I Am Setsuna – spoiler talk

Well, I said I would do it, and much like the spoiler talk following the Yakuza 0 review, I didn’t see much point in delaying it. In this piece, we’ll take a look at the more spoiler-centric things that we couldn’t talk about during the I Am Setsuna review. So just to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’ll be talking about any and all spoilers of I Am Setsuna (and one brief one of Yakuza 0). If you want to save yourself the spoilers, I wouldn’t recommend reading this until after you’ve completed the game in its entirety. I’m sorry if you were looking forward to this entry, but have to turn away to avoid spoiling the game. As a peace treaty, I offer you this largely esoteric and unrelated video of cats and kittens.

With that done and out of the way, let’s dive right in. Firstly, I want to go into some of the spoiler areas that created some problems for me.

Starting off with something that always bothered me while I was playing the game: it’s pretty crummy that all the choices you’re given throughout the game have basically no effect. Apart from one dungeon wherein choosing the wrong answer will send you back to the beginning (a pretty sizable pain in the ass, so it at least makes you think carefully about your answer), the only things that are affected by your choices are the immediate reactions of your party members.  There’s no hidden counter keeping track of whether Endir is a nice guy or kind of a jackass, and no consequences for either. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. A lot of the old school RPGs that I Am Setsuna is based on also had these kinds of choices throughout, but they actually had an outcome even if it was just something non-consequential like which party member Cloud had an awkward date with. Heck, something sort of light-hearted and jokey like the Gold Saucer date might have been somewhat welcome, since one of the better parts of I Am Sestuna is the party’s banter. But without any actual consequences to your choices, they just feel tacked on and kind of pointless. There’s an argument that these kind of choices help with immersion, and that the illusion of choice is just as important as giving a choice meaningful impact, like what Telltale do with most of their dialogue options. However, that kind of illusion requires more tact and careful planning to make credible, otherwise you end up with a situation like in I Am Setsuna where it feels like the other characters are actively ignoring your choices.
Upon reflection, I should have really brought this up in the review, since it is a fairly hefty annoyance. A part of me didn’t want to ruin the potential immersion of any new players, however: when I was just starting the game and thought the choices had some level of consequence, they were a lot more fun to make. It feels like the mechanic didn’t have enough time/funding/whatever to be fully fleshed out, but they left the half used remains in, which is almost just as bad. It wouldn’t have needed to be anything big, just have a system that tracks Endir’s relationship with the various party members, and add a scene or two that’s affected by which has the highest or lowest value.

Speaking of party members, the game’s late seventh addition of ‘Fides’ (or Reaper) feels like a pretty mishandled one. While the concept of getting the scythe-wielding, brainwashed, maniac to join your party is a neat idea, the execution is pretty confusing. He joins the party literally just in front of the door to the end boss, with the only other content available being the really out of the way and unmarked side quests (which we’ll get to). In addition to not being able to get a lot of mileage out of the guy in the gameplay department, his characterisation of being nearly silent and speaking up only rarely makes his presence hard to feel even in the optional side content. At best, he’s got some somewhat interesting involvement in one or two side quests; at worst, he just kind of clutters up the screen during scenes where others are talking. It’s something of a shame, since his character offers some interesting possibilities, since he was once being mind controlled by the end boss and seems to be blessed with being the only party member to use dark magic. However, apart from a few scattered lines in one of the side quests, this doesn’t get capitalised on nearly as hard as it could have been.
I feel like he should have either a) joined the party earlier, which would have allowed him to get involved in more gameplay and to get some more screen time. Or b) should have been an optional/hidden party member, ala Magus from Chrono Trigger, so as to explain why his presence is rarely overtly felt on screen. As it stands, it feels like the game just kind of shrugs its shoulders and presses the guy into your party just before the very end of the game, again without the player having a say in the matter at all. The fact that he’s brought back from the dead in an extremely easy manner and just sort of moseys into your party without much fanfare is just the icing on the cake.

I keep mentioning the game’s side quests, so I should probably explain the issues I take with them in more detail. This is more of a personal issue, but I’m not a fan of offloading all of the game’s optional content into the very end of it. While RPGs both from the golden era and today’s market have games that boast pretty impressive end-game content, I’m of the mind that you should spread that stuff over the entire game. I like being able to take a break from the main story and clear some checklists, not to mention I appreciate that doing side content makes me confident that I’ll have enough levels and stats to clear the main story. While different types of games and franchises benefit from side quests in different ways (Final Fantasy tends to have only a few side activities, but serve as a break for the story, while the Elder Scrolls game is more or less the opposite), the main point is that it’s there for you to clear as you go. Putting all of the side content at the end of I Am Setsuna feels unnecessary and kind of backwards. It means you don’t even get a chance to have a go at them before you’ve already figured out what your end game party is, and the only thing they can offer you are borderline broken skills and equipment. The problem that creates is that, in order for the player to not become too powerful without some work, is that the quests are obtuse as hell to find or activate. There are some really obscure hoops you have to jump through just to activate the quests, and the fact that the game lacks any kind of map/world map function only makes things more difficult. I would sort of accept it if the thing stopping you from clearing them all was the fact you lacked an airship, since that is a major assistance in getting around. However, the quests don’t activate even after you find the obligatory airship, and instead only unlock after Fides joins the party, even if he has no real contribution to the quest in question.
I’ll accept that part of my dislike for these quests stems from the fact they’re not aligned to my own personal taste, and that my personal struggle to complete end-game content fully is probably colouring my view. That being said, I still think hiding away the game’s only optional content in such an obscure way (especially since the game is already pretty damn short) can only introduce more problems than solutions.

And the final aspect of these spoilers that I take issue with is probably the biggest one: the inclusion of time travel and all its elements feels really out of place in I Am Setsuna. For one, it’s only introduced in the final act of the game. Before that point, there’s only really two possible hints to time travel: one is when a member of your party members suddenly disappears into thin air. The second is that once or twice it’s mentioned that character’s need to “let go of the past,” and variants of the phrase, but that seems to be building onto Setsuna’s supposed imminent death rather than anything else. I understand that introducing elements of time travel before this point ruins the surprise and twist nature of the late game revelation, but the lack of more solid foreshadowing just makes seem out of left field. A good example of foreshadowing like this can be found in Yakuza 0, wherein one of the side quests finds Majima helping a man to reconnect with his son, who no longer recognises him. This seems to just be the Yakuza series’ usual affair of wacky side quests, but is actually a pretty artful foreshadowing of a similar fate that befalls Majima by the end of that game. Compare that to I Am Setsuna, wherein hints are few and often lacking.
More than anything else, I dislike how this new development shelves a lot of the game’s previous themes. The game had so far been playing around with the idea that maybe the monster’s growing intelligence meant that the humans and beasts could co-exist, to at least some extent. But with the plot literally going back in time and killing the reason the monsters are getting more intelligent, the entire subplot is retroactively erased from time. Not to mention that the time travel shenanigans eliminate the original need of Setsuna’s sacrifice, which takes away a lot of the tension the game had been building up. Even worse, it bends over backwards to fit in Setsuna making a sacrifice at the end of her journey anyway (in a sequence that I actually quite enjoy, despite some of the issues), and does a poor job of explaining why. All the game would have needed was a dialogue box or two explaining that Setsuna joining with the end-boss and being killed was the only way to permanently end the matter. It would help to sell the idea that Setuna’s actions have meaning, without diminishing the fact that she’s willingly giving up her life. Instead, it seems like she makes a largely pointless sacrifice, just for the sake of making it. Hell, if you really wanted, you could have made a whole new character point about Setsuna if you had had the time to explore it, like Setsuna developed a martyr complex from her position in life and felt the need to sacrifice herself even if it meant very little. But I don’t really feel like anything of the sort is really being employed here. It feels like a somewhat poorly conceived if beautifully executed ending to a game.

Alright, now that I’ve completely bashed the game to the point of needlessness, let’s actually talk about some of the spoiler points of things I actually enjoyed or appreciated in the game.

Like I said above, I actually quite like the ending. I’m a sucker for the whole ‘ending at the beginning’ kind of stuff (returning to the starting village, going back to an area that was only accessible in the prologue for the final battle, etc). While I think the logic behind Setsuna’s sacrifice could have been laid out better, the way that you have Endir kill Setsuna at the very place you meet her is poetic in its own kind of way. It’s like the literal time loop is representative of how we’ve looped around in the game back to the beginning of the story, ending the game with the very action that started if off. I even like that the ending doesn’t answer all of the questions: it’s ambiguous if Endir could return to the present, or if he had been lost ten years into the past, or if he would even want to return. I like how quiet the whole thing is too: after Setsuna’s death, there’s not a single word of dialogue. We’re shown enough of the characters to infer what their next course of actions will be, but there’s not a single word spoken, allowing all of the audience to enjoy the melancholic music playing us out. Hell, even the music cuts out for the final shot of Endir slowing walking off into the snowy horizon, and the spirit of Setsuna fading in to watch him leave (maybe; it’s an ambiguous ending). It has a lot of issue, but I Am Setsuna’s ending is still plenty appealing in its own kind of way.

Another point that I liked but couldn’t go into too much depth on was the party members. I avoided talking about them too much because I consider talking about anyone other than the absolute principle party members to be minor spoilers in and of itself, but let’s talk more openly about them. Like I said in the review, they’re very much archetypes of every classical RPG party members: Kir is the plucky tag-along kid mage, Nidr is the scarred and tanky veteran, Aeterna is the more serious and sceptical girl to balance out Setsuna (at least for 90% of the game, until it turns out she’s some weird time clone) etc. However, they’re still a very likable bunch, and even if you’ve seen the characters before, they’re still very fun to see in motion. It’s interesting to find out just how much they’re connected to the plot in comparison to how they first appear as well, such as the revelation that Nidr is actually Setsuna’s biological father, which re-contextualises his reason for joining your group. Finding out that Julienne is actually part of the failed royal family that were monarchs to the entire continent and that Aeterna is actually a time-clone of some sort of near godlike sorceress are likewise shocking revelations, though I sort of wish some of these concepts had some more room to breathe. While a lot of people appreciate the relatively short length of the game, the shorter run length means these subplots for the other party members don’t get a lot of room to really expand. For example, the problems that Julienne faces because of her monster blood induced berserker state are solved relatively quickly, even though it’s a key part of her design (the tattered nature of her clothes and the rings under her eyes). Still, the characters have super good designs, such as the regal but chipped and flayed appearance of Julienne and Aeterna’s hilarious frog hoddie, and are entertaining to watch develop even if just a little. The characters are definitely one of the game’s stronger points. Let’s just not talk about Reaper’s inclusion, alright?

A final neat little detail that I appreciated was the use of the game’s save points. While the idea of the game’s save points actually having some in-game lore/reasoning has been done before (while probably not the first time, the most memorable early example would most likely be Xenogears), I always like the addition of mechanics like this. Any time a game goes out of its way to blur the point where the simple mechanical gameplay meets an in universe justification is a good effort in my book. Heck, the idea that time travel is the reason you can save and reload your game is actually a pretty inventive justification, even if it comes with the added baggage of the other time related stuff. Though, this comes back to the point I made before, wherein the game might have benefited from putting some more hints or foreshadowing to these points, since it would have made the third act twist less of a whiplash. This particular example is alike a lot of things in I Am Setsuna: in some ways, it’s pretty derivative of other games in the genre, but there’s no doubt it comes from a point of love and appreciation rather than malicious copying.

In conclusion.

It’s pretty clear, even from a glance, that there’s more negative points in this list than positives. In some ways, that’s a good summary of my feelings towards the game in general. The negative points become harder to ignore because they outweigh the positive points, which is a shame because there’s parts of the game that I do really like. I love the fact that you can feel the love for the genre in every part of the game, and that it’s clear that the team behind it really did put their hearts into the project, even if it didn’t quite pan out.

I think the harshest criticism that I can bring up about this game is just the fact that both this piece and the review, much like the game itself, became something of struggle to finish. Compared to the Yakuza 0 review and spoiler piece where words were just flying almost without effort onto the page, I had to push just to reach the word limit for I Am Setsuna’s content. It becomes much easier to write about a game if it awakens an imaginative or passionate part of yourself. I Am Setsuna, while not a bad game, doesn’t really do anything to stand out in my head. It’s a game with a nice concept, but poorly executed combat system and a kind of dodgy ending. It’s a game I appericate, but not really something I would recommend to others at full price either.

Despite all the criticism I’ve levelled at the game, I’m still eagerly looking forward to see what Tokyo RPG Factory do next in their upcoming game. I’m hoping that I Am Setsuna was their trial by fire…well, by snow, and that they can come together for a more solidly constructed game in their next title.

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