There's a real demand for more traditional Japanese role-playing games these days - experiences that call back to a time when turn based battles ruled and world maps were explored via airship. I Am Setsuna attempts to recapture that magic of the classic RPG, channelling the spirit of older Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles. It's a game that's as straight as an arrow, sticking to its vision wholeheartedly in a console generation that's swamped with open world action and branching narratives.
In many ways, I Am Setsuna provides a refreshing adventure, offering the kind of simplicity and charm that you'd expect from a beloved 2D RPG of the past. Its plot tends to move quickly but there's a lot of it, its writing is somewhat basic but it's always straight to the point, and its gameplay is methodical, but never plodding. Square Enix's latest sets out to imitate the past, and to a large extent, it does an admirable job.
The game gets off on the right foot by nailing something that's crucial to the classics of the genre: atmosphere. Almost every environment is covered in a soft blanket of snow, with characters leaving a satisfyingly crisp trail as they walk through it. It's a winter wonderland that certainly looks cold, but there's also a cosy, intimate warmth to the whole project that's proof of the small development team's passion.
When you stumble upon one of the many towns or villages dotted across the world map, you'll come to appreciate the subtle glow of the lanterns and torches that line the streets and illuminate interiors - it's a comfortable virtual world that's consistently inviting. A lack of environmental variation could easily make a 30 hour adventure seem repetitive, but I Am Setsuna's primarily white backdrop really is rather lovely, and it's a seasonal look that ties the release together.
Only adding to the atmosphere is a unique piano based soundtrack that suits the snow covered setting perfectly. Many of the arrangements feature the piano as the sole instrument, which may sound a little simplistic at first, but it doesn't take too long for each twinkling tune to worm its way into your memory.
However, the soundtrack is much like the game itself in that it's pleasant and hard to fault, but it rarely surprises or forces you to the edge of your seat. As mentioned, this is a title that's set firmly in its ways, and as such, it's content to stay well within its comfort zone, offering little in terms of innovation or excitement.
Take the story, for example. A somewhat cliched tale concerning a chosen one and their destined pilgrimage, it's a plot that's bolstered by an endearing, if somewhat stereotypical cast of characters - but you'll see the narrative's twists and turns coming from a mile away. At various points, the story attempts to peel off and do something a touch more original, but even then, its efforts seem halfhearted, and before you know it, you're back on the predictable path that countless other RPGs have already tread.
Having said all that, the plot does benefit from the fact that you don't technically play as Setsuna - the chosen young woman that's fated to help the world. Instead, you're plopped into the shoes of Endir, a masked mercenary who boasts his own dialogue options and a steely demeanour. It's not quite the relationship that Tidus and Yuna share in Final Fantasy X, but it's an interesting storytelling decision that has roughly the same effect, allowing for an outsider's perspective into the core themes of the game.
When you're not reading through voiceless text, I Am Setsuna unsurprisingly follows the gameplay structure laid out by its predecessors. You'll explore, fight, and chat to non-playable characters as you travel from place to place, gradually powering up your party by collecting experience points and purchasing new weapons as you progress. It's standard stuff, but it's a tried and tested formula that still works.
Things deviate from the basics ever so slightly when it comes to learning magic spells and abilities, though. After successful fights, monsters will drop materials that can then be sold to specific merchants. In exchange for these resources, you'll be able to get your hands on spritnite stones, which, when equipped, grant you access to either usable techniques or passive buffs. Naturally, more powerful spritnite becomes available as you progress further into the game, although this necessary progression does mean that your options in combat are fairly limited during your journey's opening hours.
As is always the case with traditional RPGs, combat is at the heart of I Am Setsuna. Monsters roam most locations that aren't towns, but battles aren't random. After making contact with a beast, you're thrown seamlessly into turn based combat which borrows Final Fantasy's trademark Active Time Battle system. Once your action bar is full, you're free to attack, let loose with a technique, or use an item.
If you're an RPG veteran, all of this will likely sound very familiar, so it's good that the release tries something different with the momentum gauge. Instead of choosing a command when your action bar is ready, your momentum gauge will steadily increase as long as you stand there doing nothing, and every time that it fills, you gain a momentum point that can be spent in order to enhance your attacks or abilities. This augments combat with a tactical element of risk and reward; do you keep up the pressure by issuing commands as they come, or do you take a few hits in order to unleash more powerful attacks when the time is right? It's a simple mechanic that adds a surprising amount of depth to an otherwise enjoyable but unoriginal battle system.
I Am Setsuna capably fulfils its role as an echo of past Japanese adventures, but in doing so, it seems unwilling to take risks and forge its own legacy. Its story is predictable and its battle system struggles to define itself, but its traditional charm and fantastic atmosphere do more than enough to ensure that this an inviting and thoroughly pleasant journey. It may not measure up to the genre's best, but Tokyo RPG Factory's first outing is a warm and well crafted reminder that the classic formula still works.