The First 48 is a review series where we review new titles after spending two days with them.
Lost Sphear dropped on January 23, 2017 in the West for PS4, PC, and the Nintendo Switch. It’s the second game from Tokyo RPG Factory, a small Square Enix studio that’s dedicated to making games in the style of traditional Japanese RPGs.
It’s got everything you’d expect from a classic JRPG: the stylized character models, the instrumental music, and good ol’ turn-based combat. But even with all that, it’s not a carbon copy of the old JRPGs you’re familiar with. Tokyo RPG Factory has made a few additions to Lost Sphear’s gameplay that put a little bit of a fresh spin on it, even managing to make a few improvements upon their debut title, I am Setsuna.
However, Lost Sphear has a lofty goal set before it: to bridge the gap between classic, old-school Japanese games and the modern gamer. As a result, this review – in addition to talking about the game’s visuals, audio, plot premise, and core mechanics – will attempt to answer the question: Did the Tokyo RPG Factory manage to achieve this goal with their sophomore title?
Let’s dive in.
Landing in the World of Gaiterra
The game opens on the scene of a post-battle massacre, with the bodies of soldiers strewn about. You’ll initially play as a mysterious King as he is attacked by a mech suit (called a Vulcosuit). Immediately, you are thrown into combat – no explanations, no nothing. You’ll have to figure out a way to take down your opponent on your own, and for a first battle pre-tutorial this fight was actually pretty tough, especially on the hard difficulty mode (but more on that later).
After you take down the Vulcosuit enemy, you get some of the game’s interesting lore about a creation story based on the power of the moon, but the narrator presents this information as nothing more than a legend in which the world is caught in a cycle of rebirth.
When the scene ends, you find out it was all the dream of your true main character, Kanata. As you’ll learn, Kanata and his two friends Lumina and Locke – your first party members – are all orphans in a town called Elgarthe. This town is far enough removed from the Imperial capital that the young people of the village (i.e. Kanata and co.) are in charge of defending the town against the monsters that roam Gaiterra.
With this power, Kanata is able to not only restore Elgarthe but other things that have been lost, from individual houses to treasure chests, large portions of the over-world map, and even people. With a gift as special as his, Kanata doubtlessly draws attention from the Imperials (who – heads up – look like chibi versions of the Judges from Final Fantasy XII).
Kanata and his growing band of friends decide to travel with the Imperials under the guidance of a man called Galdra in search of places, people, and things that have been lost so that Kanata can restore them and hopefully find answers about his mysterious powers and the strange occurrences that are erasing parts of the world.
I will say that the story has a fairly intriguing premise, and seems more original to me than the plot from the studio’s previous game, I am Setsuna, which at its core was a simplified re-telling of Final Fantasy X. The lore about the moon and its relationship to the planet was a fairly engaging start to the game as well, and the prologue left me curious about the mysterious disappearances of matter.
However, the game’s character development is fairly simplistic. While you do get some good snippets of characterization through the text-based dialogue boxes, everyone seems to more or less fit a type. For example, Locke is the troublemaker who always has food or sleep on his mind.
Sound and Visuals
Lost Sphear certainly achieves its objective of looking like a modern version of a classic RPG. The character models are more detailed than the square-ish pixilated warriors of 30 years ago, but they certainly capture that stylized essence of cartoonish fantasy avatars.
Frame rate isn’t a huge issue for games like this, especially since Lost Sphear isn’t exactly a 50 gigabyte behemoth (it’s closer to 5 GB). For the most part, it looks like a smoothly moving (although not overly detailed in terms of texture and shading) cartoon. I noticed very few (if any) frame rate drops while playing on a standard PS4, although my research indicates that the game can struggle occasionally to run at a solid 30 fps on the Switch.
Lost Sphear’s sound design is phenomenal, and I particularly enjoyed playing with headphones in. There’s a crisp and clear difference between when characters walk on grass vs. hardwood vs. carpet vs. metal grates, and sound effects are generally very well done. At one point, I could hear a river trickle into one earbud before transitioning to both as I approached a river, picking up on its sound before I could even see it.
There’s very limited voice acting in Lost Sphear. All the dialogue is text-based, though the characters in your party do have voice-acted lines that they will exclaim in combat. No matter what version of the game you’re playing, these lines are in Japanese and are delivered fairly well. For example, Lumina will shout “Daijoubu!” after taking a hit (even if things are not, in fact, all right!).
The soundtrack is also pretty good, with a variety of different songs that range from the slow, melodic opening theme you’ll hear in the title screen to a frantic, choppy song that you’ll hear in high-stakes combat. However, after having played I am Setsuna, I found Lost Sphear’s music to be a little bit of a let-down. In I am Setsuna, the game’s music relied solely on a single piano for the vast majority of the time, and that made it incredibly unique and a stand-out factor for me. But while Lost Sphear’s soundtrack does heavily feature piano music, it mixes in a lot more instruments rather than that peaceful but often sad piano solo. That’s not to say the music isn’t good, it’s just much more “typical” of what you’d expect in a JRPG like this and doesn’t stand out in a crowd.
The Combat and Gameplay Mechanics
As previously stated, Lost Sphear is a turn-based JRPG made to pay homage to the classics from twenty-plus years ago. However, it’s made a few additions to the formula the Tokyo RPG Factory used to make their previous title.
First and foremost, Lost Sphear adds movement to the game’s otherwise fairly traditional turn-based, active time battle (ATB) combat. During each character’s turn as you’re selecting their attack, you can designate where they’ll move based on how you want to attack or defend. Also, different attacks will have different trajectories, meaning that some will shoot out in a straight line, others will have a circular area of effect, while still others will be limited to only striking one opponent at a time.
Based on how each attack works, you’ll want to try positioning your characters behind enemies or try to line up as many monsters in a single shot as you can. But at the same time, you want to make sure you don’t clump your characters together and leave them vulnerable to all being hit by the same attack. I felt that this character movement system was the best new addition Lost Sphear made to its turn-based ATB combat. Especially with the clock ticking, you have to move fast and move smart, simultaneously attacking and defending in a way that simply giving commands to four stagnant characters standing in a line can’t replicate.
However, for players looking for more of a challenge (especially veterans of ATB combat) there is a fully active mode in which enemies will continue to attack even if you have something selected in the combat menu. Additionally, players can control the game’s difficulty with three difficulty settings that are likewise available in the config menu throughout the game.
I did some testing, and there is some true differentiation between these modes. Easy will not only make enemies weaker, but it will also make your party level up faster. Normal is a median challenge, whereas hard will really turn up the intensity on combat. To give you an idea of what I mean, in the opening battle, attacks that landed for 0 damage in normal mode hit you for 25 damage or more on hard, potentially taking a fifth of your health. I highly recommend playing around with the semi- vs. fully-active ATB modes as well as the difficulty to see exactly which level of challenge is right for you.
Another big feature is the Vulcosuits. You can unlock these mechanized suits partway through the storyline and they can be equipped to your characters both in battle and out. While wearing a Vulcosuit, all of a character’s stats are raised, and they may gain new attacks. For example, Kanata’s Vulcosuit lets him do a combined physical attack with another party member. Out of combat, Vulcosuits can be used to activate some puzzling elements in certain areas or to break rocks that block your path. However, like spells with an MP gauge, these mech suits run on a VP gauge that will deplete if you don’t visit an inn or use a special item so plan accordingly.
Another important component of battle is the Momentum system. Momentum is another gauge that fills up, much like the time gauge that determines the gap between your characters’ actions. Momentum will fill up while a character’s ATB gauge is full and they’re inactive or they’re taking/dealing damage. Once you have a Momentum charge, a blue light will flash as a character attacks. If you time a button press along with this flash, your character will deal extra damage or add certain buffs or debuffs to their actions.
All of this – the effects of Momentum along with your list of attacks or spells – is controlled by equipping your characters with a substance called Spritnite. This is the substance that makes up the world of Lost Sphear, and can be bought with the memories you collect as go around restoring the world.
Outside of combat, another major mechanic is called Artifacts. Artifacts are created at “lost” locations where Kanata uses memories to infuse the land with certain properties. These properties can unlock a number of useful (and very welcome) abilities, from being able to sprint on the world map to viewing enemy health bars and causing ATB gauges to fill up more quickly after dealing critical hits.
Beyond that, Lost Sphear makes a number of small additions to the gameplay that were sorely lacking in I am Setsuna. These include things like a pause button in battle, a quicksave feature, re-readable dialogue, and most importantly, a party chat. With the party chat feature, you can not only talk to your party members to get more of their personality, but you can get them to give you clues and reminders about where to go that take the place of an objective or quest marker.
Classic Meets Modern JRPG Elements
Overall, I’d say Lost Sphear’s gameplay is an improvement on I am Setsuna’s minus a quibble here and there, especially with the addition of movement to the turn-based combat. In fact, the game checks off several of the boxes set in our previous article about 5 things we hoped Lost Sphear would change. However, in terms of the game as a whole, I’d say the Tokyo RPG Factory has only taken baby steps to improve. There were several things that I would have liked to have seen them do to open the game up and make it even more accessible to modern day gamers, especially for a title that will probably run you at least thirty hours to complete.
I really wanted to see the studio grow with the release of Lost Sphear, and make certain changes to gameplay and user experience. And while they did make several much-needed additions, I felt like there was reasonably more room to improve. For example, I felt that level design was fairly lackluster. After a couple days with the game and delving into several dungeon and forest areas, I realized that the level design had stagnated and not changed much from I am Setsuna.
I understand that the Tokyo RPG Factory is a very small team making a fairly small game, but the areas where you encounter enemies were not only small but linear and repetitive. That’s not to say I don’t like a linear design, because in many instances, I do. But the puzzling elements in dungeons were either too simplistic or altogether absent and I felt that with more unique or challenging puzzles, navigating through even a small dungeon-esque area would be more fun and interesting without necessarily driving up production costs too severely or increasing the size and scope of the game itself.
I also would have liked to see something like 2D character portraits that could accompany the text boxes for each of the main characters’ dialogue. This is a fairly old convention of the genre that’s still alive and kicking today in games like Persona 5. The 2D portrait with the text box lets you see a more detailed version of a character that can display a small range of emotions. This helps players identify with characters, even without developers having to create crazy-detailed 3D character models and sustain those throughout the various gameplay scenarios.
Another feature I’d been looking for was interactive scenery elements. And while the game has some, it doesn’t have a lot. There are a few destructible elements for the Vulcosuits to interact with, but one thing I felt was missing were various items you could click on to get item descriptions and lore snippets that add to the world-building and story development. Again, this is a very popular convention amongst RPGs of all kinds, but it was lacking here and was yet another element that could have increased player engagement.
“A nostalgic trip for JRPG fans with room for improvement”
Lost Sphear makes some definitive improvements upon Tokyo RPG Factory’s general formula, but there were a few areas in which it could have demonstrated even more growth and taken another step towards achieving its mission of engaging modern players with classically-inspired JRPGs. The movement within ATB turn-based combat was a brilliant addition, and the story’s premise and lore were very intriguing from the start, but Lost Sphear misses several opportunities to further its character development and become even more relatable to you as the player. As a result, I can certainly recommend this game to JRPG fans looking for a simple but fun and challenging trip down memory lane, but I don’t know that I’d necessarily give this a thumbs up to players looking to break into the JRPG genre for the first time.
+ Endearing visuals and art style
+ Great sound design
+ Strong improvement on traditional turn-based ATB combat
+ Diverse range of difficulty settings
+ Engaging lore and storylines
– Missed opportunities for character development
– Overly simplistic puzzles and level design
– OST was good, but stepped away from the unique solo piano
– Not enough to interact with in-world