A JRPG retro throwback that doesn't quite replicate Square's past quality
I tried to keep it vague as there is no Spoiler Block functionality for reviews. I felt it was relevant to include them to why I scored it what I did.
When I heard Square Enix created a new division to make classic JRPGs (with a game inspired by one of the GOAT JRPGs Chrono Trigger no less, a series I badly missed), I was pretty stoked. Squaresoft was at its greatest imo when it was pumping out new IPs as well upgrading the Final Fantasy franchise.
Unfortunately the name of the studio, Tokyo RPG Factory, should have been a clue to me this game wouldn't quite live up to the production and design standards the publisher is well know for.
I am Setsuna is a pretty mixed bag of successfully modernizing a SNES style JRPG with modern mid-tier budget grade graphics, yet also seemingly not understanding why those designs worked in the first place. Like a JRPGs of yore, the game is structured in a very classic format, mechanical and narrative tropes and all. Your team of adventurers starts on a quest to save the world in a remote small town. They embark on a linear journey throughout the land, gaining powers, equipment and new allies along the way. The old JRPG progression loop of Overworld navigation - dungeon - Overworld- town - world map, so on and so forth is in full force here. You even eventually get an Airship so you can explore remote regions of the map and backtrack to open Locked chests in dungeons you already cleared (ala Dragon Quest). Anybody who has played a Square game from pre-2000 will recognize it immediately.
The combat takes heavy inspiration from Chrono Trigger, Your team is an interchangeable (out of combat) party of three, the Menu based combat flows in FF's legendary ATB system, there's no encounters at all in the Overworld and the ones you do run into in the dungeons are visible on the screen. The characters have access to "Techs" (CT's nomenclature for magic) which they can combine with other characters to double combo or triple combos. Techs come in two main varieties, character specific abilities and passives (called support). You can acquire new Techs by acquiring "Spritnite" by turning in monster drops to a vendor. While there's no class or job system to speak of, You can equip and customize your character however you see fit. Still the system is not flexible enough to be able to change the basic nature of a character, a healer is a healer in this game. But you can change how offensive or defensive the character is.
Unique to I Am Setsuna is the ability add effects and damage to actions taken by using "Momentum", a timing based button press which is usable after a gauge holds a charge. The Gauge fills over time or when damage is given or taken. A Player who initiates combat with an unsuspecting enemy will be allowed to enter combat with one free charge of Momentum on their first turn. Players who use momentum frequently are rewarded by a % change that a buff in their equipped Talisman (the only non weapon based equipment in the game) will be permanently applied to that ability through a "Flux". Each tech can carry up to ten fluxes. Additionally using momentum might trigger a "singularity", essentially a timed party wide bonus. E.g. increased tech dmg for 20 seconds. Each ability also moves the character on the battlefield (e.g. backslash will move the character to behind the enemy it attacks), which can impact which abilities will then impact the affected character offensively or defensively.
So far so good right? In practice what this means, is that the player tries to sneak up on enemies (easy to do) and only take action when their momentum gauge at least has one charge.
The problem is the game is so poorly balanced, that you don't need to learn or use most of this until the Penultimate boss of the main quest. As long as you use momentum and get the initiative in most fights, You can quite literally spam one combo to clear 3/4 of the game without much trouble. And even then a simple switch of a couple spritnite neutralizes the threat of the boss pretty much entirely. While it's quite welcome that I Am Setsuna has abbreviated running time of roughly 25 hours to complete the main quest, lacks random encounters and essentially never asks the player to grind, it's far too easy to cheese yourself out of having an engaging time with this game. A player could very easily put themselves into a bad situation with that boss that could take a few hours to correct if they don't bother to get the right spritnite in the process (because they hadn't needed to previously).
To make matters a touch worse, once you do start to care a little bit about how you actually play, you'll notice some momentum abilities are hard to execute because the indicator (which is ice blue colored) to use the abilities will either be obscured by the snowy background or off screen entirely if the character has moved to the top of the screen. The Dragoon character's jump ability doesn't even show you whether your input successfully took until she lands. Furthermore since the characters constantly move on the battlefield, they shuffle the order in which they can be selected and again the cursor is light blue, meaning you need to pay attention to who you have highlighted. (The PC version also has an annoying issue where the mouse cursor never leaves the screen).
Which brings me to the next major problem with the game, the in game shopping. I am Setsuna is an odd mix of getting right for modern Quality of Life enhancements (it has an extremely excellent bestiary/compendium that a completionist will appreciate, including % completion counts on about every collectible you could imagine), the shops are somehow significantly worse than what even a NES JRPGs had.
It starts with the selling, in order to make money you have to sell monster drops. Each Monster can drop anywhere from 1-~10 different kinds of items after one battle. But you have to sell each one individually by type at the vendor, so it's a lot of mashing square everytime you want to unload. That can end up being dozens of times each trip to town.
And then on the purchasing side, the same vendor has every item (~200 or so) in his inventory available but grayed out from the very get-go. Those items only become purchasable if you've sold the requisite monster drops that unlock them (and the drops get consumed by each spritnite redemption). Unfortunately you can't see if it's in your inventory already unless you highlight the items specifically so that means a ton of scrolling through some Persona ability looking names (few of which you probably actually used at all because of combat balancing) trying to figure out if you got them yet or not. There's no "new" or any useful info by them in list other than Qty available. What's Vinculum do? I dunno, never used it. Do I have it? maybe....
The other two vendors (weapon and item) aren't nearly as bad, but they also are significantly less useful.
All in all, I probably spent 10-15% of my game time messing with the shop system in a rote way.
Lastly that brings us to the narrative and the world, and this is perhaps where Setsuna comes up the shortest. Suffice to say Setsuna is a game that attempts to be about hopeless melancholy, which is reflected in the omnipresent snow, haunting piano soundtrack(which is probably the most unique aspect of the game) and beat down pessimism the player encounters from nearly every NPC. Your POV character is Endir, yet another mute protagonist in the vein of Chrono, but one who has an unusually strong plot device attached to him. Endir is a mercenary who has been hired to assassinate Setsuna, a girl chosen to sacrifice her life to appease monsters from devouring the world. At the start of the game He ends deciding to escort her instead as part of her guard. Sound sorta familiar? It should, the whole arc clearly takes inspiration from Final Fantasy X. All of which makes Endir's seemingly go with the flow decision making seem really bizarre in spots that really breaks immersion. He is oddly passive for an assassin despite how you decide to characterize his responses (which in typical JRPG matter don't affect the outcome of the plot at all). Endir would have been much better served having a different plot device attached to him as for his reason to be there.
Worse yet, the other characters that are introduced barely receive much development at all save perhaps Setsuna herself. Some have core plot lines that are essentially left unaddressed until end game and some aren't even really addressed then. As a result it's pretty difficult to care about any of them.
The game also doesn't sell you on the quest itself. It recycles a ton of assets, heavily uses palette swaps in the bestiary and there's oddly no world map to give you any context on where you are (who goes on a world saving journey without a map? wtf) , everywhere looks pretty same-ish and feels same-ish. The journey doesn't feel like much of an undertaking at all.
When the game finally does end, it feels pretty unsatisfactory to be honest. Without giving anything away, the end game sequence introduces elements and plot devices that feel entirely disconnected from the core game. It feels very tacked on, almost as if the developers had these conceits for a story but didn't have an idea of what they wanted the story to ultimately be about or more critically how to get there.
Fortunately the post game content is among the better batches I've played in a JRPG. There's a good chunk of stuff to do (10-20 hours depending on how industrious you are), most of which you can without meaningful grinding (I grinded maybe 5 battles all game), the most rewarding boss fights in the entire game and a fair amount of new story content to keep your interest.
Bottom line is Setsuna is a confusing game to play and score. There is clearly a lot of potential in reviving this style of game and there's a lot of the solid foundation that really works here. But it clearly needed to be thought out and polished a lot more to be a coherent package that makes gameplay and artistic sense. JRPGs fans who just love the form as I do might enjoy their time with the game as I did, but everyone else will probably scratch their heads and wonder why people like these kinds of games.