In a summer of hot weather and loud entertainment, spiced up with an extra-large serving of election-year anger, I Am Setsuna is as refreshing as stepping into an air-conditioned library. The game’s quiet journey through a snowy landscape is a beautiful tribute to Super NES-era role-playing games, particularly Chrono Trigger, but its deeply emotional meditations on regret, loss, mercy, and the nature of sacrifice elevate it beyond pure nostalgia.
The story follows classic silent protagonist Endir, a mercenary tasked with killing the title character. Setsuna is the latest sacrifice, a woman chosen every 10 years to make a journey to the Last Lands and give her life to protect the world from monsters. Learning of Endir’s mission, Setsuna asks him to accompany her pilgrimage so that her death will have meaning. Along the way, their party grows to include a handful of other characters, each with their own complicated reasons for making the dangerous voyage. Their stories are slowly revealed along with revelations about the nature of the world and the monsters that threaten its people.
I Am Setsuna masterfully evokes an air of melancholy. The towns you visit to gather information and resupply are rare bright spots amid an icy landscape. The graphics are low key but provide some charm, like the trails a character leaves while pacing through the snow or the drama of the party’s first glimpse of the Last Lands. The all-piano score also has a powerful impact on the mood, its haunting and slow melodies giving way to pounding keys for boss fights. Setsuna herself is a beacon of hope despite her dark fate, trying to cheer people who are living in fear or struggling with the consequences of past mistakes. Her compassion is seemingly boundless as she tries to stop violence wherever she can and provide opportunities for redemption to everyone from nobles to monsters.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t play as elegantly as it sets the tone. Combat uses the basic structure of Chrono Trigger, with character action bars filling up over time until they’re ready to act. You can delay your action to wait for an opponent’s buff to wear off or to sync up with an ally who has a complementary special ability to perform a combo. Considering the tax on actions and your character’s casting resources, those combos are largely underwhelming. Attacking also lets characters build momentum, which has more complex effects as the game progresses. To start, it just provides a bit of extra damage, but eventually, it allows characters to block attacks or adds secondary properties to special abilities so that an offensive move also heals the party or a healing spell also gives the target a power boost.
There are also a lot of needlessly complex and poorly explained mechanics buried in the battle system. Each character can equip crystals called “Spritnite,” which enable them to use special moves. Along with determining how many and what types of powers a character can use, they also have “Flux” bonuses that will randomly upgrade equipped powers. There’s also a separate randomly determined boost you can get in the course of a battle called “Singularity” that does things like improve your loot drops. The positioning of your characters and enemies is important to both maximizing the effects of your spells and avoiding nasty attacks like the game’s many varieties of self-destructing seals, but the range of a power isn’t laid out in the description or made clear when you’re about to activate it. Ingredients for food that provide party buffs are hidden throughout the world but are largely useless because you’re unlikely to find the recipes to use them unless you talk to every villager in every town even after you’ve gotten everything you need to move on with the story. Even when you go out of your way to do that, your characters can’t cook the food themselves and have to buy it from town cooks at prices that are exorbitant compared to the game’s other consumable items.
Luckily, you don’t really have to sort through everything because the game isn’t particularly challenging. Refreshingly, you’ll find you’re almost always prepared for the next boss fight without having to do any grinding, so long as you remembered to stock up on items and keep your gear up to date. Having the right party mix is important for a few fights where enemies are immune to a particular element or a boss hits so hard that your frailer characters will go down in a single blow, but it’s easy to figure out what needs tweaking after a failure. Beyond that, players can just follow a simple formula of taking out most enemies with basic attacks or the occasional power-move that will wipe them all out at once, and can dispatch bosses by having characters alternate between keeping the monster from acting, healing your party, and putting on the hurt. The only reason to change things up is that enemies drop different types of loot based on how you kill them, but even without trying especially hard, you’re likely to get all the items you need in the next town over.
The saddest thing about the combat system is that it occasionally gets in the way of the story. One plot arc involves Kir, a boy whose magical powers were taken from him to prolong his life. He decides to reclaim them in order to become his true self and protect his village, but he’s absolutely terrible in the fight at the culmination of his story because he joins the party with just a single unimpressive spell. I wound up having him watch from the sidelines during what should have been his shining moment. Another time, Setsuna must prove herself by being repeatedly hit by lightning, which plays out as a battle where you have to just sit there healing her over and over again. The game’s basically checking if you remembered to upgrade to a stronger Cure spell before moving to the next phase of the story, but the weird fight actually blunts the impact that the moment might have otherwise.
A dull solo fight or a character who is disappointing in combat would hardly register in a game with more sound and fury, but I Am Setsuna is all about the significance of the story. When you can get into a groove where the fighting just provides a satisfying break between emotional revelations and long winter walks, the game’s chilling beauty really takes hold.