I am Setsuna’s combat system is unabashedly based on Chrono Trigger, but the game itself has little else in common with that classic. This is a very melancholy, very snowy RPG with distinctly retro mechanics but a fairly basic story. The story actually is similar in some ways to another Square Enix classic. The titular character is on a journey that will end in her sacrifice to save the world for some time until the next sacrifice. Sound familiar?
The combat system is certainly the highlight of the game, and it adds a lot to the basics of Chrono Trigger’s system. You have three characters with positional abilities, monsters you can see in the field without a separate battle screen, two- and three-character combos, and the usual active time wait bars. Combat goes well beyond this starting point, and in many cases it succeeds in improving on the formula. The best addition is momentum, a separate meter that fills up when you perform various actions, which lets you augment any of your attacks or techs. This system is a lot of fun, and adds a lot of tactical opportunity to the game, since many techs offer special effects separate from their main effect when you use momentum. It also solves one of my biggest issues with Chrono Trigger: when your ATB bar is full because you’re waiting on another character for a combo, your momentum meter fills instead, making it seem like less of a loss.
The drop system is also quite interesting. Monsters have the usual common and rare drops, but they also have 10 other drops that are guaranteed if you defeat them in various ways (with certain elements, with a combo, etc.). The in-game journal tracks which of these you have found, and there’s no randomness outside the rare drop, so it is quite possible to target certain drops. Combined with the non-random encounters, this is a pretty fun system for completionists. The downside is that you don’t know what the drops are until you get them, and drops are what allow you to get new techs, so if you really want some fancy new ability it’s going to take trial and error to earn it.
The combat is far from perfect, however. While your abilities are pretty fun, the enemy design can be quite annoying. There is a limited number of enemy types, and several of them basically exist to be frustrating to fight. For instance, there are tiny two-tailed squirrels that ride on snowballs and have extremely high evasion. They aren’t that dangerous, they just take a while to kill. The pacing of combat is also thrown off due to a few odd decisions. The active time bars go very slow, to the point where you’ll often wait several seconds with nothing happening for them to fill. And I never again want to see another one of those enemies that individually self destruct in a long animation when killed.
Boss fights can be very tough, often suggesting if not requiring the use of certain abilities to counter their moves. Your best defense is usually a good offense, but that can be risky. Recovering from even a single character death can be very difficult as the bosses and even some normal enemies relentlessly attack for high damage. And there are plenty of one-shot abilities in the game which can quickly turn a winning fight against you. You need to be on top of the latest techs and combos to even the score, which given the randomness involved in getting techs and some UI issues determining what combos you can use can be a headache.
The actual plot of the game is fairly straightforward for the most part, but filled with convoluted side stories. Pretty much everyone in your party has some secret identity or whatnot, and they’ll often be revealed so quickly you didn’t even have time to start caring. Things slow down by the end, where the revelations get a lot more interesting and the game comes to an appropriate and, in my opinion, satisfying end.
The real problem with the game is that it gets a bit monotonous. Every area is snowy, leading to a minimum of environments (to be fair there are also several ice caves!). There are few monsters per area, and if you don’t quickly determine a way to dispose of them quickly, fights can drag on. MP tends to be fairly limited until you get a lot of MP restoration abilities late in the game, so this may happen regardless. You can freely switch characters between fights to stretch your resources, though sadly you can’t do any such thing during an actual fight.
Fortunately (in my opinion anyway), the game isn’t especially long. They do try to artificially stretch your playtime in a few places, which is unfortunate. One idea they took from Chrono Trigger and made far worse was the concept of magically locked chests. Rather than a few of them scattered in unique places you can remember to come back to later in the game, there’s at least one chest in every area of the game. As a result, once you can open them you basically have to run through the entire game again (albeit at much higher level) to get all the loot.
The magically locked chests are a microcosm of why I am Setsuna is a good, but not great, game. It has a lot of cool ideas, but the execution is fairly lacking. I don’t doubt the Tokyo Game Factory team can come up with good to great JRPGs forever, but I hope they cut a few less corners on variety in the future. Still, if you have a lot of nostalgia for Chrono Trigger-style combat, or like slow-paced, melancholy JRPG stories, I am Setsuna is probably for you.