When Square Enix established Tokyo RPG Factory in 2015, its expressed intent was to develop JRPGs in a style that hearkened back to the glory days of the genre. The cynical, if not wholly inaccurate, perspective on this new venture was that Square Enix sought a cut of the success that other developers experienced with retro-styled games influenced by Square’s own classic properties. The studio’s debut title, I Am Setsuna, was a flawed yet affirmative indicator that Tokyo RPG Factory was at least earnest in its endeavor to recreate those 16-bit golden age classics. While it fell short of that lofty goal, Setsuna laid the groundwork for its successor in ways both figurative and literal.
Lost Sphear opens with a scene depicting an unknown king in the midst of a battle his side is on the cusp of losing. The king, consoling one of his dying soldiers, is set upon by an enemy in some kind of mechanized suit of armor. This slightly confusing scene, which provides the first taste of Lost Sphear’s awkward battle system, turns out to be a dream from which the main protagonist Kanata awakens. A short while later, Kanata and his fellow orphan friends venture outside their hometown of Elgarthe to hunt monsters. Upon their return, however, Elgarthe has vanished into an odd, white silhouette of itself. It’s become “lost,” and somehow Kanata has the latent ability to transform emotions into memories and use those memories to restore lost objects and people.
In truth, there are a few intriguing concepts within Lost Sphear’s overarching story, particularly the pivotal role memories and the moon play in it. The world itself is also a fairly interesting mix of cultural conflicts and political affairs set against the backdrop of a cryptic creation story. Unfortunately, Lost Sphear doesn’t capitalize on this somewhat unique setup but instead presents players with a narrative that is equal parts plodding, puzzling, and JRPG trope. The main party consists of characters that, while likable enough, you’ve met in various incarnations in many prior JRPGs. The plot starts off reasonably engrossing, quickly shifts into and spends an inordinate amount of time in neutral, then trips over itself with rapid-fire, convoluted motivations and revelations. In the end, it falls shy of the potential that sparkled, albeit briefly, at the game’s outset.
Lost Sphear gives players the option of a fully active or semi-active time battle system (ATB) where party members and enemies must wait for their ATB gauge to fill before performing an action. The twist to Lost Sphear’s system is that it also adds a bit of a free-roam element, where players can position character attacks before execution to maximize area of effect lethality. Party members can also trigger “Momentum mode” if they have their Momentum gauge full, which adds an additional hit to their regular attack or ties into the Spritnite skill system discussed a bit later.
Lost Sphear’s system of collecting objects’ memories affects multiple game mechanics from the battle system to story progression. Certain memories unlock story events, while others allow for the creation of Spritnite and Artifacts. At first, these game mechanics are quite engaging. For example, the Artifacts system allows for the creation of landmarks on the world map which provide various buffs to your party that have either a local or worldwide effect. These buffs include speeding up your ATB gauge, increasing character critical hit rates, and increasing the amount of items found from glow spots. While many of them are incredibly powerful, by the end of the game a large chunk of them are needlessly granular; I ended up with roughly 80 potential Artifact options where only a handful were realistically useful to me.
Artifacts aren’t the only place where Lost Sphear transforms a fairly straightforward system into an unnecessarily complex and bloated mess. Fans of I Am Setsuna may recall the Spritnite system that enabled characters to use techniques. Lost Sphear has a similar system where party members are equipped with Spritnite to enable character-specific skills. This is all well and good until your party has the ability to equip dozens of Spritnite with skills remarkably similar to those you already have equipped or that are themselves of marginal utility. Additionally, you can equip Momentum Spritnite to your skill Spritnite (or counter Spritnite) to add additional effects to character skills if they are used to activate Momentum mode. If you’re lucky, you may trigger a “sublimation” while using Momentum Spritnite, in which case the added effect can be permanently assigned to the skill/counter Spritnite. Got all of that?
Each of your party members also has access to mechanized armor known as “vulcosuits.” These are relics of long-lost technology that are clumsily shoehorned into the story for reasons I never fully grasped. Beyond their mostly opaque skill system, these vulcosuits also have their own set of skill points that must be managed and buffs within the Artifacts system. It’s yet another mechanic with an overly complex nature that does little beyond providing a way (and sometimes the only way) of defeating many of Lost Sphear’s surprisingly difficult boss encounters.
In what appears to be a gross overcorrection after critiques that I Am Setsuna was too easy, Lost Sphear swings the pendulum in the opposite direction to the point of imbalance. After flying through enemies in any given area without breaking a sweat, the area boss will regularly greet you with one-shot skills and debilitating debuffs. It becomes incredibly frustrating, and I’m convinced I only won several (redo) boss battles because luck was on my side and some debuffs/attacks didn’t land. This method of artificial difficulty is certainly not the right way to course correct, and I hope Tokyo RPG Factory’s next effort finds a happy medium between ease and frustration.
It’s not all stress and irritation, of course. Like Setsuna, Lost Sphear’s visuals are great and the music is delightful. The game runs flawlessly while playing in the Switch’s hand-held mode, and there are great quality-of-life features like the dialogue rewind and fast-forward options. Tokyo RPG Factory also took several other critiques of Setsuna to heart, fixing many of its issues with the release of Lost Sphear. The improvements to the bestiary, in-game maps, deeper lore, and a more varied and diverse world all stem from issues most folks had with Lost Sphear’s predecessor, and it’s refreshing to see a developer take steps to make these kinds of improvements.
Lost Sphear is an unremarkable yet pleasant JRPG experience, one that I find I’m a bit more forgiving of than many of my peers. Like I Am Setsuna, however, it’s a flawed attempt at playing on nostalgia that simply fails to grasp what defined the classics it tries to emulate. Excessive bits and baubles does not a great JRPG make, and sometimes the simplest mechanics are often the most enjoyable and have the greatest impact. It’s a straightforward concept on paper but one that’s almost impossibly difficult to execute. It’s encouraging that a behemoth like Square Enix, regardless of motive, has thrust itself back into the old-school JRPG scene. While Tokyo RPG Factory’s first attempts miss the mark, they’re certainly in the ballpark. Let’s hope they continue to build on lessons learned and fan feedback as they inch towards that sweet spot.