The elevator pitch for PlayStation 4, PS Vita and PC Game I Am Setsuna, out July 19, is that it’s a love letter to fans of Japanese-issue roleplaying games of the latter century. Dig a little deeper and play the couple dozen hours it takes to polish off and…yep, it’s still a love letter to fans of 1990s Japanese console RPGs. There’s no groundbreaking meta game tucked inside Tokyo RPG Factory’s studio debut like a trojan Matryoshka doll.
But so what?
The games I Am Setsuna tips its hat to—mid-1990s roleplaying exemplars like Chrono Trigger and the earlier Final Fantasy games—are beloved for a reason: They had quirky stories and novel play ideas that inspired legions of copycats. Think chess-like battles where you’d wait to attack until a real-time meter fills, enemies that flitted around the field during combat so that no two battles were the same, and allies that when properly configured could join hands to launch devastating blitzes. Think reams of saccharine dialogue you couldn’t tap through fast enough, and boss fights won less by brawn than scrutinizing enemy behavior to puzzle through trial-and-error tactics.
I Am Setsuna embraces all of that, then inverts an odious cliché. Instead of saving the eponymous damsel, your goal is to kill her, or at least ensure by the end that she’s been dispatched. The game dubs her “the sacrifice,” and so you’re tasked with escorting her to an untimely demise to mollify a bunch of cranky demons who’ve kicked off a rash of escalating critter incursions.
It’s basically the Greek myth of Theseus versus the minotaur meets Rome versus all those pillaging foreigners. And it’s no bait and switch for a gonzo left-turn involving laconic clones, convoluted time travel yarns, or impromptu voyages to the moon. Beneath the game’s twee character models and simplistic banter lies a tale of monstrous inexorability. Not a deep one, and all the snow-blown landscapes and plaintive piano music vying for your heartstrings can at times feel like an affectation. But tonally I Am Setsuna manages to be far less schizoid, and thereby at least important-seeming, than any of the games it’s referencing.
The rest of the game comes down to battles, which fill any part of the game you’re not chatting up others or trudging between locales or absorbing backstory. Don’t come looking for novelty, because most of I Am Setsuna‘s battle logistics hinge on nostalgic mimicry, and the handful of combat wrinkles feel more like fringe ideas for genre buffs to chart in wonky then-versus-now pieces than concepts that change the battles fundamentally. Combat in general leans toward tedious grinding, always on the way to the handful of more interesting boss battles, where you have to finally think about what you’re doing.
Other features feel less like backward-looking winks than irritating quirks. It’s easy to confuse who’s casting what on whom in the thick of realtime battles because the character panels (at screen bottom) don’t align with each party member’s fluctuating position on the battlefield. Getting enemies to drop unique items hinges on executing specific killing moves, and yet the game fails to explain what some of those finishing states mean or how to best achieve them, leaving you guessing. And since the world map harbors no enemies and a handful of blinking collectibles that you walk over, then tap to pick up, you could argue the world map serves little purpose at all.
There’s a place for evocative retro games like I Am Setsuna in our libraries and conversations about what games mean or ought to be, whether crafted by publisher-anointed studios like Tokyo RPG Factory, or genuine indie outfits like Yacht Club Games. But they need fine-tuning, and at least a modicum of contemporary awareness. I Am Setsuna is visually haunting and whimsical and sometimes even tactically intriguing, but it’s also monotonous and needlessly confusing. Surely we can have these experiences with more of the former, and less of the latter.