I am Setsuna is a turn-based JRPG developed by Tokyo RPG Factory with blah blah blah blah blah, some flowery adjectives to convince you that I can write, a mixed or dead metaphor, some tedious synopsising and a load of exposition that you could read anywhere else. Now. Let’s talk about what you can’t read anywhere else. Let’s talk about I am Setsuna.
After a while of thinking that I am Setsuna’s combat was stale, its world was too flat and empty and its story was just a succession of mawkish JRPG clichés, I realised that I’d been playing this apparently disappointing game for four hours without a break. It’s not often that I spend four unbroken hours doing something that I’m not enjoying. I’m not the sort of lunatic who has to finish every book he starts reading regardless of how compelling he finds it to be. I’m the sort of lunatic with bookmarks wedged at chapter three in books arranged all along the bottom shelf of his bookcase, so there was obviously something about I am Setsuna that was keeping me engaged. But what was it?
The realisation came ten hours into my play through. I was just finishing up another combat segment and returning to another snowy village to sell my materials and stock up on new weapons, items and abilities – just before I was due to get another little plot nugget and start venturing through yet another snowy wood and out over yet another snowy plain – when the clouds parted and I understood what was keeping me playing. Momentum. I am Setsuna rarely dawdles long enough for you to become irritated by its shortcomings. The game cycles between three distinct phases: combat, R&R/story segments and travelling, and that sequence keeps you moving at a steady pace. The battles are never difficult enough to become tedious, the dialogue doesn’t overstay its welcome and the travelling sections act as nothing more than a brief and peaceful intermission. Nothing about I am Setsuna is particularly thrilling, it’s just incredibly fluent. It’s like being punted along a creek on an overcast day. The Dragonflies and the Kingfishers are nowhere to be seen, there are no rapids or drops, but it’s nice to just drift for a while, enjoying the ride.
Despite being effortless and well-paced, I am Setsuna has one feature it could really do without. It seems like a formality to add inconsequential dialogue options to your game today, and Tokyo RPG Factory have somewhat thoughtlessly followed this trend. The gratuitous inclusion of this feature in any old game is something I’d like to draw attention to, because it’s basically just a cheap way for developers to fool the player into thinking they’re part of the narrative process when they’re not. Some may argue that there are different outcomes depending on which response you select in I am Setsuna (and that’s true, NPCs do react to what you say) but these outcomes are purely superficial, having no real impact on the game, mechanically or narratively. Your choices have no significance. And when your choices have no significance, having to make them time and time again is just exhausting and futile.
It’s clear to see that I am Setsuna is a game made with a lot of heart. It’s a throwback, a love letter, an homage. And while I don’t think this excuses it for being facile and trite, I do think it excuses it for not being an ingenious work of art. There will be thousands of people who absolutely love this game, people who could rave all day about how likeable the characters are, how well the plot develops, but in today’s climate, with so many games exploring complicated and nuanced themes in thoughtful and imaginative ways, a narrative-driven turn-based JRPG about a mercenary accompanying a celestial girl on a fated journey to sacrifice herself to some monsters, despite being undeniably charming, looks too naïve.