you’ll find yourself flying around aimlessly looking for that one particular spot you wanted to re-explore for far too long.
The mystery behind what Talismans actually do in the game finally made itself known to me, and I either skipped over that part of the tutorial entirely, or I was never made aware of their connections to your Tech abilities in the first place. In any case, it could have been presented a little clearer to the player what these items actually do for you.
Twenty-Five Hours In
The final boss has loomed over me for long enough, and I enter its cocoon thing to put an end to the hoards of monsters once and for all. Knowing this boss will probably be borderline immune to status effects, I pick my team for buffs and healing instead and go in with the original trio of characters: Endir, Setsuna, and Aeterna.
There was a lot of lead up for this to be an epic showdown with the antagonist that had been looming over me for some time, but when it came down to the actual fight it turned out to be one of the easier in the game. There were still some turns dedicated to healing up my team and the boss had more HP than sense, but I never felt in danger of losing the fight, and overall it was a little underwhelming considering the build up.
I Am Setsuna is a good game, there’s no doubt about it. It holds onto gaming flaws that hold it back from being truly great, and could have done with leaving some mechanics behind in favour of a more user-friendly experience, but what is here is beautiful, thought-provoking, and most importantly: fun.
If you enjoy any sort of turn-based RPG, you'll likely have a good time with this title.
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