Little is known about main protagonist Endir in the waning moments of I Am Setsuna apart from the bounty he must complete: kill a young girl. He soon happens across his target, named Setsuna, and is pulled into what she must undertake: sacrifice. Setsuna is destined to end her own life in the name of sacrifice for the good of the people. A clear Final Fantasy inspiration, Endir embarks on a journey to the Last Lands where Setsuna must lay down her life so the resurging horde of monsters will be dispersed once again. With a charming cast of characters inherited along the way, I Am Setsuna takes strong nostalgic roots from many different franchises and creates a journey of compassion, humanity, and soul searching as the circumstances of Setsuna’s fate become more clear and heavy with only a few dialogue mishaps and underwhelming tension breaks along the way.
The nostalgic roots I mentioned above come from cult classics in which I’ve spent this entire review reminiscing. The frequency and difficulty of bosses within the game, as well as the overall format of combat, ebb the likes of Chrono Trigger and Golden Sun, graphics included: slightly dated, yet refined. Grinding levels was an expectation with older RPGs, because a balance between gameplay and flow hadn’t yet been nurtured, and one of the few unfortunate things about I Am Setsuna is that the grind is very real here as well. However, one element to combat that makes the grind much easier to maintain is the use of Momentum Points. All characters, be they staff user or sword wielder, can build up their Momentum in order to add extra damage to their attacks with a well-timed press of the Square Button mid-attack. This creates a constant sense of input with some of the baser fights along the way, but Momentum is so much more complicated than that. As the game progresses, enemies—not just bosses—hit harder, work together more, and require more focus, so simply waiting for the Momentum Points to build up can be a risk-reward situation, depending on circumstances.
Turn-based combat, as well as its free-flowing counterpart, adds to the stratagem required to make it through the narrative, and quite a bit of know-how and outward thinking are the only ways to progress past even the simplest of bosses. For the first few, having a dedicated damage sponge and healer made the fights a cake walk, but, as was the case with each consecutive fight, one success does not mean continuous success. Each boss has its own quirks, and it in a lot of cases comes down to just learning the hard way what works and what doesn’t. Some bosses attack faster, which requires either fortified defenses or a faster recharging Active Time Battle bar; some have events occurring within the fight that must be juggled in light of said boss; and some just require specific passive and active abilities in order to counter what the boss casts. The early hours of I Am Setsuna are rather welcoming, moving along at a constant pace with just enough difficulty to feel fulfilling. Once more functions and characters arrive, the challenge begins to incline, and simply buying better weapons and accessories won’t pay the bills. Still, while the boss fights are in hindsight justifiable, the lack of balance between leveling and narrative flow just weren’t there. I Am Setsuna required preparation with most fights. These were some of the most challenging boss fights I’ve encountered in any RPG, but they spiked to the point that I had to grind out eight to ten levels AND readjust my abilities, party make, and equipment to barely make it through.
The game asks a lot of the player to accomplish with very few tools with which to work, but the beauty of said tools is that they’re all potent. Even though leveling up is essential to success, that success can only be achieved through unlocking and using Spritnite. These active and passive abilities can then be equipped to characters in multiple ways depending on necessity. Some can be equipped to everyone and some can only be equipped under certain character requirements. Each character has some wiggle room in this regard, but that also means that a magic user cannot be made into a profound damage sponge or a durable character into an untouchable spellcaster. This side of the game has an interesting usage outside of the obvious: In order to obtain Spritnite from vendors, items drop from monsters and are then sold to vendors, who keeps track of the components for the remainder of the game. Ultimately, money is exchanged for components in order to buy weapons and those components are then used by the vendor to create Spritnite. This means that players no longer have to split their time and resources between having money and having better equipment or abilities.
Often, soundtracks are full bodied and feature a complete orchestra with brass accompaniments, but sometimes, as such is the case here, a single piano can do more for a concept than a synchronization of different instruments. Considering this instrument, there’s no other place where the sound of a striking hammer would exhume such elegance like it does on a regular basis within the confines of a piano, and game composer Tomoki Miyoshi has utilized said instrument to comprise an entire soundtrack for I Am Setsuna without a single unintentional break. Moving between areas changes the track, but the changes are so subtle that the shift in areas, as well as the game as a whole, feels like one continuous living track—and that includes the combat rifts—that lives and breathes the spontaneous changes along the way. Throughout, the piano is hard at work sheening the narrative edge that makes each emotional tug that much sharper.
This journey takes Endir, Setsuna, and their compatriots through the ice and snow, battling their way to a better world, but the ultimate theme to the gameplay side of things is knowing exactly where to go. This can be tricky, because there’s no world map, so navigation is dependent on the player’s ability to remember where locations are and how to get there. Speaking with citizens can often yield positive results in this regard, but there will not always be people around to ask these kinds of things. So, the player is required first and foremost to pay attention to every line of dialogue and recall everything in order to get around. Again, there are subtle hints in most situations, and the world itself is small and suffers from a false sense of openness, so finding one’s way around when completely lost is only a short matter of time and patience.
The blizzard-stricken landscape is cold to the bone, but the integrity and faithfulness of the human condition remains warm in I Am Setsuna. The world is against Endir and Setsuna on their way to the Last Lands, monsters big and small seeking to thwart them along the way with complicated tactics not seen since the PlayStation 1 era. The soundtrack sets the nostalgic tone properly and the dialogue delivers each character as they find themselves through their journey to the Last Lands. Much like the treacherous trials of real life pilgrimages, the challenges on the way to completing I Am Setsuna will allow only those most dedicated to reach the end. Prepare for frustration, and prepare to remember the ups and downs of what made those timeless classics so timeless.