Breaking Momentum

This is a petty complaint, but I’m gonna whine about it anyway.

I Am Setsuna has an active time battle system very reminiscent of Chrono Trigger. One wrinkle added on top is the momentum system - your characters gradually build up “momentum” over the course of combat and can store up to three full “charges”. When taking an action, a character can expend a stored momentum charge to enhance that action, with the nature of the enhancement depending on the action. This increases the strategic complexity of combat - if you almost have a full charge, you might delay an action slightly in order to finish out the charge and then perform the better version of that action. And depending on the state of the combatants, you might want to spend your momentum charges to hit the enemy harder or save them for improved healing spells. And so on.

That’s great. The problem is how momentum is activated. If a character has any momentum charges, right before they perform their selected action, there’s a quick burst of light around them. If you press the Y button (on Switch; I assume it’s Square on PlayStation) during that burst, they’ll use one of their charges and enhance the action.

That probably sounds fine in isolation, but keep in mind that this is real-time menu-driven combat. The way this sort of system is supposed to work is that you keep an eye on the state of combat and plan ahead, making quick decisions and issuing commands rapidly without burning a lot of time in menus. As implemented, the momentum system breaks that flow, because commanding a character to use momentum becomes a delayed, multi-step process. You might decide to attack with momentum, but you can’t just pick “Attack with momentum” from the menu and move on to the next character. You have to pick “Attack” and then keep an eye on that character so you can react quickly and hit the momentum button when they flash. The flash is very quick so as not to delay battle, and in my experience if I stop watching the character and start thinking about what I want the next one to do, when the flash comes I don’t react quickly enough and don’t get to use the momentum as planned. And it’s unwise to just train yourself to hit the button for every flash, because sometimes it’s very important to save charges.

This is frustrating and incoherent. Turn-based RPG combat is about preparation, strategy, and tactics - not action. It’s one thing to add some action flavor via timed hits like in Mario RPGs - those are fully turn-based and don’t split your attention. But a system like this adds the action in a way that directly interferes with the tactics that you signed up for, and in an uninteresting way - you’ve already made the decision to use momentum, and the execution is just about noticing the flash and hitting the button quickly enough. It’s a failure to ensure that what’s hard about combat is also what’s interesting about it.

It’s also totally unnecessary. The Y button is otherwise unused during combat (which is why it’s safe to use for this purpose even when you have another character’s menu up). Why not just attach it to the actual command? Normally you hit A to issue a command - why not just make it so that hitting Y instead means that same command, but with momentum? This would have no effect on the actual strategic depth of combat and is no harder to learn, but would make issuing the command single-step and immediate, allowing you to immediately move on to the next character and keep the flow going without having to pause and waste time on an uninteresting reflex test.

Ultimately it’s not that big of a deal, and overall I still liked I Am Setsuna just fine. But little touches like this can make surprisingly large impressions. Recently I got around to starting Lost Sphear, the next game by the same team, and was disappointed to discover that while the momentum system has been somewhat refined and improved, you still activate momentum the exact same way. I found myself immediately (and unfairly) assuming that this meant that Lost Sphear had failed to learn the right lessons from its predecessor and wasn’t going to resolve its flaws. I’ve played a few hours now and I don’t think that impression is accurate, but I still wish they’d changed this.