I Am Setsuna is an RPG with the Heart of the 90s

The balance between new and shiny against old and familiar is a tough one, especially in RPGs. How many menus can a person leaf through in combat before developing a strategy that’s useful for any game in the genre? How complicated do systems need to get before you need a PhD in RPGology just to craft a weapon? It’s a tricky target to hit, and that’s neglecting the question of character design completely. I Am Setsuna is an RPG that attempts to bridge the modern with the classic and it may actually manage to hold its own in both worlds.

The word Setsuna is several things all at once, all of which are important to the game. First off, it’s the name of the young woman offering herself up as sacrifice to the demon ravaging the land. Normally the sacrifice is only required once per decade but the demon is rampaging early this time, so Setsuna and her guardians set out on a wintry quest to the sacrificial lands. They journey through a snow-covered world both beautiful and slightly melancholy, with a gorgeous piano-based soundtrack setting the tone.

This ties in to the other meaning of Setsuna, which is a play on the Japanese word setsunai. Setsunai is usually read as “sad” but its popular meaning also has overtones of sentimentality mixed in. There’s no direct translation but after playing I Am Setsuna a non-Japanese speaker should be able to pinpoint the feeling anyway.  There’s nothing like a long march towards self-sacrifice across a mid-winter landscape past villages destroyed by an angry demon, their burned-out husks covered in fluffy white snow, to really drive home an emotional state of pending loss.

Shoveling on the feels too heavily would take all the sting out of it, though, so I Am Setsuna counters this by being a classic-style RPG with plenty of fun bits in the towns and a lively battle system. I had a good sit-down with the English demo and found I Am Setsuna to be instantly likeable, filled with beautiful art that did its best to look like 2D watercolor despite its 3D nature and some very nice character art that’s stylish while avoiding the trend of being laughably overdesigned.  (And also avoiding feet, for some reason.) Walking through towns and talking to people revealed little pieces of story without being overly chatty, and the dialogue ranged from serious to fun depending on the necessary mood. Basically, I Am Setsuna feels like it would have hung out with Final Fantasy III, Breath of Fire or Lunar back in the day, which is good company to be in.

It probably would have had a slightly weird relationship with Chrono Trigger as well, due in no small part to the way it borrows that game’s combat system. Enemies are visible while walking around each area, and touching one sees everyone take their place for battle as the camera locks itself into place. Positioning is important, as different attacks and abilities have different areas of effect, but much like Chrono Trigger you can’t move and instead need to make the best choice depending on where the current character is in relation to the surrounding enemies. Powerful combo magic attacks and techniques can use two characters at once, and again the positioning of the characters frequently determines which critters get caught in the line of fire.

While I Am Setsuna‘s demo was a beautiful thing, it’s hard to talk about game balance due to the demo’s characters being noticeably overpowered.  I found a few items while exploring and even visited a shop or two but the demo equipment was far stronger than anything I could turn up, and having over nine trillion gold meant I wasn’t about to run low on health items any time soon.  There’s a crafting feature to get even more items, though, and its one of the major sub-systems of the game.  Each fight not only gets you gold but also a nice haul of monster parts, and what you find is dependent on the method used to dispatch the enemies.  Magic attacks get one type of item while regular attacks get another, and massively overpowering an enemy can make it cough up even more goodies.  It’s a system that makes you try different tactics if you want to be able to craft the best goodies, rather than just falling back on the regular heavy hitters.

It would be easy to classify I Am Setsuna as a throwback RPG but that would be missing the point.  I Am Setsuna is a modern game with classic influences, gorgeous in art and music, and the things it borrows from classic RPGs are there not simply to get an easy kick of nostalgia but to aid playability.  It was a relatively straightforward matter to come to grips with the battle system basics and get my bearings in the world, even dropping in to the middle of the story with several characters to choose from and having them pre-leveled up.  That’s not to say the game is simple, of course, because I could see there were systems and menu options I wasn’t exploiting, but everything felt inviting rather than being a wall of esoteric terms hiding a numbers game.  I Am Setsuna grafts the look and feel of the old favorites onto a new RPG that promises to easily hold its own against modern offerings, becoming what we might have pictured the future of the genre would look like way, way back in the mid-1990s.