Chrono Trigger is easily one of my favorite games, not to mention a gateway drug that compelled me to get a Playstation 1 (for Chrono Cross, naturally) and subsequently discover all kinds of brilliant gems I had missed out on, so it piqued my interest when I Am Setsuna’s store page claimed to have been inspired by it. That’s a lofty claim, after all, especially in a world of endless Final Fantasy games where many jRPG developers seem to have lost track of what made their genre enjoyable in the first place. There have been occasional exceptions to that such as Chaos Rings 2 and other games that I similarly fell in love with, but Square-Enix pulled the plug on many Chaos Rings games not too long ago, effectively erasing them from existence outside of piracy. Giving money to something they published after that was a painful proposition. Still, curiosity outweighed my better judgment and I decided to give this game a try anyway. I’m glad I did—I Am Setsuna has its moments of being enjoyable—but the poor writing was enough to ruin the whole experience by the end and cause me to question why this game falls so short.
Less is more
I Am Setsuna’s greatest flaw isn’t its pathetic ending, or lack of replayability, or even the fact that Setsuna is one of the most irritatingly vanilla characters to ever be dreamed up. Its greatest flaw is the game’s incessant need to communicate one sentence of information through fifteen different statements. The nitty-gritty of the game mechanics are left to be figured out through trial and error, and yet you’ll experience times where you have to backtrack to someone you met twenty minutes prior, only to have your characters slowly piece together what they’re supposed to be doing in an overlong cutscene like they’re all suffering from severe memory loss. I Am Setsuna doesn’t respect your intelligence enough to tell you things once, either, often using different members of your party to restate painfully obvious things two or three additional times. The more I played, the more obvious it became that the characters were written to be deliberately dumb in order to facilitate unnecessary conversations that serve no purpose but to slowly walk you through what’s happening. It’s patronizing and very much unlike the classic jRPGs that were this game’s inspiration, which kept unnecessary dialogue to a minimum.
The uncanny valley of agreement
The strangest consequence of I Am Setsuna’s patronizing long-windedness is that your party members, a disparate group of characters with varying motivations, almost never disagree with each other. It goes a little like this: character one says something obvious that you’ve already pieced together, and then characters two, three, and four chime in to say the exact same thing using different wording. As a result, they come across less as distinct characters and more as some kind of strange hive mind, and there’s no way of explaining how jarring and unconvincing that is outside of comparing it to the uncanny valley, where just enough is off for the entire thing to feel awkward and unnatural. The jRPG genre (especially in its older, SNES-era form) isn’t known for realistic writing, and yet even when compared to its peers, I Am Setsuna’s dialogue struck me as being uniquely fake.
I hope you like snow
The game’s setting is a world covered in snow, full of flurries and low visibility and ice caves. I was expecting there to be an explanation for why this is, but it never seemed to come up or factor into anything, and now I can’t help but wish that the setting was a bit more varied. I mean, one of the things Chrono Trigger did really well was giving you a bunch of distinct areas, from the dystopian future setting to the mist-filled time of knights and chivalry. Every time period had its own style like that. I Am Setsuna, on the other hand, is almost exclusively snow-themed. The enemies are snow-themed (you fight a lot of killer penguins—let it be known that I approve), the areas are snow-themed, and even the soundtrack seems to have been designed to complement the abundance of snow. There are some futuristic tower areas you occasionally go through, as well, but they’re the only break from the snow you’ll find here, and this means that many places look similar to each other. That ended up being an annoying little problem once I finally got an airship and a key to the game’s many locked chests (which can’t be opened until near the end of the game, forcing tons of backtracking to find them if you don’t want to miss out on some of the best weapons and items in the game).
Julienne should have been the main character
The game’s story is pretty simple, with the setup being that a village sends a human sacrifice to the mysterious “Last Lands” every so often. After they do, the world’s monsters calm down and don’t attack people, though no one knows exactly what happens to placate them. Title character Setsuna is just the latest sacrifice, but she’s not the main character of this game. Instead, you play as Endir, a mysterious mercenary from a mysterious tribe who is hired to kill the sacrifice, only to implausibly end up being roped into protecting her during her journey. Endir is insufferable because he’s a completely superfluous character who has no reason to exist, with his identity never mattering to the story. Setsuna is insufferable because she becomes obsessed with him five minutes after he tries to kill her, then spends the rest of the game being an impossibly saccharine “let’s make friends with our enemies because we can change the world with hope and love and sparkles” type of character who speaks in constant ellipses and never grows or changes. The other characters don’t fare much better and are mostly forgettable, though Aeterna is decent enough when she’s not parroting the others.
Then there’s Julienne. Not only is she the rightful princess of the long-lost civilization that ends up being the backbone of the story, but she’s direct, pragmatic, honorable, and speaks uniquely enough that she largely avoids being part of the party hive mind. She only shows up something like halfway through the game, though, and she’s even taken out of your party for a small section after that. How is Julienne not the main character? It wouldn’t require a huge rewrite since the Last Lands are where her lost kingdom is, giving her a perfectly logical reason to actively seek out Setsuna and accompany her there. Endir (and Setsuna’s creepy bond with him) could be erased from existence without affecting anything. Instead, the focus here is on the most irritating characters. What a waste.
Endir’s dialogue choices don’t matter
Endir is a silent protagonist, though you’re occasionally given two or three dialogue options to choose from when someone wants him to chime in. I was convinced that these would factor into multiple endings, or at least have some kind of consequence. I was wrong; apart from a single section where answering a question incorrectly sends you back to the beginning of the area, nothing you choose matters. They’re fake choices that only serve to give you one or two lines of different dialogue in response, at which point you’re railroaded into the same conversation no matter what. Even the choices at the end that seem important don’t actually matter, and if you choose to give up or go somewhere alone, you’ll quickly be overruled by the rest of the party. There’s only one ending. It’s terrible, sadly.
SP points and spritnite
Let’s get something out of the way first—the basics of I Am Setsuna’s combat are identical to those in Chrono Trigger. You can play in either “wait” or “active” mode, with your choice affecting whether the game pauses combat when you’re in menus or not (I always play CT using wait, so that’s what I chose for this game); you have a three-person party with ATB counters determining when party members are able to act; and characters can either attack, use a “tech” (attacks that use MP), or use an item when it’s finally their turn. It’s a solid, instantly familiar formula, and seeing it hold up more than two decades after Chrono Trigger’s release hits me with the warm and fuzzies. It’s always nice to see old mechanics find new life.
Then there are some additional systems on top of that. For example, techs aren’t obtained through leveling up like in CT, but are given to you through “spritnite,” which are basically equippable attacks and passive bonuses. Every party member has their own unique attacks, but anyone can equip the passive bonuses, and some of the equippable attacks can work together with other party members’ attacks to give you powerful two- or three-person combo techs. Being able to choose which attacks and bonuses you have in combat is actually an interesting twist that I liked a lot, and while juggling so many possible attacks made it difficult to ever have more than a couple combo techs at a time, I appreciated the flexibility.
We’re just getting started, though, because there are also SP points on top of that; if a character’s ATB bar is filled and you don’t have them attack right away, a little blue circle will begin to fill up, and once it fills, you earn an SP point. SP points are used to add bonuses to attacks and techs, granting extra damage, status effects, duration boosts, or party buffs. For example, Julienne has a tech called Icicle Lance that damages any enemies between her and the target. If you use an SP point during the attack, though, she can also freeze enemies in place (which is great for building up more SP points). Endir has a similar attack called Blade Wave, but using an SP point with it instead heals the party. SP points don’t feel like something just tacked on like you’d probably expect, but instead fit very naturally into the existing system. You can even start battles with one free SP point if you sneak up on enemies from behind, which makes encountering them a bit more interesting.
Singularities and fluxes
Using SP points is known as “momentum mode,” which seems unnecessarily confusing given how many random terms there are before making up random new ones. I only bring that up because singularities occur sometimes when you use momentum mode, so basically, use SP points in battle and singularities might happen. These are random bonuses that last for a short while, and while they can be helpful, it’s only near the end of the game that Aeterna gets an attack that can force one. They’re just too unpredictable to rely on. Fluxations, too, are random, but they’re a bit harder to explain. The gist of it is that you can equip talismans with a chance of giving your spritnite bonuses (effectively leveling them up) when you use them in momentum mode, but the randomness of this ensures that you’re either doing some serious grinding or simply sticking to the fluxations that occur while playing normally. I found some talismans that increased tech damage and reduced MP usage and discovered after some grinding that it was best for my sanity to let fluxations happen when they happen and not even worry about it. The game’s on the easy side anyway, so grinding isn’t at all necessary unless you want to fight some of the optional spritnite enemies littered throughout (more on them later).
Positioning is important, but uncontrollable
One of the weirder things about I Am Setsuna is its focus on character positioning. It makes sense that waiting until enemies are near each other can make it easier to hit multiple ones with a single attack (even normal attacks can hit multiple enemies under the right circumstances), but positioning also sometimes determines who gets affected by friendly magic. Take Aeterna’s Protect spell, for instance. If party members are standing close to each other, casting it on whoever’s in the center will cause it to benefit everyone. If one party member is a little too far, however, two party members will get bonuses and the last one will be a sitting duck. I could understand this if you had any control over how your characters moved, but you don’t—on multiple occasions, I watched as Setsuna ran away from the group before casting a Cure spell she desperately needed the benefit of. You can even see this happen in the video below (~1:47). Again, the game is fairly easy overall, but bosses can sometimes be difficulty spikes, and having your party actively undermine you in a critical moment quickly becomes frustrating.
I enjoyed the mechanics here for the most part, but there are some weird decisions that occasionally make the game a pain to play. Let’s start with spritnite-infused optional enemies. Many of these look near-identical to normal enemies and wander around the same areas, but are actually ten times harder variants. If you don’t have a fogstone that allows you to run from battle or a highly customized party that’s done some grinding, you’ll die. Simple as that. Several even came close to wiping me out when I revisited some of these fights at the very end of the game with a party that could beat every end-game mob in a single turn (pro tip: the Iron Maiden combo tech is godlike), so having them wandering about when you’re at a low level and have no realistic shot to best them is just cruel.
Then there’s the game’s sin of taking characters away as part of the story, saddling you with someone you don’t want to use. Chrono Trigger did this, too, but it eventually let you use your preferred party whereas this only stops happening in I Am Setsuna at the very end. The sole bright spot here is that your unused party members level up with you, so they aren’t dead weight when they’re foisted on you.
Then there’s weapon upgrading, which is completely nonsensical. You can buy an upgrade material that claims to upgrade a weapon to “roughly 1/4 of its maximum stats,” but you can’t use four of them to fully upgrade a weapon like you’d expect. There are better upgrades later on, but even when you get one that claims to upgrade weapons to their maximum level, you can use several of them in a row to reach even higher stats. Even weirder, lower upgrade materials don’t work at all with stronger weapons, but you replace weapons (which impact both offense and defense since there’s no armor) often enough that upgrading any single weapon before the final boss ends up being a huge waste of money.
Lastly, there’s no New Game + mode. That was a big deal in Chono Trigger, so its absence here is as notable and disappointing as there only being one ending.
No inns, but there are options
You’d be perfectly justified in expecting a game like this to have inns in which you can restore your HP and MP. There are none. Instead, you’re limited to tent and cabin items (so much nostalgia) that you have to use at save points or on the overworld map. This made no sense to me at first and I tried to avoid using tents too often in case I ran into a long stretch where they couldn’t be bought, but as I began to use spritnite that restores MP and techs that restore HP, I discovered that the change makes perfect sense. You can rely on tents for most of the early game, and they’re widely available, but toward the end I was using spritnite that restored MP upon defeating an enemy, so using Endir’s Blade Wave to restore health and Julienne/Aeterna’s Iron Maiden to murder everything on screen rendered tents practically useless. It’s an interesting change that makes MP less of a “I must conserve this at all costs in case I suddenly need it later” thing and more of a “how can I best restore my MP and go into the next fight at 100%?” thing.
Pretty graphics, but please stop the piano
The graphics here are stylized, with the characters looking like they just stepped out of Grandia 2 and the environments appearing smooth and painterly while still matching the characters. It’s just too bad that so much of the game consists of snow, because the art style would lend itself incredibly well to sunny locations (which is backed up by a really pretty section toward the very end where the sky is orange-red). It also runs surprisingly well. In fact, I installed Grandia 2 Anniversary Edition not too long ago, and I Am Setsuna actually runs at a higher frame rate.
The music I’m a bit more conflicted about, because most of the game’s soundtrack is made up of piano. Low piano. High piano. Soft piano. Percussive piano. Piano on piano. The only other instrument I ever noticed was the rare “you done messed up” bass in the track that plays when fighting spritnite enemies, and this lack of variety got old quickly. It’s especially annoying when a perky piano track is drilling a hole into your brain while you’re trying to wrap your head around fluxations and singularities. It’s just too percussive to make up an entire soundtrack. On the other hand, I eventually got used to it, and while I never had a “wow” moment where I was blindsided by something musically unexpected, I wouldn’t count it as a negative, either. The music could be better, but it could also be much worse.