Square Enix's Final Fantasy series continues to get bigger in scope and more convoluted in story line, and while that's not always bad, it leaves longtime fans in a bit of a lurch. What's a classic-JRPG fan to play? The Tales series is too talky; the Persona series is too bizarre; the Dragon Quest series rarely makes it to this side of the Pacific. Square Enix has provided its own answer in the form of I Am Setsuna ($40, PC and PS4), a colorful RPG with streamlined game play, straightforward dialogue and a gorgeous aesthetic.
I Am Setsuna succeeds where so many recent Final Fantasies have faltered by reintroducing simplicity to the mix. The story, game-play systems and character motivations in I Am Setsuna are all crystal-clear, and though there's plenty of depth to be found, you don't have to work hard to find it. While the game's $40 price tag is admittedly a little high for what the title offers, this is a charming, straightforward game that fans who grew up with the golden years of Final Fantasy would be wise to investigate.
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A familiar setup
I Am Setsuna offers an accessible way for new players to experience JRPGs, but it's largely designed for those who have played a Final Fantasy game before. In fact, it didn't take long before I realized that I Am Setsuna is, in a lot of ways, a very stripped-down retelling of Final Fantasy X, complete with some of the very same character archetypes.
Stop me if you've heard this one: A young, female summoner must undertake a journey to save the world from monsters, even though this mission will end in her own death. She's joined by a well-meaning outsider who acts as her bodyguard, along with some of her old friends and an old wanderer with a huge sword.
I Am Setsuna is basically a simplified Final Fantasy X, but that's OK. Final Fantasy X itself felt bloated sometimes, full of repetitive dialogue and tortuous plot points. I Am Setsuna is a clean, direct and almost minimalist spin on a story that Square fans will want to experience again and newcomers will want to see for the first time.
Understandable game play
Sphere Grids. Gambits. Paradigms. These are words that no one should really need to understand in order to play an RPG, but they've been at the core of some of the last few main-series Final Fantasy games. Personally, I've enjoyed Final Fantasy's outlandish battle systems in recent years, but the intricate complexity is probably pushing as many people away as it's delighting.
By comparison, I Am Setsuna is infinitely more comprehensible. If you want to get stronger, you fight enemies in turn-based battles. An activity bar fills up over time. When it's full, you take your turn, which depletes the bar. Each character can use physical attacks and magic, and you can equip said magic by bartering with vendors. There's no mystery or surprise. From the first battle to the last, you'll know exactly what you're doing.
That's not to say that there's no depth to the combat system. Positioning makes a big difference for both regular and special attacks, and you'll have to make smart decisions about your limited magic slots, party makeup and combat conditions, which all can change the course of battle. Even so, it will take you just a few minutes, not half the game, to grasp the basics.
The soul of wit
JRPGs have a bad reputation (which is well-earned) for wasting players' time. With the interminable dungeons, loquacious characters and battles that drag on for ages, it's not at all uncommon for a game to last 60 hours, perhaps 15 of which were actually fun or memorable. While it's too early for most players to have finished I Am Setsuna, estimates are coming in at around 20 to 25 hours to complete the game.
On the surface, less content may seem like a bad thing, but if you can accomplish the same goal in half the time, why drag the story out? It takes perhaps 15 minutes to fully explore most towns and dungeons and accomplish your goals, and then it's onto the next area. There's not much backtracking involved. Reaching locations on the world map is quick and painless. Fighting every enemy in a dungeon will keep you at just about the right level, so there's no excessive grinding required.
With so much stuff to play, and so many other hobbies competing for attention, gamers are on a time crunch. This is doubly true for those who grew up playing Final Fantasy and who now often have vocational and familial responsibilities. A game that you can realistically finish in a few weeks has a lot of appeal, especially compared to one that could take you months, if you have the energy to finish the title at all.
Tickling the ivories
Back in the day, you used to have to set aside two piles of money when a Final Fantasy game came out: one for the game and another for the soundtrack. I Am Setsuna channels those classic tunes, but with an unexpected twist: The entire score is on the piano. Like the rest of the game, the piano soundtrack has a stripped-down, back-to-basics feel, and the tunes themselves are quite good.
What really caught my ear, though, was that almost every melody contains a recognizable throwback to music from earlier Final Fantasy titles. So far, I've heard definite references to Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X, even though the music is still distinct enough to have its own identity. If you dug Final Fantasy X's piano intro "To Zanarkand," you'll almost certainly enjoy the audio in I Am Setsuna.
Better still, there's no voice acting to bog things down, so you can advance the story as quickly as you can read.
Breathe it in
I enjoyed Final Fantasies XII, XII and XIII-2, and I at least see what XIII and Lightning Returns were going for, but they all had one thing in common: They were pretty tough. Mastering the battle system was either a challenge or a chore, depending on your perspective, and even the regular story-line bosses could throw you for a loop, to say nothing of the optional ones, which were sometimes frankly ridiculous.
I Am Setsuna takes a much more relaxed approach. This is a game that wants you to do a little bit of tactical thinking, but it's rarely punishing. (You will want to save manually whenever you can, though. There's no autosave, which seems like a concession to modern gaming that I Am Setsuna probably should have made.) Most enemies aren't that tough, and you level up at a fairly consistent rate. Bosses can dish out a lot of damage, but almost never faster than you can heal it.
While the game's difficulty spikes every now and then, it's generally a relaxing ride from start to finish. Players like a little challenge, it's true, but not every game needs to be Dark Souls either. I Am Setsuna wants to tell you a story, and if you had to bend over backward to take down every single enemy in the game, it would destroy the pacing.
To be fair, there are plenty of criticisms you could level at I Am Setsuna. Some of the character models look a little jagged. The story and characterizations skirt the line between efficient and insubstantial. The game play doesn't evolve tremendously after you get the hang of the magic system and a full three-person party. Still, after Square Enix's decade-long obsession with complexity for complexity's sake, I Am Setsuna is a breath of fresh air. Take some time to breathe it in and enjoy a little nostalgia.