A Return to 16-Bit Form: How I Am Setsuna Brought the Classic JRPG Back

It feels like I’ve been waiting over twenty years for a proper Japanese role-playing game to come along.

By waiting over twenty years I mean something that plays similar to Final Fantasy III (VI, for sticklers) just before game development moved on to CD covered pastures. While JRPG design has moved on over the coming years, my tastes have solely stuck to active time battles and super-deformed character sprites. I’ve tried things like Dragon Quest on multiple occasions in the hopes of recapturing that je ne sais quoi of the 16-bit JRPG design formula, but nothing sticks. Maybe I’m getting in my own way; it’s hard to compete with the nostalgia of Squaresoft’s output from the 90s. It felt like literally every release they had was a masterpiece without equal time and time again. From Final Fantasy II (or IV if you prefer) to Secret of Mana to Chrono Trigger, everything was grandiose, magnificent and the perfect time suck for a kid with a limited budget.

While I’ve given up on finding that game that would be a return to form a long time ago, I still hold out hope every now and again that I’ll find that something that scratches that itch again. Luckily I’ve found a truck stop back scratcher that goes by the name of I am Setsuna and it is gloriously retro in all the right ways.

If I were to say I am Setsuna has a passing resemblance to Chrono Trigger I’d be selling it woefully short. It follows the train of thought that enemies are visible on the field and your approach will dictate the first turn. The game will jump the characters around while keeping the battle contained in the area you’re in, although there’s no option to move your party anywhere for any advantage. You’re then treated to your standard active time battle where filling meters dictate turns while enemies are also beholden to a timer but not necessarily in waiting for you to complete your decisions. There’s even an option to set up combos with multiple characters by using their special abilities in tandem. In case you’re worried about any other pretenses to Chrono Trigger, there is literally a move called X Strike. It’s pretty much just Chrono Trigger.

I am Setsuna is a love letter to a specific era that nearly borders on clone and I am perfectly OK with that. I’m all for progress, but there’s something to be said for comfort food gaming and it’s been a damn long time since I’ve tasted this chicken noodle soup. But that’s not to say that I am Setsuna doesn’t have a dash of contemporary design in it, just that it’s subtle and fits in well with what it emulates.

I’m the type of person who loves filling in a codex or journal, and I am Setsuna has a similar feature called the Snow Chronicles. It lists everything from your completion percentages pertaining to what you’ve seen, battle statistics and your stock standard bestiary. Not only does it give you minute details like item drops and health, but a nice little lore write-up that helps flesh out the world for those who love sinking time into that kind of thing. Which, you know, I am.

But what really sets I am Setsuna apart from the games it’s inspired by is its story. You begin the game as a mercenary who it tasked with murdering a girl on a small island only to find yourself on a journey to take this girl to her predestined death anyways. As monsters gather across the countryside in growing numbers every few decades, a “chosen one” must be sacrificed to placate whatever god decides to unleash said plague of beasts upon the world. Rather than end her life swiftly, the mercenary instead joins the girl’s retinue to save the world in the most unsavory way.

It’s a somber tale so far, one that’s driven home by the bleak and snow-covered world in which it takes place. Folk in the small isle town in which the sacrifice is chosen from are curiously unemotional about the whole thing as they feel they can’t change fate. A third party member, a woman who has been on more than one sacrificial pilgrimage, adds an air of mystery to the whole thing because she infers that there’s more going on in the world than a simple ritual belies. The writing is pretty average JRPG fair, but the hooks in the plot are there and worth exploring.

While I earnestly expected to like I am Setsuna if only on a fundamental level, I didn’t expect to be quite so smitten by it. Granted I’m only a few hours in, but even at this point I think if the game tows the line and holds even, I’ll be satisfied by the end of it. If the plot goes in interesting directions while doing so, I may have found a new champion in my love for old school role-playing games.