I Am Setsuna: A Game of Compassion and Sacrifice

I don’t play many PC or video games, despite the somewhat silly amount of money I’ve spent on acquiring them and on making sure I can enjoy them in comfort. My solo gaming is divided between a small number of well-loved strategy games such as Ticket to Ride and Monster Prom that I play casually to while away low-energy afternoons and long role-playing games full of subplots, romance, choices, and level-up choices. I am a fiction writer, after all, and I thrive on narrative. It is among the latter that the small-release Japanese RPG I Am Setsuna claimed its niche in my life, and it is among the latter that it quite impressed me.

I Am Setsuna takes place in a snowbound world of mountains, plains, ice floes, and forests. The world’s villages are surrounded by walls and beset by ravening monsters, whose attacks the world defers by delivering a magically powerful sacrifice to the centrally located “Last Lands” on a grim schedule. The titular Setsuna is that sacrifice, a skilled healer determined to fulfill this sad destiny and protect the world.

Perceptive readers might already see similarity to some other stories, and Square-Enix-developed I Am Setsuna is not subtle about the amount of inspiration it takes from the Final Fantasy series in general and Final Fantasy X in particular. As in Final Fantasy X, the world is trapped in a cycle of delivering magical healers to old battlefields to defer a deadly threat, seemingly unable to resolve it for good. Where Final Fantasy X initially presents itself as a hopeful quest to gain the power needed to lay its villainous Sin low for another cycle, however, I Am Setsuna puts Setsuna’s anticipated death, and the inevitable need for another sacrifice at some future juncture, front and center and never shuffles it to the background. In similar dark fashion, Final Fantasy X’s player avatar is Tidus, an outsider with no familiarity with the world, but I Am Setsuna’s player character is Endir, who enters the story when he is tasked with assassinating Setsuna. We learn about the world via Setsuna’s youthful naïveté rather than Endir’s ignorance, and Endir instead grows into a group leader and a walking enigma: why did he spare Sestuna, and will he reconsider at some later point in their now-shared journey?

Naturally, that journey is not smooth, and the pair are beset by shipwrecks, mountain crossings, villages in need, and other obstacles. Along the way, they collect allies, each with their own relationship to the sacrifice cycle and to the game’s themes. The soft, steady crunch of characters’ feet in the snow combines with the melancholy piano soundtrack to convey a sense of tragic inevitability. Setsuna is fully aware and accepting of her lot as a sacrifice, and there is no grandeur or heroism to be had in this game’s battles. They might be visually impressive and both tactically and strategically interesting, but they are also tragic, and this world’s best days are clearly long behind it. Along the way, the mystery of the sacrifice cycle, the behavior and origin of the monsters, the secretive Magic Consortium that trades monster parts for cash and powerups, and what exactly happens when the sacrifice finally reaches the end of her journey are slowly unraveled, and with them, the possibility of ending the cycle and freeing the world. Like its spiritual ancestor, I Am Setsuna grants the party an airship and becomes explosively non-linear as its end nears, and the secret locations now accessible include a mix of resolution for loose character and worldbuilding threads and optional boss battles for people who really like the combat system. I Am Setsuna is a much smaller game than Final Fantasy X, shorter in plot and less expansive in scope, and as someone who finds the idea of “post-game” content narratively unsatisfying, I consider both longer than they need to be.

What really sets I Am Setsuna apart from most games of its kind is how it leans into the cyclical nature of its guiding motif. Time is one of the game’s “elements,” alongside Light, Shadow, Fire, and Water, offering a keyword that attacks can have and which often manipulates turn order. Every party member has a different relationship to the sacrifice cycle or their own mortality. One lives on borrowed time as a survival-oriented choice they once made mystically wears at their soul and desires to restore a past golden age; one must make a choice to claim magical power that will halve their lifespan; another is a survivor from a previous, failed sacrificial pilgrimage working through wracking guilt. It is not until near the end of the game that the true, grim nature of the sacrifice cycle is revealed, and how deeply repetition and inevitability define the path of this world’s history, to the point that they tie into UI elements that a less clever game would have kept detached from the mechanics of the world itself. Along the way, the setup of the whole game invites questions that add a whole other layer of appreciation to this narrative as facts trickle in, in the tradition of the best Japanese stories.

The boss Rhydderch pronouncing "Justice without power is ignored...but power without justice is no more than violence." Behind him, two musclebound deer-people and two winged, horned bird-angels stand; before him, six warriors of various descriptions look on.
Wise words from a wise NPC.

If Final Fantasy X ultimately centers the idea of people making enormous, life-changing sacrifices to initiate or end the vicious cycle that has consumed their world, such that watching characters lose things and people dear to them is central to its emotional impact, I Am Setsuna has a different theme: compassion. Setsuna and Endir have several opportunities to show kindness to defeated foes, even monstrous ones, and these acts are rewarded. In the game’s final chapter, contact with the endgame antagonist’s mind comes with both hateful rage and deep, deep sadness. Rather than turning out to be something like Final Fantasy X’s god-king consumed by its own magic, the secret of the final boss is that it is the mystically empowered soul remnant of a lost child, subject to hideous magical experiments until its power became more than its tormenters could control and the sacrifice cycle became the only way to keep it contained. The act that saves the universe is not destroying Yu Yevon and forcing the world to accept loss, move on, and grow, but showing Dark Samsara the warmth that everyone around it had systematically denied it for untold cycles, until it is at last at peace.

I Am Setsuna is a ghost story, a classic JRPG “quest to kill God,” a soap opera, a sad journey, a deeply frustrating not-quite-turn-based slog through long between-save stretches, a reward for tactical planners, a somber meditation on pain and healing, an exploration of fate, and an invitation to think about what it takes to truly break cycles. It makes no apologies for its JRPG execution or for its tone. I was close to abandoning it altogether several times, when the frustration of seemingly unfair boss fights and dungeon layouts made me feel myself trapped in a cycle of loading from distant save points and fighting through dungeons all over again. I am glad I pressed onward, because the final third, when the mysteries started to truly reveal themselves and emotional arcs came to their climaxes, was everything I come to long RPGs, and especially JRPGs, to experience.

I Am Setsuna is available in all the usual online stores, including Steam, GOG, and Switch Online. Check it out if this story sounds good to you.

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I Am Setsuna: A Game of Compassion and Sacrifice
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