Though the hero’s journey is a time honoured tale, it is one fraught with one irrefutable concept; sacrifice. Though the degree to which this notion holds true varies, one must always face loss on the path that lay forward. For it is in this loss that the appreciation of what one has is gained. All is fleeting and yet all is eternal. In accepting the impermanence of things, one can come to see how nothing is ever truly gone. However this is not an easy realisation to come by, hence the necessity of the journey. For if one never takes a single step forward, how are they to reach this inevitable conclusion?
Journey, if you will, to a sombre, snow covered land that is home to a number of quaint villages, scenic forests and an ever present swathe of demonic enemies. Sound pleasant does it not? Well, if that hasn’t ignited your urge to travel, then how about focusing on the most time honoured traditions of this fine land; ritualistically sacrificing a young woman in order to appease the forces of darkness and keep the monstrous beasts which ravage the land at bay for one year. Did that do it? Do you want to visit now? Since I can’t hear you via text written in the past, I’m going to go ahead and assume your answer was, “Heck to the no.” Immediately following this assumption, I am going to remind us all that video games are magic and allow us to experience worlds that we would never in a million years wish to physically visit, with our frail human bodies and overall lack of magical ability. Thus we find ourselves here, in a sea of words detailing a sea of ones and zeroes that all come together and create an opinionated harmony revolving around my thoughts on this game. Thanks for making it this far.
As one may assume following the opening moments of this game, wherein we discover our protagonist is a masked man named Endir (unless you decide to change it), the titular phrase “I Am” does not relate to us. Clever. It does however, relate to the lovingly innocent and virtuous Setsuna…unless you change her name. Well, I suppose it still technically relates to her, but if you’re one who loves when story and gameplay complement each other flawlessly, this will be a pretty heavy, and early, blow. Sure it is nice to name your own RPG cast, but when her name is in the title, then you start treading some murky waters. It’s like renaming Zelda Abigail, it’s a pretty name, but it kind of artifacts the title immediately…although I’m not sure how Zelda managed to make the story of Link into her legend, but I digress. Setsuna or not, this young woman is to be the next sacrifice for the world of snowy place (I either can’t recall the name or it was never stated) and is actually taking it pretty well. I mean it, not once does it ever come up that she is scared of her so called destiny. Straight out of the gate she is completely fine with everything and calmly accepts it…which is a little weird. Now, to the game’s credit, this actually hints that the concept of sacrifice is not the crux of this game. Never do you have to fight against the traditions of the world, nor attempt to turn society on its head, you must simply see Setsuna’s journey to its end. That is your job…or at least it is once you decide not to kill her. Short story shorter, Endir the mercenary was tasked by a mysterious man to kill Setsuna and stop her appeasement of the demons. He decides not to, probably because Setsuna is sweet and kind and cute, proceeding to serve as her primary guardian. Does everyone trust him too quickly? Yes. Are the reasons for his initial acceptance of such a societally contrary task explored? No. Is this lack of plot investigation the greatest flaw of this game? Yes, yes it is.
I Am Setsuna is a game with a tonal mission, from the second you hit the title screen and see those snowflakes falling accompanied by a soft piano track, you know you’re in for a melancholy ride. Now, for the sake of honesty, I will say that the game encapsulates this mood perfectly. From the score comprised solely from a single piano, to the vastly empty snowfields that coat the land, there is an overwhelming sense of calmness and sadness that persists. However, to see this design through to its utmost, the game makes certain compromises that increase in impact as the story progresses. In order for the emotional range of the cast to revolve around the preset range, no moment feels as personal as it should. No bouts of fury stir an empathetic feeling, no expressions of joy cut through the looming shroud, nothing but sadness is given the time of day and even sometimes that time is not enough. Take for example Nidr, a strong warrior who, due to traumas of his past, lives in self exile and spends his days slaying monsters. An interesting premise, heck, I’ll admit the details that follow are similarly interesting, however I am also forced to admit that the speed with which Nidr’s subplot is handled does not do it credit. From greeting to joining your party (which is not really a spoiler and I will explain why in just a touch), this woeful story of loss, guilt and redemption is remarkably swift. You talk to a woman, fight some guys and bam presto look who’s joining your ranks; Nidr. What is worse is that this whole process is compounded by the story surrounding this moment, wherein you find yourself forced to acquire a fourth party member in order to enter a particularly dangerous cave. Thus, combined with the aforementioned swift shallowness of plot, we find ourselves rushing through what should be a nice plot moment in order to check off the condition blocking our progress. Yet another detrimental factor, as well as the reason I claimed Nidr joining the party was not a spoiler, is a decidedly meta one; name selection. Already known to us via Endir and Setsuna, we are able to provide playable characters with new names, names we choose. Nice feature? Yes. Nice feature when the option is presented upon first meeting a character? No. Despite the games best efforts to bait and switch us with promise that another character will join us, we already know that they will not. Why? We weren’t given the choice to change their name. That Nidr guy we ran into a while back however, he’s definitely coming back. So, while I appreciate the option, its implementation negatively impacts the story in a way I have not seen in a game thus far. It also certainly doesn’t help that we are immediately informed that our party may only hold up to three characters at a time, completely negating the plot reasoning that a fourth was necessitous to conquering the perils of the path ahead. Although Nidr is a remarkably useful combat option. Just sayin’.
Diving into the combat side of this game, I Am Setsuna continues to express a remarkably slow paced style. Though combat encounters add a sense of urgency to the proceedings, they are still somewhat subdues in their execution. Partly owing to the number of enemies, size of dungeons and pace of unlocks, I Am Setsuna carries with it the vibe of an RPG-lite. Though by no means a negative connotation, it is definitely one worth knowing. If you are the kind who longs for an intricate battle system and complex area within which to do battle, this game may not be a fit for you. If however, you are interested in these concepts yet wish for a more manageable adventure, I would most certainly point you in this games direction. Dungeon floors carry roughly several battles within them and the pathways divergence is small enough that the stat screen possesses a percentage gauge for discoverable chests. As in, you can easily discover every secret in the overworld, even mystery loot to an extent, as each area contains a specific variance of items. With complesionist tendencies rattling around my own brain, I can unquestionably see the appeal in an RPG experience I can 100% in less than three days of real world time. But again, the truly technical may not have their itch scratched by I Am Setsuna. Though battles employ standard attacks, spells, equippable items and combination maneuvers, you can quite easily make your way throughout the story without completely understanding every mechanic, I am an example of this fact. Whilst I did pay attention in the early portions of this game, much of the unique aspects of combat elude me. With terms such as Spritnite, Fluxation and Momentum thrown at you in near succession, it is quite easy to turn off ones brain and spam attack. A valid tactic that works all the way until the first boss. Once the difficulty decides to vertically ascend, you better learn how to manage healing toot sweet, lest said first boss becomes your last. Did I mention that this is one of those games where Game Over means Game Over? As in goodbye, sayonara, hope you saved recently…which leads me onto one of the other problems I have with this game; reruns.
By now we’ve established that I Am Setsuna carries a sombre tone, a slow pacing that amplifies the joylessness of a world existing on the backs of the women sacrificed throughout the ages. We know this, we like this, we watch this unfold. However, what we do not like is dying in battle. Why? Well apart from the obvious annoyance, it forces us to rewatch everything leading up to our death in the same, slow pace. with save points few and far between in dungeons (usually one per) and the overworld’s save feature providing little solace for ones who must begin a dungeon anew, plot becomes somewhat tedious when viewed again. There is no skip option, there is no speed up option, there is no way around re-experiencing each and every line and hoping that your furious button mashing does not cause you to choose a dialogue option you did not wish to choose (which have no impact on the story at all and merely serve to let you present Endir as a nice guy or a jerk for a moment). Once you have experienced this particular phenomenon, it will also open your eyes further to the fact that moving in the overwork is arduously slow. Again, though somewhat thematic the first go around, backtracking becomes an unnecessary source of fury as you are unable to move any faster than a casual stroll. Though far from game ending, it is a noticeable lack of feature that can cause one simple missed step to send you spiralling into a quagmire of annoyance, witnessing events you have seen, walking paths you have trodden and reacquiring items you once possessed, all because you misjudged one battle. Oh, and did I mention that there is no escape option? Yep, once you enter a battle you’re locked in bub. Sure hope you didn’t run into one of those unique monster variants you have no hope of beating the first time you meet them, because that would mean you’re going to die and go all the way back to the last time you saved…which was when?
Look, the long and short of it all is that I Am Setsuna is not a perfect game. It drags in places, its plot is a late bloomer and certain mechanics are rendered moot by other mechanics. I mean, who would want to buff a weapon when you know a stronger one is lying just in the next chest (unless it’s one of those locked chests which cannot be opened until right before the final boss fight, don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything in the early game instruction block). That being said however, this is still a game I would recommend to people interested in an RPG experience. Despite its flaws, I Am Setsuna encapsulates its preset mood perfectly and provides an oddly calming gameplay experience that will make you want to return to the snow touched world our heroic party longs to save. I speak from personal experience. Though my initial thoughts of this game were less than glorious, I found myself wanting more and more to play through this tale, to simply relax as this melancholic tale unfolded in a world of white, accompanied by the sounds of a single piano. Not many RPGs serve as cathartic relaxation and although it could have done certain things better, I Am Setsuna is a charming experience that is uniquely itself.
Who is Setsuna to you?