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‘I Am Setsuna’ an enjoyable throwback to classic JRPGs

Almost every location in “I Am Setsuna” is some variation of snowy forest, dungeon or village.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SQUARE ENIX

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | Stars and Stripes | Published: August 5, 2016

The past few years have seen a resurgence in retro-style roleplaying games, thanks in no small part to Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sources.

 Games like “Pillars of Eternity” and “Shadowrun Returns” brought classic Western roleplaying back to the forefront of the gaming zeitgeist.

However, traditional Japanese offerings have been less prevalent. The Tokyo RPG Factory, a subsidiary of Square Enix, hoped to correct that imbalance when it began work on “I Am Setsuna” in 2014.

 This charming little adventure was designed from the ground up to be a purposeful throwback to classic JRPGs. Its opening sequence harkens back to “Final Fantasy VI’s” Mode 7 graphics-powered introduction, the combat in “Setsuna” is stripped directly from “Chrono Trigger” and Endir, the game’s main protagonist is a pastiche of various “Dragon Quest” and “Final Fantasy” heroes.

 In fact, the DNA of any number of classic Super Nintendo roleplaying games can be found throughout “Setsuna,” and that is both the game’s greatest strength and its largest flaw. At its best, that purposeful imitation is more of a love letter, a nostalgic look over the shoulder at a bygone age. At its worst, “Setsuna” can feel a bit like a game that spends too much time cribbing ideas to form an identity of its own.

 The primary offender here is the cliched storyline that jumps from trope to trope at a breakneck speed that destroys any sense of emotion it might have elicited. The plot revolves around the titular character (who isn’t the main protagonist), a kind, gentle woman who must undertake a journey to save the world from unspecified monsters. The main protagonist is the assassin sent to kill her.

 As is tradition, he has a sudden and unexplained change of heart and joins her honor guard. Throughout her journey she’ll pick up the usual assortment of characters found in classic JRPGs. There is the plucky child with inexplicable powers, the elder swordsman, the noble knight and the bad guy turned good. Most of them, unfortunately, felt more like checkmarks on a list than anything else.

 As Endir, players will lead this cast of cliches through a series of linear maps that bring them from one snow-blanketed area to the next. There aren’t too many surprises along the way, and the short distance between areas of interest compress the game a bit too much for my tastes. I enjoy a good linear RPG, but “Setsuna” needed to break up the succession of monster-endangered villages a bit more than it did.

 This repetitive feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that almost all of the locations are some permutation of snowy forest or snowy village, complete with the same basic design elements. I found this to be refreshing in small doses — after all, how many games throw in a fire/ice/water dungeon with no regard to the world’s internal logic?

 On extended play sessions, however, I found myself wishing Tokyo RPG Factory had included some variation in the dungeons. They could have kept all of the areas snowy in keeping with their artistic vision and still added some more variation to the towns and dungeon areas.

As mentioned, “Setsuna’s” combat is heavily influenced by “Chrono Trigger.” There are no random battles, thankfully, so once cleared, dungeons will not repopulate with baddies until you leave and return. The game also borrowed “Chrono’s” techs that allowed party members to team up for more powerful attacks. Unlike that SNES classic, I never found much use for these team-up abilities, but they’re fun to play around with.

 While it might seem like I disliked “Setsuna,” that’s not the case. I have a very strong emotional response to anything that reminds me of “Chrono Trigger” or “Final Fantasy VI,” and this game definitely triggered that in me.

 Everything in “Setsuna,” from the adorable character models to the absolutely stunning piano-heavy soundtrack, was direct nostalgia bait for me. When the game got it just right, it really did feel like I was playing a new classic RPG. I had a great time grinding battles for gear, wandering about the snowy landscape and listening to the emotionally resonant soundtrack. I had less fun having to plod through a story that was largely perfunctory, and I really wish the world had been a bit more diverse.

 It’s not fair to say I enjoyed the game based solely on the fact that it was like games from my childhood, but those elements definitely pushed it from “okay” to “good.” If, like me, you grew up on games like “Tales of Phantasia” and “Chrono Trigger,” this might be a game to pick up. If those games are foreign to you, “Setsuna’s” charms might be lost on you entirely.

Grade: C+
Platforms: PC (reviewed) PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Online: iamsetsuna.com

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