I am Setsuna was one of the best RPGs of 2016. Developed by the newly created Tokyo RPG factory, and published by the biggest name in JRPGs in Square Enix, I am Setsuna sought to bring players back to the golden age of the JRPG while also teaching audiences the meaning of “setsunai”—an in-between of sorrow and sentiment that isn’t explored in Western culture. By all means, it was a success that managed to be one of the most beautifully emotional RPGs in a very long time. Now it’s back on the Nintendo Switch, and in reality, it feels more at home on Nintendo’s home/mobile hybrid than ever before.
Most of that reason is because I am Setsuna lends itself so well to mobile play. It’s a classic JRPG in every sense of the word, right down to its minimalist visual style, and in a way, I always wished it was available for the 3DS where games like this have a better chance to shine (though it is available on the PlayStation Vita). The art direction looks cute and animated, while the visuals are mostly cold desolate snow. This makes for a game the Switch can run with ease both on and off the dock, and the ability to save anywhere outside of towns or areas of combat makes it compliment on-the-go gaming more than I anticipated during my first play through on the PlayStation 4 last year.
But that happens to be a nice by-product of a very deliberate design choice by Tokyo RPG Factory that really had nothing to do with on-the-go gaming. Instead, these design choices were made to evoke a feeling for users that is hard to describe. The story is dark, yet optimistic. It’s terribly depressing, but also uplifting. Players take control of Endir, a mercenary tasked with murdering Setsuna, a sacrifice on the brink of a journey across the land that ends in her death (obviously). Upon realizing the implications of his actions, Endir joins Setsuna on her final journey to ensure her safety. Every few decades a sacrifice is chosen from this town to appease some pretty terrible monsters. Now, they’re back and worse than ever, the road isn’t safe, and players must ensure Setsuna’s safety. And while there is the underlying understanding that Setsuna will die, I am Setsuna tries a little too hard to lighten the mood at times. There were a few points where attempts at comedy completely derailed the experience, but at the same time, it’s almost understandable why there is a need for a bit of light-heartedness in such a depressing time. In many ways, one could argue that in itself is part of the feeling of setsunai, but I won’t pretend to fully comprehend that emotion. Regardless, there is a bleak sense of positivity that shines from her, and the art direction—which consists of mostly snow covered terrain—and the sombre piano do a great job capturing this emotion, constantly reminding players of their mortality.
Story beats aside, I am Setsuna is a raging success because it’s an old school RPG that plays like Chrono Trigger, and if you’re going to lift a combat system from any game, they picked a good one. Everything revolves around Active Time Battle (or ATB). While a fight ensues players’ ATB bar fills up, once filled they can make a move. If players choose to wait longer instead of attack, another bar fills for momentum, which can make for more powerful attacks, or gives player’s techs other effects. This gets more complex further into the game, as players can generate special attacks called singularities, which become essential to win.
It all makes for a uniquely satisfying experience. I am Setsuna is an RPG like no other. It’s a game wherein everything works together to create a feeling that most players could never really put into words before. It’s complex in the best of ways, and overall it’s fun. While it isn’t perfect, I am Setsuna is a title most people should at least try for the narrative alone, and on the Switch, it’s that much easier to jump in.