Game review: I Am Setsuna is a throwback to the glory days of RPGs

Setsuna conjures up the golden age of Japanese role-playing games, with all the elements you’d expect – except perhaps the monster duration

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 5:59pm

I Am Setsuna

Square Enix

3.5 stars

Many of the best Japanese role-playing games (RPGs) were released on the Super Nintendo, with a few bleeding into the Sony PlayStation. Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, to name just a few. And while the genre has thrived on various platforms in the years since then, they’re not what they used to be. Heck, the Final Fantasy series of today hardly resembles its turn-based ancestors from the ’90s.

I Am Setsuna attempts to go back to those glory days, if only for a little while. For all intents and purposes, it’s a Super Nintendo-era game made with PlayStation 4-era technology.

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It’s a love letter to the 16-bit days of fantasy RPGs, and it will appeal most to nostalgic fans from that time.

Made by a small team of developers at Tokyo RPG Factory and published by Square Enix (which is responsible for many of those old classics, including Final Fantasy), the game has all the elements expected of a hit old-school RPG. A story about saving the world from monsters, a protagonist with a mysterious past, an ensemble cast of characters with different strengths and abilities and an overworld from which to explore various towns, forests and other locations.

There is minimal voice acting (limited entirely to in-game battle dialogue), and what is there is strictly in Japanese with no option for English voices. Every bit of the story is told via text exactly like it was in the past, with occasional dialogue options that don’t actually give you any control over the plot – just some specific lines.

That straightforwardness is an element that carries through most of I Am Setsuna, in fact. It’s a very linear game, with little opportunity for exploration or side-questing. It would be difficult to get lost even if you wanted to, as the world’s design very clearly funnels you from point A to B to C. You won’t even be bumping into random encounters while walking from town to town on the overworld, as you might expect from a Final Fantasy game.

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This helps contribute to length, which by the standards of some RPGs is short. Granted, by “short” I mean I Am Setsuna might last you a couple dozen hours instead of 60, but it’s worth noting for the people who really want to sink their teeth into this world.

Battles are played out in a turn-based system most reminiscent of Chrono Trigger. You control three heroes in your party at a time, and every character on the screen (both heroes and monsters) has an action meter that fills up as time passes. When it’s full for one character, you can attack or use an ability – and if the meter is full for multiple characters, they might be able to combine forces for a more powerful special move.

What I Am Setsuna gets from modern hardware is superlative audio and visuals. While the game’s art leans much more heavily on style than technical prowess, it still looks fantastic in high-definition and with a smooth frame rate, animations go beyond what earlier game systems were capable of. The music, too, is of a higher quality than anything that would have been possible on a ’90s game system, though it still evokes that era with its short victory tunes and relaxing overworld songs.

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Other games released over the past several years have tried to evoke the same feelings of nostalgia as I Am Setsuna, but most of them have leaned too heavily into the old and not given much thought to the new. They’ve gone full 16-bit, graphics and all, sometimes nailing the look of an old RPG but not always nailing the feel. Even with its 3D graphics and flashy animations, I Am Setsuna does a much better job at taking you back to a different period in gaming’s history, making it an easy recommendation for anyone who remembers – or just appreciates – a type of game that sometimes feels lost to time.