I am Setsuna review impressions

I am... not Chrono Trigger.

Here’s a pile of baggage to dump on a game: I Am Setsuna is a spiritual sequel to Chrono Trigger. You know, one of the most beloved role-playing games of all time, utilizing simple joy to create a smooth, excellent, timeless play experience. No pressure!

What the developers at Tokyo RPG Factory have done in I Am Setsuna is a very deliberate attempt to lay claim to the legacy. I Am Setsuna is, in many ways, the very ideal of what a modern take on a classic mid-1990s JRPG should be. The graphics are gorgeous and unconstrained by 16-bit limitations, but they’re set in a two-dimensional plane. The music is gorgeous, crisp, and piano-focused, referencing classics without simply covering them. The combat system is straight-up Chrono Trigger, with special moves that combine with other characters’ abilities on a battle plane.

There’s more, but the point is clear: Setsuna has all the ingredients to be a classic throwback Japanese-style RPG. Problem is, it’s somehow still not very appealing. And exactly why that is could answer a lot of questions about why Chrono Trigger’s simple brilliance has been long-acknowledged without ever being duplicated.

So here’s the key issue with I Am Setsuna: it’s lethargic. It seems to take for granted that because it such an impressive pedigree and collection of aesthetics and mechanics that it is inherently worth playing. But it lacks...energy, motivation, joy, silliness, a direct reason to actually want to play the game outside of the “this is a collection of things I should like.” It turns out that “What if Chrono Trigger was sad?” seems to miss the point that Chrono Trigger was a game designed so that robots could punch dinosaurs and it was awesome.

Take the sound design, which seems like it should be a strong point. The music, to take a specific example, seems like it would be perfect game music in a vacuum. But the extremely high fidelity of the songs -- the main aural focus of Setsuna -- seems to stand in opposition to the deliberate throwback vibe of the overall aesthetic. In other words, it’s not an SNES or Genesis or DS straining against the capabilities of its speakers, its the orchestral version of that song. It’s technically competent but doesn’t quite fit the rest of the game.

Likewise, I Am Setsuna has a bit of voice acting over combat and combat alone. It’s in Japanese only, which could work, but most of the voice actors sound like they’re narrating the events from afar. Whether it’s muttering or deadpan, it rarely sounds like they’re actually involved in the combat they’re apparently discussing. The whole combination is downright disorienting -- insistently modern music, deliberately throwback visuals, and bored-sounding voices.

Nor does this dissonant aesthetic pull itself together to create something new. The text of I Am Setsuna is remarkably straightforward. It takes the plot of another JRPG classic, Final Fantasy X, where a young woman sets out on a journey to sacrifice herself to save for the world, at least for a few years.

This is tragic stuff, and constant snow-covered locations reinforce that, over and over. But there’s no weirdness, no great depth, no silliness. Your characters are determined to make their journey. So they do. And that’s about it. But tonal shifts are essential in big games. Even if the jokes or translation doesn’t land, the idea that something more exists in the world than just the serious people on their serious quest keeps the story varied, and keeps players on their toes.

Even the Chrono Trigger-inspired combat doesn’t seem to get it. The joy of Chrono Trigger was in its simplicity: these characters allow for these combos. Lucca is good at fire magic and combos well with Crono, for example. That’s it!

But Setsuna complicates that idea, with skills associated materia-like items that can be attached and traded from character to character, meaning there’s little mechanical personality from one character to the next. It’s also, and I’m gonna have to get on my soapbox here, the core problem with the JRPG genre post-Chrono Trigger: they add mechanical complications and progression systems that add nothing but density and take away the simple core. I love Chrono Trigger (and Shining Force, and Phantasy Star, and Final Fantasy X, and even Mass Effect) because they make it clear what characters fit what roles and how best to use them.

And yet...I Am Setsuna seems so close to being able to pull it all together. Play long enough, and it starts telling cliched -- but not ineffective -- short stories in each town. A couple of new characters show glimpses of personality. It’s possible to get used to the once-disorienting sound, speech, and music combination. There’s something there, but I Am Setsuna seems to take it for granted that you’ll be delighted to dig for it. And maybe you will be -- that modern-day Chrono Trigger ideal is super tempting. But I Am Setsuna didn’t motivate me, so regardless of the quality of its parts, their sums just didn’t add up.