Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
Tokyo RPG Factory’s I am Setsuna bills itself first and foremost as “inspired by the timeless classic Chrono Trigger.” Chrono Trigger is indeed a JRPG classic, and though I am Setsuna certainly does wear that inspiration on its sleeve, the statement feels lacking somehow. The phrase “inspired by” fails to capture the enormity of what makes I am Setsuna tick. It suggests that the systems laid out by a SNES game old enough to buy booze may, perhaps, have been improved upon. It feels disingenuous.
I am Setsuna places you in the role of Endir, a masked mercenary who finds himself accompanying Setsuna, a girl on a pilgrimage whom he was originally hired to kill.. In their world of eternal winter and constant snow, you see, a girl possessed of outstanding magical energy must be sacrificed every decade in order to quell the tide of monsters. As you might imagine, Endir and Setsuna wind up rolling with a ragtag band of would-be guardians, trekking through dungeons and slaying monsters by the caveful. This could just as easily describe nearly any 16-bit JRPG, so where does Chrono Trigger fit in?
Well, one of Chrono Trigger’s defining features was its battle system, in which two or three characters could combine their standard Techs into more powerful Combo Techs; for example, “Delta Force” requires combined use of lightning, fire, and ice magic to conjure an omni-elemental blast. I am Setsuna cribs this system and then overcomplicates it. Once a character’s ATB gauge has filled, meaning they’re ready to act, they begin to fill an SP gauge until an action is taken. Each character can store up to three points of SP, which can then be expended to use a Tech in “Momentum mode”, granting additional effects or increased power. By itself, I actually think this is a pretty brilliant addition; a simple system that offers satisfying risk-versus-reward decision making. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay so simple.
To start with, your characters don’t learn Techs, but instead equip stones known as “Spritnite” to gain access to them. Each combatant can only equip a limited number of Spritnite, although that limit increases both by leveling up and equipping talismans. You’ll quickly find, however, that you have far more Spritnite for each character than they have room for. Here begins a balancing act between:
- Choosing Techs you actually want to use
- Choosing Techs that allow for Combo Techs you actually want to use
- Choosing Techs without prohibitively high MP costs
- Leaving enough slots open for support Spritnite, which grant passive effects
Knowing which Techs to use can be a pain, because the descriptions give little suggestion of the relative power of each one. Most Techs are listed as affecting “all enemies (or allies) near the target,” but there’s no indication of how far it actually extends. If you want to know what effects Momentum mode adds to each Tech, you’ll need to drill into the extended descriptions found in the in-game “Snow Chronicles” journal. Then you have to factor in that each Tech is a component in at least two or three Combo Techs, and those decisions depend on which of the game’s seven characters you’re using in your party of three.
As if that weren’t enough, each party member’s equipped talisman grants the possibility of permanently adding “fluxes” to their Spritnite any time they trigger Momentum mode for a Tech. These fluxes range in effect from less MP consumption, to higher damage, to greater SP accumulation, and so on. Although the idea of gradually customizing Techs in this way sounds great, it doesn’t quite pan out. Many encounters can be ended before there’s even a chance to use Momentum mode, and many Techs cost so much MP that it’s unlikely you’ll ever use them in standard encounters, making the entire flux mechanic feel woefully tacked-on.
My other issue lies with the acquisition of the Spritnite themselves. The stones don’t cost money, but require certain combinations of enemy loot to be sold in varying quantities. Again, an idea I like in theory! The problem is, enemies drop different loot depending on how they’re killed, and there are a lot of different drops for each foe. Using a fire-elemental attack to land the finishing blow offers different loot than a water-elemental attack, there’s loot specifically for Momentum mode kills, or Combo Tech kills… and so on. In fact, each enemy type can have as many as twelve potential drops. The game blessedly takes into account the possibility of kills that satisfy more than one condition, allowing you to obtain several pieces of loot from a single foe, but it doesn’t keep this mechanic from feeling bloated. Several of my characters ended the game with missing Techs that were available much earlier, simply because I never got the right kills on the right foes.
Honestly, I spent most of my time with I am Setsuna feeling like I had somehow broken the combat system. I ignored so many of the Techs, and so rarely had cause to change my party, that I can’t imagine I played the game the “right way.” If there’s a way to play that is more “correct,” I have no idea what that way is, nor how one would be expected to know it. Of all the things lifted from Chrono Trigger, the most important has been neglected: elegance. I am Setsuna feels devoted less to being classic and more to being archaic. The obtuse menu design makes inventory management a hassle, too much information is sequestered away in the Snow Chronicles, and the game can only be saved on the world map or at save points, with no retry feature for battles – a fact that can really sting when the difficulty spikes, in that delightfully obnoxious old-school way.
In spite of its overwrought systems, I am Setsuna quickly took hold of me. Sure, the plot’s nothing out of the ordinary if you’ve been round the JRPG block before, but there’s a satisfying air of mystery that pulls it all together. The pacing is as brisk as the weather, with the game clocking in around the 20 hour mark (although oddly enough, there’s no in-game timer). Contrary to the considerable Chrono Trigger influence elsewhere, the “protect a girl on a pilgrimage” setup mirrors Final Fantasy X’s in some noticeable ways, and that includes the part where most of the side content is locked away until you get an airship in the third act. I’m an outspoken fan of this brand of pacing and linearity in JRPGs, but if you’re the sort who needs a sprawling world to sink dozens of hours into, I am Setsuna is definitely not your huckleberry.
Small though the world may be, it’s beautifully realized. There’s a nigh-painterly flair to the vistas, accompanied by some appropriately melancholic melodies. Once I hit a stride with the combat, I could feel my frustrations melt away as I soaked in the charm of I am Setsuna’s devastatingly somber ambience. The wintry setting fits perfectly, and though it does make for a lack of visual variety, the game flies by fast enough that this never bothered me. Everything feels coherent in a way most video game worlds fail to achieve. There’s no neatly-wrapped happy ending; the atmosphere remains downtrodden and enigmatic through the bitter end, and I can’t help but love it for that.
I Am Setsuna is a commitment to everything you love about SNES-era JRPGs, and to everything you hate about them too. It’s a love letter to Chrono Trigger given polygonal flesh. It’s a hot mess of a game with too many ideas for its own good. On one of the several unoccupied islands accessible only by airship, there is a portal to a 16-bit village where the game devs live as character sprites. They all have little messages for you, ranging from the standard “Thank you very much for buying this game,” to more personal messages like “The composer felt so sorrowful, he cried while writing the music…” But one of these messages stood out to me above all others: “The more you try to make something perfect, the less perfect it becomes. This game definitely isn’t perfect… but it’s definitely not bad, either!”