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Dave Hates Games: I Am Setsuna

11 February 2017 15:59 EST under
Dave Hates Games, Games, Lengthy Reads

2016, developed by Tokyo RPG Factory, published by Square Enix, $40

If I had to pick a single word that encompasses the entire nature of I Am Setsuna, I would fail. But if I had to pick two words, I would pick "bleak" and "austere." Bleaksterity permeates every facet of this game, from its homogeneous setting to its sparse (almost-)all-piano soundtrack. An overt love-letter to the old-school JRPG (especially Chrono Trigger), I Am Setsuna is a solid first outing from developer Tokyo RPG Factory, but its failure to comprehend all of what made those old games great ensures that it will never join their ranks. Between wooden characters and a deluge of unnecessary "deep customization" features, I Am Setsuna is an experience that's ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

(Click here to skip straight to my final thoughts.)

If you've played Final Fantasy X, I'm really sorry. Tidus is possibly the worst-written protagonist in all of gaming, and he ruins what could've been an otherwise decent entry in the franchise. That said, you'll at least be familiar with I Am Setsuna's skeletal plot: Sin starts monsters start to happen, local fisherman and shit hate Sin monsters, a young woman makes a pilgrimage with a bunch of guardians to the Calm Last Lands to sacrifice herself to make Sin the monsters stop for awhile. Rinse and repeat, because "Hey, it works," and "Why bother getting to the bottom of this cycle if we can just throw more bodies at it?"

Enter Silent Endir

Enter Endir. Can we just go ahead and admit that the whole "silent protagonist" thing doesn't work? It was stupid in Chrono Trigger and it's stupid in I Am Setsuna. Hell, it's stupid in Xenoblade Chronicles X, which I'm watching Kate play while I write this: it's so idiotic to have this massive, fleshed out world with a stunning roster of characters and then to have people turn to the player-character and bark orders or ask for help or just talk about the fucking weather, only to get a closeup of a dead stare in response.

Anyway, enter Endir. Endir's the silent player-character protagonist thing, and Endir only "speaks" in the form of player-selected dialog options, in which he has an ephemeral expression of one of two possible personalities: "inspirational go-getter" or "giant asshole." No choice effects more than the next one non-Endir line of dialog, and no choice has any bearing whatsoever on the greater story. At one point, one of the other characters even turns to Endir and says, "I remember everything you've ever said to me, Endir!" Spoiler: they don't. That literally never comes up again.

SO, ENTER ENDIR. FOR REAL THIS TIME. Endir is a mercenary. He also has a sword. Congratulations, you now know 100% of Endir's backstory. At the game's outset, Endir is hired by Mysterious Man to travel to the hometown of the girl who's just been chosen to be the next sacrifice and kill her. Instead, Endir travels to the hometown of the girl who's just been chosen to be the next sacrifice and doesn't kill her. Endir is bad at his job. Would you hire Endir? I wouldn't hire Endir.

The concept art for the game is phenomenal.

The next sacrifice is none other than the eponymous Setsuna, who, upon meeting Endir, says something to the effect of "I can sense something special in you because you have a non-generic character model. Why don't you hold off on killing me, since I'm heading out to die in a few here anyway, and be my travel companion for the next twenty or so hours?" Congratulations, you now know 100% of the story of I Am Setsuna.

In addition to her pre-existing travel companion, Aeterna, a woman whose nature and origins are shrouded in mystery (and whose hair is shrouded by a frog-hoodie), Setsuna will be joined by everyone else with a non-generic character model that she encounters along her pilgrimage:

From left to right: Aeterna, Julienne, Endir, Setsuna, Nidr, Kir. Not pictured: Haircut.

I Am Setsuna is the borscht of JRPGs

I Am Setsuna's world is a cold one: your little band will trudge through snowy fields, snowy hamlets, snowy forests, snowy mountains, icy caves, and stark ruins with nebulous, monochromatic backdrops. If you're hoping for variation, don't: you'll get none. It's all beautifully realized through the game's art style, but that wears thin quickly. After the tenth hour of tufts of snow falling from trees as you brush past them and your characters' cute little peg-legged models carving trails into the powder as they march around, you stop caring. And the further you go, the more pronounced the nagging feeling that the game is missing the mark somehow will become. There's never a moment of excitement as you enter a strange new environment, there's no identifiable antagonist (excepting one recurring boss whose entire character amounts to "Kill the sacrifice," with absolutely no surrounding context), and there's no levity past a few brief instances of banter between Nidr and Kir.

In a genre dominated by tales of small groups of unlikely heroes saving the world from complete destruction, a little levity here and there is key. Final Fantasy VI was filled with it: the ridiculous and dramatic opera-switcheroo pulled to gain access to an airship, Gau's reaction to Cyan's speech mannerisms, Kefka's over-the-top lunacy, Edgar's chronic womanizing, Ultros...the list goes on and on, and each instance of it served to make the darker moments in the game that much more impactful (Celes throwing herself from a cliff, anyone?). Chrono Trigger's much the same way: Lucca's reaction to meeting Frog, Ayla not knowing what a "rawboot" is, Marle's general I'm-not-the-hoity-toity-kind-of-princess demeanor, and having to win a carnival game to save your dead friend, to name a few. Hell, even Final Fantasy X had that terrible laughing scene.

Pulled shamelessly from Kotaku's article, "I Am Setsuna's Charm is Also Its Weakness."

I Am Setsuna eschews all of this -- the grandiose, the heartwarming, the funny, the silly, and the chance to bring life to characters who desperately need it -- for a repetitive trek through a frosty land with frosty people saying frosty things. The formula never changes once established: walk across world map, encounter town, discover town has a problem its inhabitants need solved, solve problem, gain access to a forest/mountain/cave that'll take you to to the next section of the world map, repeat. Throw in a boss or two for each iteration and baby, you got a stew goin'. It's a cold, bitter stew, though, like a borscht. I'm sure team-size and budget restrictions had a hand in this repetitiveness, but the end-product is a game that's memorable mainly for how unremarkable it is and for how not-unremarkable a Chrono Trigger for the modern era should be.

The stark beauty of the visuals is mirrored in composer Tomoki Miyoshi's score, which ultimately suffers from the same lack of vision as the game itself. The sound of snow is a lone piano (okay, sometimes two pianos). As a pianist and composer for piano, I've always been curious about the viability of an all-piano video game score, and it's now safe for me to say that, under the right conditions, it can work quite well. Simple, catchy melodies, free of meaningful counterpoint or adventurous harmonic language, make up the bulk of I Am Setsuna's soundtrack. It blows its wad early, though, with new tracks almost ceasing to trickle in past the halfway point.

I find it hard to blame the composer for any shortcomings in the soundtrack, though, because the game never provides an avenue for, say, a Corridors of Time moment. I would've liked it to sound a touch less synthesized here and there, and I think more could've been done to explore the huge range of sounds the piano can create, but, overall, a solid soundtrack, and one that pairs perfectly with the mood of the game. Some critics have placed the soundtrack on the same level as Uematsu's finest, but that's a ludicrous elevation. It's nice, but "Dancing Mad" it is not.

Death by Systems Suffocation

If I Am Setsuna nails one thing, it's old-school, Active Time Battle, three-party-member, attack-tech-item combat. To add an extra inch to its raging erection for Chrono Trigger, Endir even starts the game with the "Cyclone" Tech, and within the first hour, you'll be dropping the "X-Strike" combo with Aeterna. Yes, double-techs and triple-techs are very much a thing.

Fun fact: if you Google image search "Setsuna X-Strike", you'll find that every review of this game ever written uses this exact image.

In a slight twist on the classic formula, combat sees the addition of a system called "Momentum," which allows each character to accumulate up to three SP (Special Power? Setsuna Points? Sausage Platters? Nobody really seems to know) points during combat by opting to take no action whatsoever for a brief time while his or her respective ATB bar is full. One SP can be spent to add "Momentum" to an action, adding damage or special effects to physical attacks or spellcasting with proper timing of a button press. It's a cool combination between Super Mario RPG's timed attacks and Bravely Default's brave/default system, and adds a layer of strategic depth to combat while being immediately comprehensible.

Unfortunately, the Immediate Comprehension Train stops there. Techs aren't learned through any sort of experience system; rather, they become available by equipping (usually) purchased "Spritnite," material with magical properties. Spritnite comes in two flavors: Command Spritnite, which is character-specific and grants an active tech to a character when equipped; and Support Spritnite, which is character-agnostic and grants a passive buff or effect to a character when equipped. Pretty simple, on the surface, but things spiral out of control quickly.

Each character has sixteen Command Spritnite, which makes for 112 different active abilities across the party. There are over one hundred unique Support Spritnite. The number of Spritnite a character can equip at any given time is based on a combination of his or her level and the Talisman ("accessory" would be the closest generic JRPG term) he or she is wearing. There's more granularity there with respect to what types of Spritnite the character's Talisman allows (some combination of Support, Command, and "either one" slots). Talismans can also have one or two additional effects: a passive benefit, such as showing monster HP, or increasing the wearer's maximum HP; and a set of possible Flux bonuses, such as decreased MP cost or increased critical rate. "What's Flux?" I'm so glad I asked for you. Fluxation occurs randomly after battle, and can effect any Command Spritnite used during that battle. At the end of battle, you'll be informed which Spritnite, if any, were affected by Fluxation, and which Flux bonus it can receive (based on the Talisman worn by the Spritnite's bearer). You can choose whether or not to accept the Flux bonus, because a single Spritnite can only have a maximum of eight Flux bonuses on it. Not to worry, though, because you can acquire as many of a given non-ultimate Spritnite as you want by accumulating, selling, and then redeeming sold monster drops -- which can be farmed by killing certain monsters with a specific "kill" type: normal, rare, over, exact, fire, water, light, shadow, time, momentum, debuff, or link (don't worry, you can look up whatever you want through the monstrously tedious process of flipping through the in-game bestiary) -- for them, and then you can apply a different set of Fluxes to each one.

Oh, and most of them have odd names that don't really tell you what they do (e.g., Gratia, Sigtyr, Gagnrath), so you have to read the descriptions every time you're looking for something.

Oh, but you can rename them.

Oh, and sometimes Singularities happen in battle (don't worry about it).

Oh, and you can upgrade every weapon for every character, each of which has a unique passive trait (or uniquely high attack/defense stats), using one of four different upgrade materials, each of which has its own potency cap.

Oh, and you can collect food recipes, which you can then give to chefs, who will then allow you to purchase that food to use as a one-time buff before the next instance of combat.

Oh, and even though I can write about it semi-coherently now, most of this stuff is not at all well explained in-game.

Look at how fucking tiny that scrollbar is.

It's a min-maxer's wet dream, but there's simply not enough content here to justify the suffocating amount of crap thrown at you. By the end of the twenty-five-hour main story, I'd almost completely stopped caring about Spritnite loadouts, because the thought of going through my nearly endless list to achieve optimal combat efficiency made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. On top of that, it just doesn't fucking matter most of the time. Consideration is warranted for boss fights, many of which represent significant difficulty spikes, but trash mobs are pushovers: if you enter combat before being spotted, your party will start with full ATB bars and an SP point to boot, allowing you to blast out a powered-up double- or triple-tech that wipes everything out immediately while healing your party fully at the same time. Combine that technique with the Support Spritnite that restores MP for dealing a killing blow to a foe, and level-grinding becomes trivial.

That said, beyond small HP and MP increases, level-grinding serves very little purpose: attack and defense stats come from weapons, and the vast majority of your efficacy in battle is determined by the Spritnite you're wearing. There's a germ of a commendable idea here: a more streamlined leveling experience that rewards building up different Spritnite loadouts for different situations. The baseline efficacy required to complete the game, however (and despite difficult moments), is low. I don't think I maxed out the Fluxes on a single Spritnite, and I certainly never felt compelled to have a "low-MP Cyclone" versus a "high crit-rate Cyclone" versus an "ATB bonus Cyclone." There are twenty different Flux bonuses. I get that creating ten extra Flux bonuses is probably easier than creating one extra map, but come the fuck on: which adds more value to the game?

Some of the triple-tech animations are pretty insane.

Final Thoughts

I Am Setsuna is, at its core, not a bad game. Its bleakstere world, though bereft of any environmental diversity, is beautiful in a haunting way, and the accompanying soundtrack is rather fitting. The easy-to-grasp Momentum system adds depth and interactivity to a fun, true-to-its-roots combat system.

Its predictable, nuance-free story, however, is as repetitive as the locales in which it takes place, and its boring, dimensionless characters -- not to mention the complete lack of a motivated antagonist -- do nothing to perk it up. The couple "aha!" moments throughout have little bearing on anything, and the final couple segments lack impact because you just won't care.

The game throws a tsunami of meta-combat systems at you and then gives you a puddle in which to play with them. What's the point of deep customization if the benefits of investing time into it are minimal? Maybe some targeted, premeditated material-farming and character-building is warranted for the game's one superboss or the optional "challenge mode" of the final boss, but, overall, these feel like systems developed for a much bigger game.

And so we're left with a lovely new game that checks a lot of the old-school JRPG boxes ("here's an airship that you can name because Chrono Trigger gave you an airship you can name"), but fails to bring many of its ideas and moments past that box-checking state. You probably won't replay I Am Setsuna, but you'll certainly remember it, if only for how much it makes you want to go back and replay your favorite old games.

6/10: Solid