Along with the open-world intrigue of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the retro goodness of Hamster’s ACA Neo Geo releases, the Switch’s launch lineup included I Am Setsuna, a retro-styled JRPG from Square Enix subsidiary Tokyo RPG Factory that delivered an old-school adventure in a snowy modern package. It’s a mix that appealed to many, and at this year’s PAX West we got to go hands-on with Setsuna’s spiritual successor, Lost Sphear. This second outing drops Setsuna’s ever-present winter in favour of a more ecologically diverse world to explore, and adds in an enjoyable new battle system; from what we played it’s shaping up to be an excellent retro-RPG romp.

Our demo started us off in the overhead world map near the town of Elgarth, which was completely covered in snow — not in the picturesque, postcard sense, but rather literally buried under. Once we reached the town, however, our protagonist Kanata was able to use the power of ‘Memory’ to restore part of the town to its former state, quickly illustrating Lost Sphear’s central conceit: thoughts can become reality, and that power can be harnessed to save the world.

With half of Elgarth restored we set off to bring back the rest, by collecting stories and memories about the town. That meant heading south to explore an ancient monument made by the townspeople, and along the way — in both the overworld and the ensuing dungeon — we got to experience Lost Sphear’s take on turn-based combat.

One thing that immediately stood out was the seamlessness of the encounters; instead of a transition into a separate ‘battle screen’, combat simply starts when you walk close enough to a group of on-field enemies, with an added UI overlay and change in music to match. Lost Sphear’s combat uses an Active Time Battle system — meaning characters can act whenever their ATB gauge fills up, rather than waiting for a pre-defined turn — and it also offers full, analogue freedom of movement around the field. On each character’s turn you’re able to move them into position and choose exactly where to attack or defend from. This positioning plays into Skills as well; various spells we got to try out in our demo had different ranges of effect, from small circles of collateral damage to straight lines that stretched outward across the battlefield. 

Many JRPGs feature some sort of positioning system in their combat, but what impressed us about Lost Sphear’s implementation was how fast and effortless it was. Rather than another layer to get through before acting, it felt smooth, quick and intuitive, and we had a lot of fun trying to maximize our damage by lining up as many enemies as possible into spells’ splash zones. It reminded us quite a bit of the system in Return to Popolocrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale, and that’s a very good thing; the combat on display felt like a love letter to old-school JRPGs, but with all the fluidity and speed you’d hope for from a modern production.

Tokyo RPG Factory seems to be aiming for that ‘Nostalgia Plus’ feeling in many aspects of Lost Sphear, from the tiled (but beautiful!) overworld map to pixel portraits of characters in the menu — and Setsuna veterans will be happy to know we spotted a quicksave option as well. Our short time with the game also showed hints of some less desirable aspects of the SNES and PSOne era of JRPGs, including underwhelming dialogue and a predictable, tropey party — Kanata was joined by uppity pre-teen Locke, older sister-type Lumina, and the brooding, mysterious Van — but there could of course be more to the picture in the final release.

Either way, we certainly enjoyed our demo time with Lost Sphear; we were drawn in by the soft, colourful graphics and piano-orchestral score, had a great time with the battle system, and left intrigued by the story and world. Lost Sphear is currently set to launch January 23rd, 2018 in both Europe and North America, and we’re looking forward to learning more about Tokyo RPG Factory’s next adventure before then.