Wot I Think: Lost Sphear

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a ragtag group of orphans wake up one day and decide to slay some monsters, as all small-town gangs are wont to do. This is the opening of Lost Sphear. After bonking some bunny-mutants to death in a nearby field, they discover that their idyllic hometown has blinked out of existence, replaced by a gaping white void. But, soon enough, one of our heroes has a dream that reveals that he and he alone possesses mysterious power that can restore these “lost” objects through the power of memories. Together, the gang embark on a quest to save the world from ruin.

Change out a few of the nouns in the above description and you could be describing any number of classic Japanese role-players from the genre’s commercial heyday. including Secret of Mana and a good chunk of the Final Fantasies. By itself, this isn’t necessarily an issue. After all, Lost Sphear’s developer Tokyo RPG Factory – itself an imprint of Square Enix, arguably the progenitors of the form – was created specifically to create exactly this sort of self-styled “old school” JRPG. And while Lost Sphear does manage to faithfully capture the blocky guts of the battle systems that captivated the SNES generation, it sticks so close to Square’s decades-old script that it comes off a bit soulless.

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It’s the studio’s sophomore effort, following 2016’s I Am Setsuna, a tale of family and sorrow set on a snowy island. While I would hesitate to call Setsuna truly innovative in any capacity, the namesake character herself was a breath of fresh, wintery air – she begins the tale as a maiden sacrifice for the scores of monsters that haunt her homeland, but eventually becomes a proud warrior who searches for the cause of the scourge rather than submitting to it.

Sadly, Lost Sphear doesn’t have a single character as memorable as Setsuna. The cast fail to make an impression beyond the two-word “adjective noun” archetypes they’re drawn from. Rather than forging new connections between its characters or giving them interesting twists on their type, Sphear seems content to remind you of the heroes of the hits that inspired it, from the spunky not-Tifa Lumina to annoying but lovable brat Locke. A few hours into the game, Locke takes a plot-device laser meant for bland hero Kanata. Even as the plaintive tinkling of the piano-heavy score started to stir, I could only run through of the broad list of JRPGs that had pulled the same trick in my head, usually to greater emotional effect.

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Still, it would be easy enough to forgive Sphear for its eager adherence to dated genre tropes if its story managed to offer something more than the typical “noble hero saves the planet with his mysterious power” routine so familiar from games as old as Dragon Quest and Breath of Fire. Again, it falls short of the mark. Even as someone who has enjoyed the occasional ultra-generic JRPG in the past, I found the plot twists in Lost Sphear so ponderous and telegraphed that the only astonished me with their predictability.

Soon after Kanata restores his hometown, he and his party are summarily recruited by the vast Empire that rules their continent to figure out the source of the white fog that threatens to swallow up the world. After encountering no less than two corrupt and unlikeable generals, Kanata and co. are quickly conscripted into imprisoning a “tribe” of supposedly-evil beast-tamers that might have something to do with the fog rolling in. While the moral hazards involved with evoking this kind of mass ethnic round-up might make for a memorable sequence in a more careful game, in Lost Sphear, it comes off as a crass afterthought, just another way to move the plot forward. (“I just wonder: are we on the right side?” deadpans Kanata, right as the metal monster full of people takes off towards the sprawling steamwork capital of the Empire.)

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As I neared the journey’s end, I felt a stronger and stronger temptation to fast-forward past the familiar textboxes whenever a cutscene would start up. However, the same can’t be said about the game’s combat, which I found engaging throughout. Inspired by the ATB-system introduced by FF and arguably perfected by Chrono Trigger – which, if Setsuna is any indication, serves as an overall design lodestone for RPG Factory – the battle mechanics of Lost Sphear offer a surprising amount of tactical depth, which only increases as you roll through the 25-hour story. Hulking opponents and frequent area-of-effect blasts make deft character positioning an absolute necessity, and the Materia-inspired Spritnite system allows you to equip and de-equip magic and skills just as easily as swapping out your shortsword for the Masamune. The high degree of character customization struck me as a welcome source of player expression, especially after crawling through corridors for hours in search of the next shiny MacGuffin.

Lost Sphear follows in Chrono Trigger’s lead in eliminating random encounters, one of the genre’s most notorious bugbears, replacing them with monsters that roam the field. For the most part, I found the dungeons in Sphear to be a relaxing jaunt on the default difficulty setting, almost entirely devoid of challenge. However, the bosses lurking just in front of the treasure rooms were a totally different story. Time after time, I found myself on the receiving end of total-party-wipes at the hands of these monsters, usually in only a few turns. Though I struggled with at least a half-dozen bosses over the course of the game, I never felt the need to grind out some levels to strengthen my party – rather, I found that upgrading my equipment or rebalancing my Spritnite spread to better exploit enemy weaknesses would end up turning the tide. In particular, mastering the intricacies of Momentum Mode – a separate meter that you spend for an extra attack or spell on your turn, such as a much-needed heal for swordsman Kanata – is what finally allowed me to avoid seeing that Game Over screen every few hours.

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After I finally gathered all the Magical Whatsits and the litany of expected twists finally petered out in front of me, I look back on my time with Lost Sphear with a slurry of mixed emotions. Though I found a measure of joy in the satisfying crunch of the combat, ultimately, I view JRPGs as one of the only genres of video game capable of delivering a meaningful narrative that reaches beyond the Tolkien-inspired sword-and-sorcery milieu that their Western counterparts continue to trade in. By that measure, Lost Sphear fails to live up to its monolithic inspirations. However, for players looking to bask in the warm glow of nostalgia, or those who delight in the tactical intricacies of ATB systems, there might be enough here to warrant a look, provided you don’t expect the pedigree of your favorite 16-bit classic. More than anything, Lost Sphear serves as a reminder that there’s a lot more to capturing the spirit of your idols than just miming them in your bathroom mirror, and I hope that Tokyo RPG Factory learns that lesson before they release yet another love letter to the exact same game.

Lost Sphear is available now for Windows, and is available via Steam for £34.99.

12 Comments

  1. Cerulean Shaman says:

    Meh, all Square Enix and their little pet RPG Factory is proving to me is that if I want a quality RPG these days I need to look literally look anywhere else. This review was a bit more generous than most, with my favorite reviews pretty much being fairly lukewarm about the game overall.

    After disliking Setsuna so much I pretty much gave up hope for this game and don’t find myself impressed with the results of its reviews, so meh. With so many hot and heavy RPGs on the horizon (Ni No Kuni, Bard’s Tale, Wasteland 3, SMTV, Trails of Cold Steel 2 PC, Pillars 2) it’s really hard to look at a half-heart effort game like Lost Sphear and really care.

    And don’t even get me started on FF15… that game pretty much killed what little hope I had for the FF7 remake. Oh SE, how far you’ve fallen…

    • ikoyy says:

      I share the same feelings. That RPG Factory tries hard to make nostalgic stuff but fails to grasp what made these old games good in the first place. A JRPG needs a good story and at least a few interesting characters.

      If you want to play some RPG that feels retro but are incredibly good at story telling and character development, I strongly recommend to look at Falcom’s The legend of heroes saga. I started those with Trails in the sky trilogy and followed with Trails of Cold Steel 1&2….these have mindblowing stories, great characters and a deep world lore that makes you care about what happens.

      • mazzratazz says:

        Any more info on Legend of Heroes? I’ve been looking for a good recent JRPG and a quick Wikipedia tells me these look potentially interesting. Why are they good? Where should I start with this series?

        • Sly-Lupin says:

          Read this first:
          link to reddit.com

          Start with Trails in the Sky.

        • DexterKane says:

          I love them to bits, but they are a real slow burn and I understand that’s not for everyone. You can get the first Trails in the Sky for like 8 € now, so I suggest trying that one out. I was always baffled that these games never took of in the west, they are so far superior to FF it’s not even funny.

    • abstrarie says:

      I agree with all points. But Octopath Traveler (or whatever they end up calling it when it is released) is looking pretty good. I very much enjoyed the Switch demo.

  2. Quickly says:

    Just an aside but any reason the RPS author names are now not linked? Can be useful to see more from a specific author.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      Unification. All autonomy must be gradually replaced into one author, ‘RPS’.

    • Ghostwise says:

      You presumably aren’t high level enough.

  3. Buzko says:

    After bonking some bunny-mutants to death in a nearby field

    Well that would be one way to differentiate it…

  4. genoforprez says:

    Setsuna was a breath of fresh air? I thought she was just a blatant ripoff of FFX’s Yuna.

    I really wanted to get into both Setsuna and Sphear, but I found them both to be pretty soul-less. I feel like those old school SNES rpgs put in so much effort into feeling vibrant and having a sense of place and time whereas these two games feel like they are just hastily assembling a premise so that they can throw you into the battle system.

    A battle system alone does not a memorable RPG make.

    I agree with ikoyy above that the “Legend of Heroes” series gets much closer to that old SNES era jrpg feel. RPG Factory’s games just feel like all math and no soul.