I suppose there’s a moment in every gamer’s life when they feel like an elderly person, waxing nostalgic about the “old days.” Evidently, this is mine. While I am all for video games and their respective genres evolving and changing as long as it’s for the better, sometimes it can be hard not to want to play something that has a more “classic” feel. It could be because there is something to that classic style that’s been lost as these games have evolved, or perhaps it’s simply wanting to relive that feeling of games we played when we were a kids.
One of the first genres I got into as a kid was RPGs, particularly JRPGs. My main series was Final Fantasy, and I also delved into Okage: Shadow King and Chrono Cross. RPGs have changed a lot since then—the worlds have become bigger and more expansive, the combat style has changed to favor real-time rather than turn-based combat, and the plots have become more layered, dealing with moral ambiguity and giving consequences to your actions, which shape and change the world. This, naturally, is done for a more immersive experience, to make the world feel more real alongside those fantastical elements, and I have no qualms with that. In fact, that’s what I’ve adored about recent titles, especially after having just finished the final expansion to The Witcher 3. Recently, though, I found myself longing for an RPG that felt closer to Final Fantasy IX than A Game of Thrones.
So one could imagine how excited I was at the news of I Am Setsuna, a modern RPG that advertises itself as being in the classic style of the JRPGs of old. In keeping with that, the plot is relatively simple, at least at the start. You take the role of a member of a masked tribe of people who make their living as mercenaries, and you are given the task to go to a small village and kill the Sacrifice, a girl chosen to (as the title implies) be sacrificed to keep the world safe from the monsters that inhabit it. In a twist of fate, you become her guardian, aiding her other guardians in getting her safely to a place known as the Lost Lands, where she will fulfill her role as the Sacrifice.
The “classic JRPG” feel does not stop with the plot. It’s reflected in the combat as well, the game making use of Active Time Battle much like in Final Fantasy VII and many other titles. The combat itself flows nicely and manages to keep feeling fun and interesting. That said, if you prefer more real-time combat and hate having to wait for a meter to fill up before you can do anything, leaving you powerless to enemy attacks, this is more than likely a detriment to the experience. The combat system of I Am Setsuna could wind up monotonous for other players—while each individual character has their own unique skills and styles of weaponry, as well as certain pairs of characters being able to do combos, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of actual variety in the flow and style of the combat. There is, however, a wide variety of enemies and bosses that do have their own unique behaviors, such as being able to heal other enemies, summon more, or even simply flee the battle. One interesting aspect of the combat is the ability to learn modifiers as you play, usually meaning increased damage. As you fight, a circular meter on the right of the stat bars will gradually fill up and be marked with balls of light. When this happens, on if you time your next attack right, you can do some extra damage alongside the base damage of the attack.
The environments are beautiful, although I felt they were lacking in variety. The land its set is a very cold and frigid place, made up of several forested and mountainous regions, all covered in a heavy snow. It’s a charming setting and does have a unique character that certainly fits the tone of the story. There is a kind of serenity and wonder to the world of I Am Setsuna, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but want a better range of locales, with different geographical regions and cultures. Perhaps, though, that can be seen as a strength for the game rather than a weakness. It is incredibly common for RPGs to take you on a trip through the world, immersing you in every region and culture it has to offer, which certainly can help make the world feel real an alive. But there is something appealing about an RPG making the effort to instill that sense of there being more to the world while keeping you in a small corner of it.
In the end, I Am Setsuna is a nice callback to the classic style of JRPGs, even if it isn’t perfect by any means. While we’re not strangers these days to games being made in a retro style, I Am Setsuna manages to set itself apart by not overly relying on the fact that it’s been made that way, avoiding being self-referential or seeming like a parody. While it may lack some of the elements I was personally after, like being set in larger and more colorful world, there a distinct character and charm to the game and the narrower, pinhole view of its story and world. Ultimately, I Am Setsuna is a game that knows its roots and has respect for them, but doesn’t depend on those connections to earn its credit.