If there is one gaming genre that throughout gaming’s short history has seen some of the highest highs and lowest lows, it is certainly the Japanese role-playing game. The long lineage of JRPGs in gaming is one that stretches all the way back to the NES era with games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. It was during this and the SNES generation that games such as Chrono Trigger and Earthbound pushed the medium as far as it would go.
However, more recently JRPGs have been something of more niche genre, rather than an industry staple. Sure, you have your Persona 4 Goldens and Ni No Kunis to fawn over, but an example of a great JRPG in the 2010s is certainly something that is few and far between. This is why something like I Am Setsuna, developed by the freshly put together team at Tokyo RPG Factory and published by the former leader in the genre Square Enix, is so exciting. Despite the fact that it does suffer from some of the same tropes that come along with the JRPG formula, it’s certainly a worthy torch-bearer to push these sorts of games into the modern consciousness.
It doesn’t take much time to notice I Am Setsuna is trying to mimic some part of nearly all of the classic JRPGs mentioned above. It’s combat features the active time battle system pioneered in Chrono Trigger while it’s party and characters echo back to Final Fantasy IV and VI. From the outerworld movement to the way battle encounters begin, it’s uncanny ability to blatantly ripoff the things that made these games great, and still make it an entertaining journey is what I Am Setsuna does best.
Tokyo RPG Factory’s take on the epic fantasy adventure is where a lot of I Am Setsuna’s heart comes from. The game takes place in a cold, snow-covered world in which the people are under constant attack from monsters. An attack that is only stymied by the villagers sending a young girl to be sacrificed once every ten years. The titular character Setsuna is this sacrifice, and it’s you and your party’s reasonability to deliver her to the monsters. Along the way, as you might expect from any class JRPG, party members come and go, each with their own tale to be discovered. While some characters might not stand out as much as others, it’s these stories about each of your party members that really bring your rag-tag group of misfits to life.
Gameplay, like almost everything in I Am Setsuna, mirrors it’s predecessors to a t. It’s active time battle system, complete with combos and multi-party moves, is as Chrono Trigger inspired as something can get. It’s ability slots and weapon choices aren’t necessarily groundbreaking but they do offer a bit of variety as to who you can have in your party and what ways you want to attack the foes that lie ahead of you. While it’s systems aren’t terribly deep, they can be quite satisfying when everything begins to click.
Enemy encounters however, are one of the areas where emulating the past, does tend to bring up it’s unpolished tendencies. When you enter a battle with normal enemies not much thought really needs to be put in in order to smash an opposing flock of penguin creatures to bits, which while it makes you feel powerful doesn’t really teach you how to flex the tools that the game has to offer. This then leaves you to fight some of the games bosses without really knowing or having practiced central mechanics to see how different tech buffs and debuffs work. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but it does tend to mean that often your easiest course of action is to either learn things on the fly while fighting a boss, or go back and grind out a few levels. While none of these things are a major flaws, they do bring up the areas in which Setsuna and the JRPGs of yesteryear haven’t aged perfectly.
Another odd thing that left me shaking my head was the use of manual saves. While I understand this a tried and true way of doing things in a lot of RPGs, it’s a bit frustrating to lose chunks and sometimes hours at a time all because I didn’t want to go through the process of making a new save. This might seem like something small to harp on, but when nearly everything contemporary game uses some sort of in-game save point or autosave system, remembering to open up a menu is a bit tedious. The visuals also aren’t anything to write home about either, as the game’s art style and drab environments do get old fairly quickly, as well as the character design being pretty flat. The music does try at some points to present itself as a mellow mood maker but it isn’t nearly as catchy and earwormy as themes from the games it tries to follow.
Despite these hiccups, there’s a lot to be taken from I Am Setsuna. It’s the tip of the spear of what could be a major JRPG resurgence, a sign that the games of old haven’t lost their place within the hearts and minds of millions of players out there. While there are certainly some way that they could be updated to better fit more modern sensibilities, the main ingredients of this formula are, for the most part, nailed here in I Am Setsuna and show that one the long revered genres in gaming is primed for a comeback.
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