The second game from Tokyo RPG Factory, Lost Sphear promises a return to the "golden age" of RPGs while still improving on the criticisms of I Am Setsuna. Channeling elements of Chrono Trigger, Xenogears and SNES-era Final Fantasy games sounds good on paper, but what of the execution? Director Atsushi Hashimoto returns, as does much of the staff for their second outing. Many complaints levied at I Am Setsuna concerned imbalanced combat, as well as a misuse of its art direction. With these issues in mind, does Lost Sphear rectify those mistakes, or should it have stayed lost?
Unfortunately, Lost Sphear is a step backward for Tokyo RPG Factory and Square Enix. Crumbling under the weight of its battle mechanics, Lost Sphear also fails to present interesting characters or an original story. There are flashes of brilliance in the combat, but Lost Sphear squanders those alongside a strong opening. Tokyo RPG Factory clearly prioritized nostalgia over intelligent pacing and engaging storytelling, and Lost Sphear suffers as a result.
It's a shame, because Lost Sphear sets up a great premise. The world of Gaiterra is wracked by a strange phenomenon where parts of the world turn white and fade away. Kanata, after watching his hometown vanish, uses the power of memories to restore the "lost" places and people. It's a great setup that could make for a strong game, but the story quickly wastes its unique premise. Never content to dwell on anything, Lost Sphear races through its story at an alarming speed. Dungeons, bosses, and story sections all take a matter of minutes. Due to the heavy-handed use of foreshadowing, nothing is ultimately surprising in Lost Sphear, either. If a plot twist wasn't foreshadowed, it was borrowed from another, better game. Only during the final chapters does Lost Sphear slow down, but unfortunately, it's far too little, too late.
The breakneck pace does no wonders for the writing, either. Much like I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear forgoes almost any worldbuilding. I'm not asking for an extended exposé on Gaiterra, but the limited information I got about the world felt obligatory rather than exciting. There are some actually interesting things about Gaiterra and the moon that you learn several hours in, but this information is used to drive you to the next plot point. Additionally, every character speaks in a casual, modern dialect that doesn't suit the world presented. It's hard to say if this is the fault of the original script or the localization, but it definitely sticks out.
The poor pacing is made no more apparent than when looking at its difficulty curve. Lost Sphear makes an effort to shuttle you to as many different dungeons as possible. However, when you encounter a boss, everything grinds to a halt. Bosses are always far tougher than the dungeons would lead you to believe, and it's frustrating to slam into a boss again and again, only to scream past the following plot point. Only in the final two dungeons is there an appropriate level of challenge, but again: too little, too late.
Surely, despite its unoriginal plot, Lost Sphear presents interesting characters, right? If only that were the case. Joining Kanata on his quest is a starkly diverse cast of characters. Childhood friends, a demon king, and a former Empire commander are just a few examples. All of the characters, without fail, are archetypal and undergo almost no development. All eight characters can be boiled down to a couple adjectives each. A few backstories offer interesting plot threads to follow, only for Lost Sphear to never touch on them. All of the characters have better showings in other games, too. How many times have we seen the silver-haired stranger with secrets in games? Or a young girl as the most powerful member of her tribe?
This is a recurring theme throughout Lost Sphear. Devoid of almost any original ideas, Tokyo RPG Factory seemed content to borrow concepts wholesale. Early on, you're introduced to the mechanized "vulcosuits," Lost Sphear's rendition of Xenogears's gears. Your primary antagonist for much of the game is the comically evil empire, lifted straight from Final Fantasy IV, Cecil-equivalent and all. Even the true, cosmically powerful enemy, could be replaced with Lavos from Chrono Trigger. There are no exact equivalents, but it's embarrassingly easy to find counterparts. When all these callbacks combine, Lost Sphear feels more like an amateurish RPG Maker game than a Square Enix offering.
Thankfully, the battle system shows signs of life. As if there were any doubts about its inspiration, the battle mechanics are referred to as the "ATB System." Battles are turn-based, and you begin fights by walking into groups of enemies. Returning from I Am Setsuna is the "momentum" system, where you do bonus damage with a timed button press. Momentum also applies to skills, but more on that in a bit. This basic setup is probably the best implementation of ATB since Chrono Trigger. Firing off momentum charge after momentum charge feels great, and so does plowing through countless enemies. With the ability to aim attacks and skills for maximum effectiveness, there's a seriously good combat system here.
Lost Sphear also makes use of the same "spritnite" magic system from I Am Setsuna. Much like its predecessor, spritnite is gained by trading monster parts to vendors. Spritnite also cannot be equipped by anyone anymore, making for more clearly defined roles. While I had my preferred teammates, allies that don't take part in battle still gain full experience, meaning your team is always evenly leveled. Your allies can also be augmented with different equipment upgrades. While ten differently colored upgrades might sound cool, the reality is that each upgrade is just an incremental improvement to damage or defense.
Problems start to rear their head when Lost Sphear layers system over system in battle. Each spritnite can be augmented with a Momentum spritnite, meaning you can trigger momentum for each skill activation. Momentum spritnites restore health, reduce various resistances of monsters, or boost your own stats, temporarily. Not only that, if you activate momentum enough times, your spritnite "sublimates." Sublimation means the momentum effect activates whether or not you trigger momentum mode, or if you even have the momentum sprinite attached. With dozens of momentum spritnites to choose from, there are nearly unlimited combinations to make use of.
If that wasn't enough to keep track of, there's more. There's a third type of spritnite that only triggers when your party takes damage, for one. Vulcosuits, which are glossed over and rarely used, have skills with special requirements for activation. There's eight different damage types to keep track of, as well as eight unrelated status effects, each with their own resistances. Lost Sphear seems content to throw an encyclopedia at you, but never tell you what page to turn to truly understand its convoluted systems. Opting to keep the battles as simple and as quick as possible is clearly the preferred option here.
It's not just the major issues that hamstring Lost Sphear. The addition of missing features like English battle voices, dialogue portraits, and minimaps in dungeons would help Lost Sphear feel more modern. Targeting multiple monsters with skills and attacks is far more finicky than it needs to be. How resistant is 50 points in the "Rooster Resistance" stat, anyway? There's no real battle tutorial, and you learn how to escape battles by talking to a random NPC in the capital city, five or six hours in. These issues wouldn't be noticeable problems on their own, but Lost Sphear is so reluctant to share information with the player or take its time that it suffers from a death by a thousand cuts.
By throwing you into its burning dumpster of information, Lost Sphear never lets you get your bearings with the systems. Skill descriptions are loaded with abbreviations and requirements that aren't entirely obvious. There's also a mountain of memories and vendor trash to sift through. Even with selling most of my junk, between buying healing items and upgrading gear, I was constantly strapped for cash. There are more than enough artifacts to build and weapons to upgrade for a 60+ hour game, but Lost Sphear crams it all in around 25 hours.
Lost Sphear does craft a creative way to use items dropped by monsters. In adventuring across the overworld, you'll come across small platforms, which you use to build "artifacts." Artifacts have many uses in and out of battles. They can bestow a minimap, or increase drop rates from gathering spots. In battle, they can build Momentum off of critical hits, or increase your ATB charge after a kill. There is a bit of a balance issue with artifacts, however. One guarantees a pre-emptive attack at the start of every fight, making battles trivial. Yet another fully heals your HP, MP and VP when walking over a save point. You're limited on which artifacts you can build by your stock of memories, but there's plenty to choose from.
One of the major improvements over I Am Setsuna is the soundtrack and varied backgrounds. No longer a piano-only arrangement, Lost Sphear makes good use of its orchestral notes when needed. The variety of locales make for a more interesting game too. Gone are the snow-covered fields of I Am Setsuna; in its place are forests, deserts, poison-soaked caves and floating fortresses. Most of the interesting dungeons are located in the second half, which is a shame, but they're one of the few things worth seeing. Boss design, in particular, is great, and there are some pretty horrifying monsters later on.
Despite some good ideas, Lost Sphear is leagues worse than its ancestors. Disappointing from start to finish, Lost Sphear is like a favorite aunt who forgot to show up for your 12th birthday. Poor pacing, boring characters, and an unoriginal story sink a great battle system, and I'm not sure where Tokyo RPG Factory goes next. Clearly, heading back to the well isn't working. Diehard fans of classic RPGs might find something to like here, but for the rest of us, you're better off playing something else.
Lost Sphear was reviewed on the PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.
A disappointing sophomore effort from Tokyo RPG Factory, Lost Sphear proves relying on nostalgia alone doesn't make a great game.(Review Policy)
- Great Implementation of the ATB System
- Good Boss and Environment Design
- Boring, One-Note Characters
- Uninspired Plot and Design
- Battle Systems Overcomplicate Themselves