I Am Setsuna and Expectation

I Am Setsuna is available for Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, and on Steam.

Most of the talk swirling around I Am Setsuna around its initial release had either missed me entirely or been forgotten by the time I circled back around to meet it. Looking back now through the time capsule that is The Internet, there were clearly plenty of conflicting impressions and reactions from players.

Where’s the line between homage, throwback, and a lack of originality?

How important are the more apparent elements of difficulty and level variety compared to less tangible elements like a sense of place?

Does a main character need to be someone with whom the audience can empathize?

But to be quite honest, I barely even recalled the premise underlining I Am Setsuna by the time I finally played it on the Switch. I knew that it was a JRPG set in snowy places? And that it felt reminiscent of older genre titles, perhaps? But that was enough to get me in the door.

I suspect the fact that I enjoyed this game through to its conclusion is a direct result of being so blind going in, to be quite honest. While it had a bit of a “home-field advantage” what with my playing through its frozen caves and boreal forests during a stretch of negative-something-degree temperatures in the real world, there are a fair few cracks in the experience that might have infringed on how I took it all in if I knew the face of them at the onset.

The core flow of the combat encounters taking so heavily after that of one of the most famous titles in its genre could cause I Am Setsuna to easily come across as a retread or even a grab at unearned nostalgia, were I to consciously be examining it as such the entire time. Rather, a few certain elements felt familiar, but others were altered or obfuscated enough to keep the overall experience feeling like more an alteration than modern translation of its spiritual predecessors. It’s like a familiar place has produced something just a bit new, if you allow its mask to stay up.

Even its structure, in more than a few ways, is an if-it-ain’t-broke affair. The first half of Setsuna is especially blatant when stripped of specifics: the quiet sword-slinging protagonist and two supporting heroines are ushered in turn through four domains where they assemble four mandatory party members one side-story at a time, all the while slowly coming to understand the true nature of the end of their quest. Even the order in which you acquire your allies as a function of their party roles is an uncomfortably close mirror of the specific title in whose footsteps Setsuna is following.

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I Am Setsuna‘s spiritual predecessor, in case you haven’t picked that up.

This strays close enough to genre convention to mentally write off while you digest the game itself in the same way you would anything else, but the more you examine them, specific parallels come to attention alarmingly quickly. It’s a lucky thing that I’m only sitting down to consciously compare the two after the fact, as I strongly suspect that doing so during the campaign itself would have robbed I Am Setsuna of much of its identity.

Viewing Bravely Default as an indirect successor to and modern evolution of Final Fantasy V might have similarly taken away from the favorable impression it left on me the first time though – many aspects of its much-lauded job system now seems lifted-and-shifted from two decades ago through that framing. But by allowing the expert meshing of its many moving parts to stand on its own strength, Bravely Default truly shines brighter and remains one of the best-conceived RPGs on the 3DS (and this on a system with a notoriously deep library of high-quality role-playing offerings).

I’ve felt the same way before with stories where the concept could be revealed to me along with the narrative beats inherent in the script, allowing their mysteries to take me along at their own pace. On its own, I suspect Kokoro Connect would have been a satisfying-if-conventional show to watch unfold, but it surely wouldn’t have impressed me in nearly in the same way if its very premise and attitude didn’t get the drop on me. CLANNAD certainly wouldn’t have strung me along right where it could best affect me as a viewer if I was aware of the emotional direction it would ultimately take.

In a bit of the opposite way, the expectations I carry with me can distinctly color experiences before they even begin; a recent model is my two very different viewings of The Last Jedi. As early as the opening night, people were champing at the bit to champion or condemn certain directive decisions and the twisting directions in which it sent its characters, which put a critical frame about the whole affair. It was a roller-coaster on opening night, and one that felt too much like an opinion-generating artifact to settle well even after I’d come to terms with its impact.

With a clearer head and a few weeks’ cushion, a repeat showing went down much smoother. Knowing what it’s setting out to do, the impression it leaves is more even and better-reflective of its own merits, but at the same time it lost that wild, anxious thrill it had when everything was fresh. The lows weren’t as low, sure, but its highs didn’t shine so brilliantly, either. Both a blessing and a curse, as they say.

This isn’t to vilify either side of “spoiler culture”, either. Trying to avoid all knowledge of a thing when early impressions and reactionary discussion can so easily catch fire and cause a thing to be everywhere for a New York minute flirts with being an unreasonable ask. I myself am guilty of unloading praise on the right subject the instant it gets name-dropped in conversation, which inevitably colors and warps the lens that someone will view it in, for better and for worse.

It’s something to be considered, how rapidly the novelty and excitement of a thing can vanish regardless before you’ve actually seen a second of it. Or perhaps other people don’t feel nearly so affected by this.

But as to the last of the Final Fantasy games waiting on my shelf, the contents of which are known only as a few scattered impressions? It’s now next on my list while there’s still an element of discovery to be had.

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