On one hand, I Am Setsuna is emblematic of an early problem emerging for Nintendo Switch — a software lineup consisting in large part of ports of months-old games from other formats, that make little to no use of the unique hardware features of the new console. On the other, this is a game that finally feels like it's found its home.
When it was originally released in Japan last February, this deliberately old-school JRPG arrived on both PS4 and PS Vita, with a choice of physical or downloadable versions, to boot. When it made its way digitally westwards in July, the Vita version was absent. That's a real shame, as I Am Setsuna arguably works best in a portable package, part of the reason why the Switch release feels so right.
The game is a strange proposition to begin with though. Along with its retro trappings, its defining theme is 'sadness'. Players control Endir, a mercenary hired to kill the titular Setsuna. Matters take a bleak turn when he hunts her down only to find she's already sentenced herself to die, a willing sacrifice to calm the monsters blighting the world and quell the icy storms that have covered the land. Instead of executioner, Endir ends up her bodyguard, escorting Setsuna to the Lost Lands where she plans to lay down her life. Hardly the feel good hit of the year, for either year it's been released in.
Mechanically, this is heavily inspired by the RPG genre as it existed in the mid-90s. It wears its influences with pride, from a top-down world design that borrows from PS1-era Final Fantasies, to its turn-based active time battles and party team-up attacks that are lifted almost wholesale from Chrono Trigger. With its painted backgrounds populated by anime-inspired characters, this feels like a charming throwback, the kind of game you'd more likely find on 3DS nowadays (indeed, Bravely Default feels like a more modern contemporary) but one that benefits from a grander scale when the Switch pushes it through to your TV.
It's not just a thinly-veiled throwback though. Battles have a real strategy to them in terms of time management, with a special move gauge filling the longer you leave it before issuing a command. Once you've built up a charge, there's more direct interaction in attacks too, with a perfectly timed tap of the Y button activating various additional effects when delivering your strikes. Learning combo attacks and building your party around compatible members is a nice touch too.
Sadly, the difficulty curve is a bit of a roller-coaster. The very first boss required some level grinding – cue half an hour of killing the same monsters over and over in the nearest forest – and later encounters proved to be entirely variable in how prepared you need to be. An old-fashioned save point system is one callback we could have done without, leaving players to retrace their steps if they're unexpectedly slaughtered, or to save on the world map before entering any new area.
The writing and depth of emotion on display carries I Am Setsuna though, and its themes of sacrifice, duty, and loss will keep you invested even through its more frustrating or repetitive moments. Being able to suspend and instantly resume on the Switch makes it perfect for an absorbing single player experience on the go, too.