Chances are, you’ve at some point heard a piece of music and felt transported to another place. It’s one of the most powerful and evocative powers of the medium, and often works best in compositions without vocals. A lot of scores from films or games are especially good for this, using your brain’s associations with established places or settings. With its roots in traditional JRPGs of the ‘90s, the soundtrack to I Am Setsuna is maybe one of the strongest examples of this in recent memory.
Setsuna ostensibly tells a modern tale in a quaint fashion. Playing the role of a mercenary named Endir, the narrative follows his journey with Setsuna, a young girl who has been chosen as the latest in a long line of human sacrifices who give up their lives to keep the threat of encroaching monsters at bay.
To complete the old ritual, the sacrifice must make a pilgrimage to a ceremonial site, accompanied by a guard detail. As the story goes, Endir finds himself head of Setsuna’s guard, and is charged with protecting her until she fulfills her duty. As far as old-school JRPGs are concerned, it’s not the happiest subject matter. (Which is to be expected, since the developers at Tokyo RPG Factory made it a point to emphasize a melancholic tone in a somber world of forever winter.)
How the story plays out, at least over the five or six or so hours I’ve played so far, is much more traditional, with archetypal characters and plot developments embellished through some impeccable localization. This is where the score — beautifully arranged almost entirely in solo piano compositions — becomes integral.
Anyone who’s familiar with the best games of the genre is well aware of their lineage of musical grandeur, the sort of pieces that invoke an intrepid spirit of adventure, powerful kingdoms, and the thrill of wide-eyed exploration in far-off, fantastical places. Even Final Fantasy’s original theme had that in spade. For whatever reason, that sweeping, classic sound has mostly gone out of fashion.
Setsuna bucks that trend. The soundtrack was composed by Tomoki Miyoshi, seemingly a 22-year-old piano prodigy, who has echoed as much of the game’s plaintive, frozen setting in emotional turns as he has the fable-esque essence that gave RPGs such a mythic presence in years past.
More so than most games, when you hear a track like *Setsuna’s “The Winter Breeze”, it is the perfect accompaniment to the game’s first world map setting; likewise, when in a small village or sleepy hamlet, tracks like “Tender Glow” and “A sense of Safety” give off a calming character.
It may not seem like much, but it’s remarkable how much personality Setsuna’s score brings to the game while simultaneously representing a quintessential vintage RPG experience. Do you want to feel like a fearless warrior setting out a grand expedition? “March of the brave” inspires exactly that feeling. And when you hear Miyoshi slamming down on the keys for the explosive theme for incoming danger, it resonates with how the characters in the game must feel.
Before the game’s release last month, the developers expressed their hope that players would come away from Setsuna with something to reflect on. Its deliberate old-school trappings may not be for everyone raised in the modern age of RPGs, and indeed may chafe for some. But crafting so stirring a sound, such a universal throwback, as wonderfully as Miyoshi has done is no small feat. It’s something to be admired, and more importantly, shared.