Let it be known that I hate writing this review.
Here are the facts. I Am Setsuna – a game developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and published by Square Enix (who probably have the richest history in this particular genre) – is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a JRPG.
I hate writing this review, not because of what I Am Setsuna does wrong – but because of everything it does right.
Allow me to explain – I do not like JRPGs as a rule. Whilst turn-based combat had its place back in the day, it feels increasingly like that – an old-fashioned game mechanic – in the modern games landscape. And, whilst it does attempt to add a little real-time interactivity by adopting a Chrono Trigger-esque Active Time Battle system, allowing you to do additional damage or pull off a special variation of a move with a well-timed button press, it just doesn’t feel like enough.
Now, don’t get me wrong…I wish I liked turn-based gameplay – I really, really do – because everything else about I Am Setsuna’s presentation is just…well, it’s just lovely.
For starters, it’s a really pretty game. Set in a perpetually wintery world, everything about it – from the character models to the environments – successfully straddles the line between simplicity and intricacy; the starkness of the crisp white snow combined with the nice little touch of it moving around as you and your group move through it. It lends the whole thing a feel of a diorama – at any point, you feel like you could reach down and run your finger through the snow, drawing patterns like on a zen garden.
Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said of the character models of the enemies, who – bosses aside – tend to be a little bland and forgettable, but they’re perfectly functional and it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise aesthetically appealing game.
The story is also genuinely engaging, telling the tale of the titular Setsuna, a young maiden set to be sacrificed at a sacred shrine, in order to keep hostile demons from her island’s borders. You play a mercenary named Endir, originally tasked with killing Setsuna for unknown reasons, who soon senses something special about the young woman and instead decides to escort her to her sacrifice.
If you’re a long-time fan of JRPGs, then you’re probably thinking “so far, so standard”, but the story in I Am Setsuna is further enhanced by some well-written dialogue which, rather oddly, invoked shades of Battle Royale for me. There was an earnest innocence to it all that made it very relatable, even though it was being delivered within this overtly fantasy setting.
Of course, being a JRPG, the dialogue is primarily written rather than spoken, meaning that the remaining atmosphere has to be provided by the soundtrack and, yet again, I Am Setsuna does not let me down, delivering a wonderfully melancholic backdrop to a game about sadness and the acceptance of one’s own mortality.
So, that leaves me back at the beginning with my one issue with the game. And, sadly, it’s the one that ultimately matters. Presentation will only take a game so far – it can draw you in to begin with, but it’s the gameplay that will keep you coming back, and RPGs have come a long way in the last 25 years. It’s just a shame that this one hasn’t.
I Am Setsuna delivers so much so well. It’s a beautifully told story in a beautifully realised world with likeable characters, sharp dialogue and an atmosphere that draws you in from minute one. I have no doubt that fans of the genre will absolutely glean enjoyment from this game. If it had the combat mechanics of a Witcher, a Dragon Age or, hell, even a Fable, it would probably be pretty close to my personal game of the year. As it is, it’s almost heartbreakingly disappointing. However, in a game about sadness, then perhaps that’s exactly what I should have expected.