Much has been made of the launch line-up for the Nintendo Switch, with some describing it as underwhelming and lacking in exciting software besides The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. That's certainly debatable, and one game that may have slipped under some people's radars is I Am Setsuna, a JRPG that hearkens back to the days of Chrono Trigger on the SNES in terms of both its gameplay mechanics and battle system. The title originally released for the PlayStation 4 and PC in July of last year, but this release marks its first appearance on a Nintendo platform. But does this nostalgic trip down a somewhat familiar lane provide us with a compelling enough reason to divert our attention away from other launch titles?
Tokyo RPG Factory's debut title takes us to a world overrun by snow and demons, which are hungry for their next human sacrifice to appease an ancient custom. The young girl Setsuna is chosen as the next forfeit. However, this tale is told from the point of Endir, a mercenary who at the beginning of the game is handed the task of killing Setsuna himself. Deals are struck and you begin a pilgrimage to the Last Lands, though we'll let you experience more story specifics in the game. It's a rather simple premise that may borrow a bit too much from Final Fantasy X, but add in a couple of twists and turns of its own and you've got a journey that's worth taking, for the most part.
Some limited dialogue options let you shape Endir's personality and relationships with other characters to make the trip a little more meaningful, but they never have a direct effect on the actual story. Couple this with a few hidden side missions towards the end of the game and I Am Setsuna has all the groundwork of a great role-playing game in terms of its plot, characters and world building; yet it doesn't build upon this to his its full potential. Don't get us wrong, the expedition is enjoyable enough from beginning to end, but it all feels a little paper thin in some aspects.
In contradiction to this, the majority of I Am Setsuna's meat and bones can be found in its combat system, which takes clear inspiration from Chrono Trigger. Every enemy is viewable on the map which completely eliminates random encounters, and you won't come across any foes in the over-world either. The game uses the active time battle system, which means you must wait for a gauge to fill up and then that particular character can take their turn. From here you're presented with a few different options: a simple attack, the tech option which includes more powerful moves that use MP, or you can use an item for healing or different buffs.
Time management plays a big part in this process as your enemies are operating on the exact same time gauge, so take too long in a menu selecting a specific attack and they could sneak in a second strike before you do. But there's also a benefit to waiting, as each time a separate, smaller meter fills up you gain a momentum point which can be cashed in to make your next attack much more powerful. This creates an intricate balance between waiting and letting your characters' power up and not taking too long so that your combatant doesn't get a second hit.
As a further layer of depth, triggering the use of a momentum point also has the chance of activating a singularity. These are random events that can change the tide of battle if one activates, but they are impossible to plan around. You can have a degree of influence on how often they occur, and when they do you could get bonuses such as a rapidly replenishing ATB gauge, a boost to the rate that you make a critical hit, or an attack that damages all elemental types. It's a great feeling when one of these triggers because the battle becomes a pretty much guaranteed win, but relying on them in cases of a boss battle will severely hinder you as their mobilisation comes down to pure luck.
Outside of combat the game follows the typical tropes of the RPG genre. You'll travel from town to town, recruit new party members, level up your characters and trade with townsfolk for better weapons and equipment. Much like its story, it's here where I Am Setsuna plays it safe. It is indeed a throwback to the RPGs of old, but at some point that becomes a bit of a detriment. Outside of the plot twists, the game very rarely does something you didn't expect.
One of the most striking elements, however, is its setting, a collection of islands that are covered from head to toe in snow. It definitely sets a different sort of vibe compared to an RPG that may only have one snowy area, and it's one that feels welcoming and comforting. Combine this with the soothing piano tunes that make up the entirety of the soundtrack, and you've got the perfect game to curl up in bed with.
In actual fact, the Nintendo Switch's handheld mode feels like the perfect way to play I Am Setsuna. The game compliments the portability and small screen nature of the system perfectly, but unfortunately the title isn't really designed for quick play sessions. Save points are very infrequent and the game lacks any autosave feature, so a quick 20 minute period on the bus probably won't result in any progress being made. If you're taking this one out and about, make sure you've got plenty of time in order to reach that next save point, or rely on leaving your system in sleep with the game open.
As an ode to the RPGs of the past, I Am Setsuna succeeds in recreating the sort of adventure you experienced on older Nintendo hardware. Its combat system is the main supplier of this nostalgia, with the deep active time battle system, the number of weapons and moves you can perform, and the time management aspect.
But those not looking to take a trip down memory lane may be left wanting more, though in pure gameplay hours this offers a reasonable return on investment. The no-thrills plotline and gameplay outside of combat could have been fleshed out, leaving this one short of its full potential. I Am Setsuna could be the perfect complement to your Nintendo Switch, but if you're not foaming at the mouth with nostalgia it's certainly an optional purchase.