So I’ve Finished I Am Setsuna

Well, my wife did. As such I can’t comment to much on how the game feels with controller in-hand. But I do feel I can comment just fine on its systems and story, setting and sound.

First, is it just me that finds it distracting how close the title is to “I am a satsuma“? Just me? Okay.

I Am Setsuna is a New JRPG in the Old Style released in February of 2016 (which is positively recent compared to the rest of the games I usually play). Being “in the Old Style” means no voiced dialog, a fixed overhead camera, lots of numbers that max out at 99 or 255, and a certain aesthetic. The specific target of this love letter is Chrono Trigger from which I Am Setsuna borrows:

  • A silent protagonist
  • No random encounters on a small overworld
  • Monsters roam on the same screen you fight them on
  • Magic elements
  • Some spell and technique names
  • Some musical riffs
  • Some place and character names

Some of these decisions are homage, some pastiche, and some are mistakes.

The silent protagonist was a mistake. I am used to silent protagonists being used to increase immersion by reducing the number of ways the character might react in a way that disagrees with the role the player thought they were playing (the ‘RP’ in JRPG). However, no matter how silent Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman is, he still has to shoot aliens and rescue civillians and whack headcrabs as the story and mechanics require. Through narrative and mechanics the player can still feel a disconnect from their character.

Gordon Freeman gets around it by doing only what the player would do in his place. I, too, would crack headcrabs with a crowbar if they jumped at me. Chrono from Chrono Trigger gets around it the same way. I, too, would save the world and its timelines from an extraterrestrial and existential threat.

I Am Setsuna cold opens (this is funny because the game is set in a worldwide, never-ending Winter) on your character being exposited at during a tutorial objective where you are paid, handsomely. Then a mysterious man (named “Mysterious Man”) asks you to take a morally-reprehensible job: kill an 18-year-old woman named Setsuna.

Not only do you have no means of refusing the task (even to be immediately overruled in a false choice), due to the protagonist being silent you have no idea if you care.

Role-playing is a two-way street. There’s agency where the player imposes their will on the character, and there’s acting where the character shapes the role the player plays.

In Dragon Age: Origins I can chose to kill or spare a chief antagonist. I have agency to chose. However, when provided the choice I need to consider what actions my character has taken (a feedback loop of my past agency) to ensure I play a consistent role. I act accordingly.

I Am Setsuna just ignores it. It turns out, hours and hours later, that this inciting incident isn’t as central as you originally thought it was… but it seems really important at the beginning. They smash-cut from your assassination order straight to a FFVI mode-7-inspired opening sequence over which the credits roll.

There are plenty of things to like in I Am Setsuna. The Momentum battle system where you get power-ups the longer you stand still and let enemies wail on you is a nice risk/reward balance. The solitary piano music is a setting- and thematically-appropriate sparse and cold choice. The characters are fleshed out and have decent relationships. The areas are remarkably varied for all being snow-bound. The subplots along the way do an excellent job of illustrating the central themes of death, sacrifice, and what is evil.

However none of these come without caveats. The risk/reward Momentum system has an inconsistent and fuzzy timing trigger. The piano background fails to sound bombastic and epic when it shouldn’t have even tried. The characters rely heavily on type and cliche. The areas are populated by varieties of just a handful of monster species. The subplots are often just retreads of more interesting stories told more engagingly by others.

It is a pretty, wonderful, flawed game. I look forward to seeing whether they can tighten things up a bit more with their next effort early next year.

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