Game Review: Ikenie to yuki no setsuna (PS Vita)

Ikenie to yuki no setsuna (US version: I Am Setsuna) is a melancholy game that mostly overcomes its flaws. It's designed for players to experience "the authentic JRPG style of yesteryear" (per its official website), and it certainly succeeds in capturing some of that magic. I made the mistake of playing in the original Japanese -- more on that below -- but overall it's an enjoyable JRPG.

One-sentence summary: You are a masked mercenary accompanying Setsuna on her pilgrimage to sacrifice herself so humans can have a 10-year respite from monsters.

Snarky summary: Chrono Trigger's Chrono protects Final Fantasy X's Yuna together with a formulaic band of weirdos. Fwendship!

The game's strongest point is probably its beautiful music. Composer Tomoki Miyoshi keeps it simple by using only a piano as accompaniment to your adventure. The soundtrack works because of the strength of each individual composition; standouts include "Beginning of the End," which perfectly captures the somber world inhabited by Setsuna and her companions, and the battle theme "No Turning Back," which kind of cheats by having synth beats, but who cares.

Speaking of who cares...a glaring weakness of ikenie to yuki no setsuna is its silent protagonist who, irritatingly, is frequently prompted with dialogue choices that have no actual effect on story progression. For example, your very first choice is whether or not to swing your sword at Setsuna. The outcome is the same no matter which you choose. Maybe this was for players to establish some sort of personality for Endo...?

On the bright side, the other characters are memorable, especially Setsuna. She's a sweet kid who usually knows more than she lets on. Her honor guard consists of ~mysterious~ magic user Kwon, dishonored samurai-type Yomi, my personal magic tank Kir, and knight and airship-haver Julionne. Oh, and some dude with a scythe who joins like 90% of the way through the game, spoiler alert, I guess.

It's easy to match the characters with my descriptions, yes?

As you can probably tell from the artwork above, the game's visuals are lovely, if repetitive (snow town! Snow mountain! Snow dungeon!). During combat, character motions are smooth and realistic, and weapon animations change according to what you have equipped. The only exception is on purpose: there's a hidden village of developers with retro-style sprites, very cute.

Another plus is the ease of earning money, which is tied to the JRPG staple of grinding. In ikenie to yuki no setsuna, you only make money by selling items dropped by monsters. These items are also the only way to get materia orbment houshi (translated as "spritnite" to fancy it up, I guess), which offer special abilities unique to each character.

The game deviates from JRPG norms by skimping on certain typical elements. There are no armor or accessories, just new weapons, which can be strengthened with special materials, e.g. Damascus or orichalcum. There are no inns on this snowbound continent; your team can freshen up in tents or cottages on the world map. There's some light cooking for buffs, and basic items to restore HP/MP/normal status.

My theory is that the studio needed to clear space for the overstuffed combat system. Like I bragged earlier, I ordered an import so I can play the game in Japanese, and hoo boy did I struggle this time. There are approximately six bajillion materials out there to craft spritnite, plus three nasquillion command spritnites and support spritnites, not to mention shouka, which literally means Sublimation (and what does that mean, pray tell???), aka the "Flux" system in English. I couldn't understand what it was because of all the kanji, boo hoo, so I just soldiered on with normal attacks/spells and made it through just fine.

Note: pressing the square button at the right time when my SP gauge is full was actually really fun!

Okay, one last complaint, I swear: the frame rate drop and loading times were an issue for the PS Vita. The game froze up on me once, and the next time that little transition snowflake was onscreen too long, I hit the home system button and then tapped back into the game. It worked! That's a hot tip, kids!

In fact, I have one final grumble! What epic journey is complete without a worthy foe? Apparently this game! You go from town to town and quest to quest in a fairly minimalist and extremely linear fashion, and then get an infodump at the very end before fighting random backstory monsters that are linked to the final boss, who was a joke.

As for the ending, I thought it was in line with the game's tone and messaging. Honestly, I wanted the twist to be that...Endo was Setsuna all along! a la Sheik/Zelda in Ocarina of Time, but alas.

In conclusion, I finished the game in < 20 hours despite being able to read roughly 0.05% of it, damn you kanji; got challenged by the tough bosses; enjoyed flying around in the non-spherical world on my well-deserved air ship; and had an okay time doing it.
 
TL;DR: A valiant effort, but frankly, if you want the classic JRPG experience, get yourself an emulator and play an actual classic JRPG.

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