I Am Setsuna (Switch
I Am Setsuna has been ported and released for the Ninetendo Switch, offering some old-school RPG gameplay and a nuanced, somewhat somber story. Is it worth adding to your Switch library? Come inside to check out the full review!
I Am Setsuna, at its core, is a throwback to the Super Nintendo and Playstation RPGs of the 90s, especially Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. Longtime fans of Square’s Final Fantasy series will be immediately familiar with the ATB Battle System, exploring a world map, equipping weapons and spells, and gradually growing a party of unique characters. It’s in these aspects that Setsuna actually works best, and if you love that style of gameplay, there’s a lot to love about this carefully crafted homage. Several new systems also add to the fun and make the game more intriguing, though these tended to be a little confusing and not well explained in-game.
The story is deceptively deep, focusing on a world where the best days of humanity have past and the people who are left are struggling for survival. Every ten years, an eighteen year old must go on a pilgrimage to sacrifice herself just to hold the monsters at bay a little longer. The main character is a mercenary actually sent to kill this girl before she completes her journey, and so, as you can imagine, the whole game has a much more somber and personal tone than the adventurous and epic RPGs that it takes many of its core systems from. Every character you meet has an engaging personal story-arc that plays out, and each brings unique perspectives to the overall themes of living for others and sacrifice. It’s beautifully done, and while it isn’t as “fun” or fast-paced as other RPGs, it does a good job of pulling you into the world and creating a unique feel.
A Little Too Low Budget
Unfortunately, while setting a somber tone is great and tying it into the world is engaging, I Am Setsuna takes this a little bit too far. The whole world is covered in snow, and every town you come to seems a little run down and small. It fits the story, but it also doesn’t take long to lose visual interest. Where most RPGs keep player’s engaged with a “what’s around the next corner…?” dynamic, you soon come to expect that Setsuna’s next area will look a whole lot like the area you just finished. It’s all beautifully rendered, but far too similar.
Maybe even worse, all of I Am Setsuna’s dungeons feel like a linear series of interlocking rooms, even though most of these take place outdoors, and the game pretty strictly adheres to the dungeon-town-dungeon-town progression of old RPGs with very few exceptions. Chests and items are littered around to make you feel like you’re exploring a little, but for the most part, all of I Am Setsuna is a linear path from beginning to end. Thankfully its story is strong enough to make you want to press on and its battles are generally fun, but for players who love exploration and finding secrets, there’s little here to discover and it gave me few reasons to backtrack for the secrets that were there.
All of this can probably be blamed on a very limited budget, but it’s sad to see since with just a little more time and effort, these aspects of the game could have been dramatically improved.
Systems Old and New
As I said above, I Am Setsuna takes the systems of games like Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger and uses them as a basis. A timed gauge determines when characters and enemies take their “turns,” actions are chosen from menus, damage is displayed as numbers above characters’ heads, and all-in-all, battles are pretty much exactly what you would expect from a tribute to old-school RPGs. Where things get interesting are in the systems that were layered on top to add more depth, and there are actually quite a few.
There are special conditions that occur randomly in battles called Singularities that shift how certain rules work, skills gain new and random properties as they’re used, and each character has a Special Points gauge that fills up and allows you to add special properties like additional damage or status effects to skills using a carefully-timed button press. Positioning on the battlefield matters as well, and abilities move characters and enemies in different ways.
All of these systems are cool and change how battles work in interesting ways, but I felt like each also came with its own flaws. Singularities would occur, but due to where the effects were displayed and the description, I often wouldn’t know what had actually changed. Adding properties to skills was almost too random and required using the skill in conjunction with the special points button press, but it wasn’t well explained and happened too rarely to truly feel like I had much to do with it. The Special Points gauge was a valuable tactical addition and made things more fun with timed button presses, but it also left me waiting in battle too often while my characters were taking damage so that I would have a chance at improving skills. And finally, the battlefield positioning system felt incomplete and often left me frustrated and unable to get characters or enemies where I tactically wanted them.
Worse, I found all the tutorials for these to be horrible and overly complex and found myself turning to the internet to get a better understanding for how they worked. Once I understood, they added depth and were pretty cool, but the random parts of each of them made them too complex to use reliably and battles throughout the game were generally too easy and didn’t make me feel like mastering these systems was necessary to my success.
I didn’t even realize that enemies dropped different items depending on how I killed them until almost halfway through the game, and since these drops are traded for different spells, it seemed like this was something critical that I should have realized much earlier. As with the other systems, once I knew, it was a very cool addition and opened up a lot of customization options for my characters.
Don’t let all of this scare you away though. Once you understand these systems, I Am Setsuna has great character customization and you can truly make your party effective with any of the game’s characters. Many of the skills create neat combinations when used wisely, and you can break the normal Tank/Healer/DPS model in fun and crafty ways. The additions are valuable changes to the old-school RPG battle formula, they just needed more time and polish to be great.
An Engaging RPG Experience
Despite its flaws, I’ve really enjoyed I Am Setsuna. The story is engaging and unique, the additions to battles are interesting, and the whole package has a lot of heart. If you like old-school RPGs, you’ll get a lot of enjoyment here, and with how limited the Switch’s library is, it’s easily one of the best games on the console. If you’re a stickler for frame rate, this runs at 30FPS on Switch instead of the 60FPS that it runs on other systems, but if I’m being honest, I never even noticed. If you’re an old-school RPG fan, definitely pick this one up. For everyone else, the price tag is probably a little high, but once it comes down or goes on sale, you really wouldn’t be going wrong giving this game a chance.