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Wolf Kanno's Crazy Ramblings and Incoherent Statements

My Top 100's Lost but Not Forgotten: I am Setsuna

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So I did my Top 100 last year, and this year, I'm focusing on a few entries that didn't make the cut for one reason or another. I'll start off by saying that most of the games mentioned in this blog series are all worth playing.
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I am Setsuna is the freshmen effort from Tokyo RPG Factory. A subsidiary company of Square-Enix tasked with the insurmountable task of trying to make games "like the good old days". Objectively speaking, we can tell this is a fool's errand, and nostalgia is very tricky to bottle up and repackage. Still, I commend them for at least trying, and appreciate the fact that at least someone over at SE is willing to try to make a new IP while still remembering the fundamentals I grew up with.
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I am Setsuna takes place in a world plunged in perpetual winter and ravaged every few years by monsters whom rise up to nearly end mankind each time. To placate the beasts, a small town keeps alive an old tradition to raise a sacrifice to be sent to the Lost Lands and lose their life to placate the monsters. The journey is harsh, and many sacrifices never fulfill their purpose. Times have gotten so bad, and the monster surges happen so often that people eventually lost faith in the ancient ritual and whether it actually works or not.
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When the story begins, the player takes on the role of Endir, a mercenary from the mysterious and feared Masked Tribe who wear masks of monsters all their lives, and make a living as mercenaries. Endir is hired for a job to rescue some kids from monsters when he is approached by a mysterious old soldier who hires him to travel to the Village of Sacrifice to assassinate the new sacrifice of the pilgrimage. Taking on the job, Endir meets Setsuna, the young maiden tasked to be sacrifice. Endir is captured by Setsuna's bodyguard Aeterna who wishes to have him killed for the treasonous act of trying to kill the sacrifice before the ritual, but a monster attack on the village forces her to team up with Endir to save them. Impressed with his skill, and perhaps something more, Setsuna tasks Endir to accompany her along her pilgrimage, reasoning that she will die either way, and figures he can fulfill the ritual for her when they reach the Lost Lands.
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Their journey to the Lost Lands, leads them across a world on the brink of despair as the party encounters destroyed villages, broken kingdoms, and some uncomfortable truths about the monsters. Joining them along the way are several other heroes such as Nidr, a former pilgrimage guardian who is still shell shocked by his failure to keep his sacrifice safe; Kir, a young boy part of a tribe of magic infused humans whose great magical power comes at the cost of having incredibly short lifespans; and Julienne, the last living royal heir of the former Empire that once flourished across the land before it fell a thousand years ago, she dreams of restoring her kingdom at any cost. Dogging them as well is the mysterious Reaper, a man of strange dark powers who has been sent to make sure Setsuna fails.
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While the plot screams FFX, the combat is Chrono Trigger mixed with some elements of FFVII. Each character has about sixteen skills they can learn, but players can only equip a few of them at a time. Like Chrono Trigger, the characters all have defined roles and elements to them, with Endir being a jack-of-all-trades with a focus on physical offense, Setsuna is a healer who also controls Lightning and Light, Nidr is a brawler and so on. So each character brings something to the field and like the game it tries to emulate, you'll get a lot more out of the gameplay by "mixing it up" especially when you put in account the game has dual and triple techs. While several of these abilities are stolen whole-sale from Chrono Trigger, there are a few unique ones, and unlike CT, there is a bit more emphasis on buffs and debuffs with some of these moves which adds some more strategic layers to the gameplay. Helping ll of this is the games higher difficulty and better balance of skills, which manages to offset one of the larger problems in Chrono Trigger, namely the weak difficulty curve. That's of course up until you learn how to abuse the Flux system.
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Accessories are a bit weird in this game. They generally only offer minor stats changes and usually don't give you any passive effect when equipped, instead, accessories teach special abilities which activate when your character uses a skill. When the skill activates, there is a chance the ability will activate as well and be imprinted onto the skill permanently. So you use accessories to basically customize your characters skills, and it's actually possible to gain multiple versions of a skill that can be customized with different effects. This is poorly explained within game, but most likely was due to balancing issues as some of these passive abilities you can attach to skills can be downright game-breaking like giving healing abilities passive skills that fill up the ATB bar faster when used, meaning you can have your healer have multiple turns in a row. For most players who don't consult an internet guide, you'll likely not really understand this mechanic until late in the game. Another factor is that the game allows your skills to get a boost if you use a special command prompt when used, which often raises the chances of these fluxes from happening.
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An interesting mechanic in the game is how enemy drops work. Basically enemies carry several types of materials, but what you gain in battle isn't based on rarity values, but instead is based on what kind of move killed the creature. So physical attacks produce one type of item from a creature, while fire will produce another. This makes skills and tech abilities that inflict multiple damage types really useful for item farming. This is important because it not only forces you to use more of the party since no character can use every element type, but these materials are needed to actually make the characters unique tech skills. So if you see that a character is missing an item needed for a skill but nothing is dropping said item, it's likely cause you've been neglecting a character who uses a specific element to cause it to drop. It's an incredibly clever system, though I'm not sure if it would work out on a game with a larger scale to it's world and bestiary.
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For the most part, barring some poor explanations of skill acquisitions and what accessories do, combat is actually an improvement over Chrono Trigger surprisingly. The higher difficulty curve, combined with the larger assortment of Dual and Triple techs caused by making everyone have at least three of each with each character adds a ton of variety to combat and some good strategy. With that said, dungeons could be better. With a few exceptions, most of the dungeons are straightforward affairs and work just like CT with animals already on the map and seamless transition to battle, but I am Setsuna simply lacks variety in both enemy types and dungeon design. While the world of perpetual snow and ice has a lot of potential in terms of visual design, the team aimed pretty low, and the game has about five or six different environmental types. Enemy types fair a little better but not by much. The biggest issue being that the game largely gleamed too much from CT and the Mana franchise in terms of giving the game a kind of crapsaccharine world vibe like those games, but those games had setting that balanced the charm with the darker elements, which is something the game fails to do, making the cutesy enemies feel out of place in a world apparently on the brink of destruction because of them.
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Musically, the game is well known for sticking to a mostly solo piano style, in order to capitalize on the "sorrow" theme of the game. In this regards, the game excels as the map themes, town themes, as well as powerful character moment themes like Redemption and Forgiveness are beautiful tracks. In truth the music is mostly a success in conveying the somber theme of the game. It's only failing is with the battle themes which lack energy and sound awkward in general due to too many limitations placed on them to maintain a homogeneous musical score. The more intimate themes are gorgeous and powerful though, so the OST is still surprisingly good, but if your a battle theme junkie or not a fan of piano heavy scores, you'll likely be disappointed. For me, the soundtrack is what ultimately drew me in to the game.

The obvious weakness of the title overall is that it emulates better or at least more memorable titles and is often accused of lacking identity, but I feel this statement isn't kind of false. Yes the battle system is CT's but it's larger, has more options for better tactics, and is largely an improvement on a battle system that frankly was pretty damn good to begin with. Narratively, I feel the game is better than FFX and Tales of Symphonia in terms of being a story about a Pilgrimage to sacrifice a sweet all loving female lead. This is due to dropping a few elements that I felt hurt those other games, namely the game being pretty upfront about the heroines fate instead of Tidus being stupidly oblivious or the whole party kind naive to what "going to be with the angels" is in Symphonia. The other difference is the lack of the usual "religion of evil" that perpetuates the ceremony, of anything it subverts these usual stories by making the whole procedure played straight for once. This drops any poorly hidden plot twists when the party discovers what they are really doing, and instead creates a narrative that focuses more on the morality of sacrifice, how far one can/should go for duty, and better presents a world ravaged so badly that everyone is more concerned with survival than anything else. The game betrays certain expectations normally associated with these types of stories as more often than not, humans are generally more dangerous to the Pilgrimage than the hordes of monsters, and as mentioned earlier, the nature of the monster surge shifts when you realize that the longer the world goes without a sacrifice doesn't just mean monsters appear more often, but they actually start to gain greater intelligence with a particular dark subplot midway involving the party dealing with such creatures and learning the monsters are not so different from them.
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The biggest bombshells come towards the end, though they could have been explained and resolved better, but still gives the game an interesting twist I wasn't expecting that kind of gives a nod to Chrono Cross of all things. Most importantly, I like the fact the game does a better job of maintaining it's theme. Unlike Spira's weird juxtaposition of themes and visual design where people are suffering from a god being every few decades but can still find time to go watch sporting events, or Tales of Symphonia's more typical JRPG world, Setsuna does a better job of portraying a world on the edge. The snow and ice visuals give the impression of a dying world, the generally melancholic piano music does a great job of portraying the theme of sadness and sorrow, outposts are rare, humans are often desperate and generally more dangerous, and the game largely sticks to its guns, not ending on some last minute "let's save everyone" spiel that usually pops in these hopeless moments in RPGs. The ending is bittersweet at best and probably leaves you with more questions than answers, but I still had a blast going through the journey.
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It wasn't the second coming of Old School RPGs like many had hoped, but I knew it wouldn't never be able to live up to such lofty ambitions. When taken for what it is, I am Setsuna is a solid JRPG that's simply failed to live up to the ambition I feel people had for it. It will never be an Indy darling like Undertale, but I imagine I am Setsuna will likely be a cult classic in another ten years. One of those under the radar type games people scoffed at initially cause it was too much like better games despite being a pretty solid effort on its own. The is game really resonated with me despite it's shortcomings, which is something I can't say about Tokyo RPG's sophomore effort. Overall, while it wasn't excellent enough to crack my Top 100, it's still a great game overall.

Updated 05-02-2019 at 10:33 AM by Wolf Kanno

Miscellaneous , Video Games