Tokyo RPG Factory’s first stumbling steps as developers suffers some face plants.
Man, it’s been a while since we had a nice review. It feels like we need to break up the usual feature pieces with some therapeutic game analysis. And with Square Enix announcing a new game from the fine folks at Tokyo RPG Factory, what better time to have a look back at their debut game, I Am Setsuna.
For those not in the know, ‘Tokyo RPG Factory’ is a rather on the nose name for a development group created by Square Enix to…well, be an RPG factory. It seems both appropriate and slightly odd that Square, one of the biggest names in making RPG games, would create an entire development team for making the kind of games that made them a big contender on the gaming scene. Appropriate because who else would be that dedicated to the genre, odd because you would have thought Square would be content with being up to their eyeballs in developing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Still, since Square is just the publisher for anything Tokyo So and So puts out, I guess it makes a little bit more sense. Indeed, while exact details are hard to find, the story seems to be that Square more or less just threw Tokyo RPG Factory together, a completely new team with only a tiny fraction of Square’s finical support. It’s definitely an interesting story, if nothing else.
As for the group themselves, it’s worth noting that T.RPG.F seems to be focusing on making more (relatively) budget titles, and especially ones that are more reminiscent of older games that came out in the genre’s golden age. I Am Setsuna is, for example, extremely similar to Chrono Trigger, and has a few elements in the vein of the early Final Fantasy games. It’s likely that, with Square Enix’s main body pumping out mostly action-RPGs for the wider audiences, games made by this particular subsidiary is meant to sate the fans that still crave the now more niche classical turn-based RPG. Fans like myself, who flew in to pick this up in somewhat naïve hope that it might convince Square to go back to those glory days. A man can dream…
So, let’s continue our proud tradition of reviewing games ages after they actually came out, making the reviews mostly obsolete, and dive into I Am Setsuna.
While an admirable attempt at making a unique combat system, I Am Setsuna’s combat is often lacking.
I Am Setsuna, keeping to the developer’s attempts at recreating the style of older RPGs, is a game with turn-based combat. Hell, it’s almost identical to the ATB system of the older Final Fantasy games, meaning character’s actions are determined by an ‘action gauge’ rather than a hard and fast turn order. This comes with the all the usual RPG goodness, such as characters having particular roles in the party, and certain character excelling in areas others suffer in. One character might hit like a runaway truck with physical attacks, but will be unable to even cast any type of magic. Even better, equipping certain skills with certain team compositions allow you to pull off ‘combos:’ two or more characters launching an especially strong attack at the cost of both their actions in a turn.
This is all good stuff, but not I Am Setsuna’s most unique systems (or at least not its totally unique systems, since a fair number of these ideas are from Chrono Trigger). The game’s particular mechanic is called the ‘Momentum Gauge.’ This is a system wherein if a character waits before taking an action, they can add ‘momentum’ to said action to make it stronger. This can have several different effects depending on the ability, from just increasing the damage to applying bonus buffs and debuffs. This sounds like an interesting idea: forcing you to choose between acting immediately, or taking a moment to beef up your attacks before you make them.
The only problem is, it’s a system that very quickly starts to wear out its welcome. Apart from one or two bosses who are particularly fast, there’s never a time where you wouldn’t want to use Momentum: it not only adds more damage and effects to you attacks, but also makes enemies drop more loot upon death, loot that allows you to gain more skills and more cash. This means that random battles start to drag on as you wait for the gauge to fill up, even though you know that you could one-shot any of these trashy mooks. Likewise, because the effects it introduces are universally useful, you’re going to need this thing to get past some of the game’s tougher enemies. All of this wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the gauge fills aggravatingly slowly. I’m certain I could have knocked off at least an hour or two of my playtime if I didn’t have to sit twiddling my thumbs as I watch the various bars slowly fill on the screen. The best comparison I could make is how poorly this system stacks up against another Square Enix property, Bravely Deafult. That game’s ‘Brave’ system not only encourages you to blow through random encounters as quickly as possible, it allows for some incredibly fun and creative set-ups without feeling cumbersome or unwieldy. I appreciate that there’s been an effort to shake up the usual turn-based formula for I Am Setsuna, but the Momentum systems feels half-baked and poorly implemented.
Another deliberating problem the game suffers from is how perplexing it’s subsystems are. There are a number of systems running under the hood which are affected by what kind of actions you’re taking in battle, which can activate and turn the tide in your favour. I would normally explain what these systems were called and give some examples, but these things are so vestigial and odd that I completely forgot they existed until I sat down to write this review. You see, these systems are completely random: your actions have some minor effect on whether they activate, but it’s difficult to notice since it’s an extremely low chance. Over the course of my play through, I only got these things to activate around four times, three of those times were in completely meaningless random encounters, and once during a boss fight. I couldn’t tell you what that effect was during the boss, but he went from dealing nearly 90% of my character’s HP to doing 0 damage, so it must have been a pretty lucky effect. I personally quite like having an element of randomness to a game (I’m the type to argue that X-COM would be pretty boring if you didn’t occasionally wiff a 95% chance to hit), but these systems feel both meaningless and pretty arbitrary.
A final issue I have to lay against the game is that it’s balance is all over the place. The early game introduces you to the concept that mana is pretty important to balance, since there’s no inns or cheap ways to restore it. To that end, you want to avoid using abilities or skills unnecessarily, since you’ll burn through mana you’ll need for the boss-fights. However, this potentially interesting balancing act is done away by the mid-way point, since you start to unlock a LOT of abilities that actually restore mana on use. At this point, you can safely bowl through most battles by using your still incredibly powerful skills while spamming the moves that restore mana. Not only that, but it doesn’t take too long to find the really powerful and useful moves, which can spammed with impunity even on bosses. Overall, it feels like I Am Setsuna is a game that has a lot of interesting ideas to play around with, but no idea how to balance them out.
Music and sound:
A delightfully minimalist soundtrack that shows an impressive range of tones from a single piano.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly the most musically gifted individual on this green earth, and thus am probably unqualified to be making any judgements about music, but even a pleb like me can recognise that a lot of heart went into this game’s soundtrack. I Am Setsuna makes the interesting choice of using only a single instrument in its entire repertoire, an extremely melancholic piano. The game actually gets a pretty impressive range out of this idea, having songs for both intense battles and steady treks through the snowdrifts, so props to the composer/s that put the whole thing together. What I like the most is how it sets the tone for the entire adventure: while there are upbeat and more whimsical tunes, the slow and often sombre tones from the piano are a perfect companion to the often desolate visuals and grim nature of the journey. There is very little voice acting in this game, but when the entire game has a singular ‘voice’ this strong, there’s very little need for much more.
On the sound department, there is some very effective and appropriate SFX in use. There’s a real sense of peace in the air as you hear the crunch of snow under your character’s feet and the rustle of the snow burdened trees. I Am Setsuna’s developers really went all in with the snow theme, and it really shows in every part of the game. The only real complaint I have in the sound department is that using certain abilities with Momentum creates this really high-pitched whine. This certainly sells the idea that your characters are using crazy potent magic that isn’t native to the rules of nature, but it becomes as grating on the ears as it probably is to the fabric of reality.
Graphics and Aesthetics:
An absurdly pretty game, with top notch character design and a neat style, let down somewhat by a lack lustre design for monsters and enemies.
As I mentioned before, this is a pretty budget title in the relative sense of things. So graphics in I Am Setsuna are fairly simplistic, and sometimes lacking in detail. Fortunately, the game more than makes up for that in its charmingly stylised visual. If I had to compare it to anything, it’s as if the early days of 3-D models had never ended, and this is just what they would look like if people had just kept at those kinds of graphics.
A big feather in the game’s hat is the actual design of the characters the player uses over the course of the game. They’re a varied bunch, and their designs are used to help both sell the settings (nearly every character is wrapped up in a lot of warm furs and coats, exactly what you’d expect from people living in a constant winter) and themselves. It’s easy to tell what role in combat and roughly what kind of character they are just on sight alone, and their artwork is undeniably very pretty. Extra points to the fact that the main character, a mercenary/monster hunter by trade, has god-damn monster hands integrated in his helmet.
Another thing I really like about this game is how well it can sell how an area ‘feels.’ In an land in a perpetual winter, you get used to seeing a lot of damn snow (like a LOT of snow), but there’s been a noticeable effort to really sell how blisteringly cold these areas must be to trek through, and how serenely warm and comfy the insides of buildings are in this world. A lot of this is portrayed through colour: nearly every house has this warn yellow/gold glow about, while nearly every part of the outside world has the colours partially bleached and warn out by the snow. It’s little details like that I really appreciate about the design of this world.
The one thing that I’m not super sure about is the actual designs for the enemies you fight for most of the game. There’s no issue with the bosses: they’re incredibly intimidating, and look sufficiently like terrifying threats. The reason they look so intimidating, however, is because everything else in this game is too damn adorable to take seriously. I mean seriously, look at the terrifying monsters that common towns people will lament are wrecking the peace:
If the game was trying to make a joke or was more light-hearted, I’d chalk it up to those reasons. But there’s no such reason in the game. Everyone acts like monsters are a terror and that their increasing numbers are a problem (indeed, it’s a crucial plot point). Forgive me if I don’t find the adorable seal and funny looking snakes intimidating. This does get better as time goes on, and the last area has some genuinely creepy monster designs, but it feels odd that it took so long to get to that point.
Story and narrative
An intriguing premise, good character interactions and simple but neat setting make the game’s journey enjoyable, though some last minute plot developments let the narrative down.
The game opens with an intriguing question: what kind of man sends an assassin to kill someone who’s already marching to their death?
This is the situation the player is presented with at the very start of the game. They take control of a masked mercenary by the name of Endir (though, keeping to the idea of emulating old RPGs, you can actually rename all of the playable characters), who is sent to the Land Of Snow to find and kill ‘The Sacrifice.’ As the player finds out by talking to the various townsfolk, it turns out this sacrifice has to make a pilgrimage waaaay across the country to the fittingly named ‘Last Lands’ in order to give up their life so monsters don’t overrun the entire continent. Why someone would want to sabotage such a mission won’t become clear for some time, though Endir isn’t worrying too much about the details right now. He manages to have a stroke of luck, and finds his target alone, hours from civilisation, and in a situation where disposing of the body would be a simple matter. The only bad point is that the girl notices him approaching, his sword already poised to cut her head off.
Then, the strangest thing happens. The girl doesn’t panic. Indeed, she seems to be unusually calm about the fact that someone with the intent to kill her is standing right in front of her. Probably pretty perplexed at this turn, Endir doesn’t strike her down. The girl, as politely as you’d expect one to address a non-murderer, introduces herself. On that snow peeked cliff, the sea crashing against the rocks below, the girl with red hair happily tells her would be killer:
“I Am Setsuna.”
…Unless you rename her. At which point, the title never makes sense. Bit of an odd choice to allow players to rename her, really.
Through a series of events, Endir eventually ends up agreeing to help Setsuna with her pilgrimage, with the justification that she’ll be dead by the end of it, and thus his job will be fulfilled either way. After that point, we get the some good old-school RPG adventuring shenanigans, including finding a group of misfit party members, getting embroiled in the local troubles of every town we come across, and eventually uncovering the mysteries that surrounded this entire sacrificial pilgrimage.
There’s a lot to like about I Am [Insert Name Here]’s story: there’s a healthily level of inter-party banter, and while the Land of Snow isn’t exactly a varied place (as its name suggests), it’s an interesting landmass to explore. Likewise, it definitely puts its best foot forward at the start, as the premise and start of game pose some interesting questions to seek answers for.
Where the story starts to weaken is the fact that the characters start to fill their archetypes a little too well. The Girl Formally Known As Setsuna is a selfless and self-sacrificing young maiden, and that’s perfectly fine: one of her most interesting characteristics is just how much she takes marching to her death in stride. But she can only make a ‘all life is precious’ speech so many times before it sounds like she’s just repeating herself. And while the rest of the party is a colourful bunch that’s a joy to watch in motion, there’s no denying that you’ve seen these characters many times before.
I’m of the mind that just because something has been done before, you shouldn’t write it off: clichés, tropes, and common story telling element s became that way because, ultimately, they work. If you want a series that uses every trope and cliché in the (fantasy) book but works really, really well, look up the book series ‘The Belgariad.’* That stuff defined my childhood, and it’s no worse for working within a well explored framework. So while the party filling in the checklist for ‘every RPG party under the sun’ doesn’t really bother me, I acknowledge that it’s undoubtedly going to be a problem for some people.
Another, an even more pressing issue is that the game makes some odd narrative decisions in its third and fourth act. This is a spoiler-free review (we might get around to a spoiler-retrospective in the future, we’ll see), so we won’t dive into details, but it introduces elements that you could build a whole game around, and loads it all into the game’s final hours. To be fair, it makes some interesting choices with them, including a very cool instance of ending the game where it began, but it makes the entire story feel eclectic and unfocused. All of the themes and elements from the rest of the game are unresolved, and these new elements are introduced too late to do anything significant with. While less of a problem than the combat, the story feels like there were a lot of good ideas, but maybe not enough time or resources to actually implement them fully.
*The Culling Blog, the only video game blog on the entire internet which gives you homework.
I Am Setsuna is a game that stumbles in a LOT of places: the story has a number of issues, and I made my opinion about the gameplay more than clear. However, it’s a game that also has a lot of love and heart put in it. While I feel justified in my criticisms, I can’t find it in me to truly dislike this game. This is the first game from a brand new team that Square Enix more or less just threw together one day. It tries a lot of new ideas and experiments with a lot of concepts, and while a lot of them didn’t pan out, I admire the game for just making the effort. Some people deride the game for sticking to the elements present in older RPGs, saying the game is banking on nostalgia. I won’t deny the possibility, but I don’t see that when I look at the game: I see the product that a new and perhaps not quite coordinated team managed to put together, using the love for the classic they themselves grew up playing as the foundation.
I don’t have it in me to recommend the game at full price: I was struggling to work up any enthusiasm to tackle the game’s combat, and was increasingly confused at where the story was headed. But I reckon picking this up in a sale wouldn’t exactly be the worst choice someone could make, either.
I Am Setsuna will, unfortunately, not be remembered like the classics that make the brick and mortar of this love letter to classic RPGs. However, the sheer love put into it does promise that the team behind it have a touch of greatness in them, and they just need to find and grasp it as a team to make something truly special. With Tokyo RPG Factory’s next game coming next year, you can be sure that I’ll be keeping a close eye on it, albeit an eye that’s hoping it won’t be seeing too much of this game’s combat in it.