By this point in time, JRPGs have come quite a long way since their humble beginnings, and it seems like every new release is trying to find a way to reinvent the wheel once more with a flashy new battle system or premise. Even so, there’s a certain kind of charm to the relative simplicity of early JRPGs, and that’s what Tokyo RPG Factory endeavors to capture in its releases. I Am Setsuna was a game that doubled down on playing it straight; a 90’s RPG in spirit that divided opinion over how backwards it seemed to some. Now, the developer is at it again with a spiritual sequel, Lost Sphear, which carries on many of the ideals of its predecessor while trying to make improvements where they're needed. It largely succeeds in this effort, and though Lost Sphear may be reliant on tried and true tropes and formulas that won’t be surprising to veterans of the genre, it nonetheless proves to be an enjoyable, quality RPG.
The story of Lost Sphear stars Kanata, a kind orphan boy living in Elgarthe village, and his band of friends. It doesn’t take long for things to get interesting when the 'Lost' concept is introduced, wherein objects, people, and places can disappear and leave a white void in their wake. After discovering that he possesses the unique ability to restore Lost things to their original form by utilizing the power of memories, Kanata and his crew set off on a journey to reshape the world and get to the bottom of what’s causing the Lost phenomenon.
Though the plot is riddled with tired JRPG clichés, it nonetheless remains well-paced and engaging. There may not be many points for originality here, but it’s a well-constructed narrative with a diverse cast of interesting characters, and some of the plot twists are genuinely surprising. There’s a balanced mix of adventure, sorrow, humor, and passion, and we felt a connection to the main cast of heroes after not too long.
Battle takes the shape of a more polished version of the system present in I Am Setsuna, and the changes made are quite welcome. All players’ actions are governed by an ATB gauge, but a notable change here is that you can move character around a la Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to get an edge on enemies in combat. Clever positioning of party members can give you advantages like striking multiple enemies with the same attack or having some party members evade a wide area of effect attack. It still feels more turn based than it does live action, but the additional nuance offered by character positioning is a welcome change.
Building on the focus on player agency in the flow of battle, each character has a separate gauge that slowly fills up, giving them a Momentum Point once full. This allows characters certain enhancements, like higher damage or a life steal effect, if the Y button is pressed when a light flashes the moment before an attack is made. It’s a simple inclusion that’s not too hard to pull off, but it can add an additional layer of strategy and tension to a fast-paced fight.
Another notable inclusion is the Vulcosuits, special mechs obtained a few hours into the campaign that greatly help out in boss fights. These essentially function as an overclock mode, boosting a character’s stats significantly so they can deal and take much higher amounts of damage. Usage of the suits is governed by a VP pool which depletes when any Vulcosuit makes an action, and this is where there’s a bit of a bottleneck in the combat design. The VP pool is small enough as is, and until much later in the game, your options are greatly limited for replenishing your points. This unfortunately has the effect of sidelining the Vulcosuits in most battles, as it isn’t worth it to use up the precious resources that they cost. It’s a bit of a shame, but the flipside is that the typical enemy battle seldom demands that you use them; Vulcosuits would be overkill in most uses.
Character customization is simple enough to pick up, but has a pleasing amount of depth for those that are willing to put in the time. Aside from the typical weapons and armor, characters can be equipped with Spritnites - basically Materia - that allow them to pull off special attacks and cast spells. Though most of these are straightforward, some Spritnites can be equipped that enable passive enhancements—like a team-wide buff against certain damage types—once a character stores enough Momentum points in a battle. As if that wasn’t enough, Spritnites can also be equipped on others to give them an even greater effect if a Momentum point is spent when performing the action. All of this comes together to form a system that gives you lots of options and favors lots of different playstyles, yet it’s presented in a straightforward and easy to understand fashion.
Building somewhat off of all these customization options, a new 'Artifact' concept factors into the world map, granting a different kind of enhancement to your characters. Certain points on the map allow Kanata to restore a Lost structure, which will then cast a passive benefit that follows you into your battles at various places on the map. This allows you greater control over things like how fast gauges charge or how high critical hit rates can be in certain situations, and the broad amount of Artifacts gives you plenty of choice over how you want to sway the battle in your favor. Do you build artifacts that favor filling the Momentum Gauge as fast as possible, or do you swap out the magic-focused party member and build one that cripples the effectiveness of magic attacks? Artifacts are a great way to provide indirect character customization and new ones are introduced at a fairly steady clip.
One complaint levied against I Am Setsuna is that the environments lack proper variety, choosing instead to go for a mostly uniform snowscape. Lost Sphear addresses this by offering a diverse array of locales that are visually distinctive. One moment may find you searching for treasure in a graveyard of ships, while in another you'll find yourself in a Victorian-esque metropolis. Though the narrative can be a bit padded at times with fetch-quests, it’s alleviated by how you never know quite where you’ll end up next, and the overworld map feels suitably epic.
Even so, there’s little here that will blow you away from a graphical perspective. The minimalist art direction is welcome, but feels a little cheap in some places. Reused assets and simplistic models are a common sight, making this feel like a mobile game in many ways. Though that isn’t too much of an issue when playing in portable mode - which we’d recommend for this game - it still feels like more could’ve been done from an artistic perspective to leave a greater impression on the player. As it stands, there’s not much here that you’ll likely be remembering a few years after playing, and it’s a bit of a shame given the underlying quality of the rest of the game.
Now, at the time of writing, Lost Sphear is listed on the eShop for $50, which is frankly a ridiculous asking price for what’s being offered, and will likely be the point that makes or breaks the game for many a potential buyer. Though there’s lots of content on offer, it pales next to the near limitless depth of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which is available for just ten dollars more, and that makes this a much tougher sell to those who aren’t diehard fans of the genre. Make no mistake, Lost Sphear is a quality game that is certainly worth your time if you’re looking for a traditional JRPG, but whether it justifies the premium price will be up to you.
There’s little in Lost Sphear that you haven’t seen before in JRPGs, but that doesn’t mean it’s a title to be dismissed out of hand. If you can look past the clichés, Lost Sphear presents an engaging world, deep battle system, and plenty of replayability which will likely delight many an RPG fan. Tokyo RPG Factory has proven with this release that it’s capable of learning from past mistakes, and though Lost Sphear still might not be the game to surpass Chrono Trigger, it proves itself to be worthy of that legacy. We’d recommend Lost Sphear to anybody who loves a focused, traditional RPG; it may be priced a little high, but this is an enjoyable experience that fans won’t want to miss out on.