I’m really into the idea of Tokyo RPG Factory, a smaller studio within Square Enix who will make shorter, more compact classic JRPG experiences. However, their first result leaves a little bit to be desired.
I Am Setsuna’s protagonist is Endir, a mysterious masked protagonist who is sent to kill Setsuna, a young woman who has been chosen as a human sacrifice to keep the hordes of monsters which threaten their world at bay. Instead of killing her outright, Endir joins her on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands, where she must die, although this being a JRPG there have to be a lot of distractions along the way, whilst meeting a colourful band of characters. The best thing about I Am Setsuna is the premise itself, and the mournful, melancholy tone. The idea of your quest being to escort someone to their death is brilliantly dark, but the game fails to explore it with enough nuance.
I Am Setsuna’s combat is mostly inspired by Chrono Trigger, and is mostly fine. There’s a gauge that increases and when full you can perform an action, such as attack, use a special move or an item. Certain special moves can be used in conjunction with each other to form combos, some of which are deliciously overpowered, although this led into an issue I’ll discuss later on. You can also wait on your turn to boost up a second gauge, which allows when full allows you to boost the power of your attack or technique. It’s a simple matter of deciding whether to launch fewer more powerful attacks or more frequent weaker strikes, but particularly during boss battles the decision stayed interesting. Still, I didn’t find the combat particularly engaging, particularly coming straight from the much more fun Persona 5.
Outside of battles you’ll follow your standard structure of wandering between dungeons, towns and the overworld and there’s little of note mechanically outside of the combat. There is an interesting method for unlocking new techniques, involving selling particular monster parts to be able to access them. Killing monsters in different ways give different paths; if you chip away the tiny bit of health with surgical precision, you’ll get something different to if you overwhelm them with a massive strike. It’s an interesting idea but in practice isn’t particularly fun and I found myself wishing that this game had a simpler approach to upgrades and its economy.
Confession time: I didn’t finish I Am Setsuna. I got 4/5 of the way through which is, in my opinion, enough to form a judgement, but I didn’t finish. I ran into a boss for which I was staggeringly underleveled, having essentially managed to sweep away all fights beforehand. Upon looking up the recommended level I was aghast to see that I was a full 10 levels below where I needed to be I was aghast. I was not going to use my precious time to sit and bloody grind. Grinding may have been a part of old school JRPGs, but they’re a failure of design and have no place in modern gaming. I couldn’t help but compare it to the smooth and satisfying increase in difficulty in Persona 5, the fact that I never felt the need to grind once and comfortably completed the game, and get quite irritated. I suppose I could have whacked on a podcast and mindlessly killed monster penguins for a couple of hours to get my level up but, well, why the bloody hell should I?
It’s a shame because I liked the world they created. It’s all quite same-y, with a snowy and beautifully bleak aesthetic throughout, but it’s very effective. Comfortably the best thing about I Am Setsuna is the gorgeous soundtrack, with every single one being a simple piano piece. Where JRPGs are known for grand scope and orchestra, I Am Setsuna’s restraint here is genuinely revelatory. The simplicity and beauty of the single piano, arguably the most versatile instrument around, provides one of the most interesting soundtracks I’ve heard.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game can’t match that piano. It was a decent enough JRPG experience I would have been happy to play to the end. There are games out there I like so much I’d grind for if absolutely necessary, but I Am Setsuna is not that game.