This RPG is so cluttered with homages to classics that it fails to create an identity of its own.
Creating an old-fashioned role-playing game that reminds fans of the classics they loved as kids seems like it would be a simple matter. You’d expect dated-looking graphics, a streamlined structure, and simplistic writing, all which demand fewer resources than a grand epic that slices the bleeding edge of technology. For a big company like Square Enix, it should be a breeze… right? Well, perhaps not, if Lost Sphear is anything to go by.
The second game from Square Enix’s internal Tokyo RPG Factory studio, Lost Sphear, is another attempt at a brand-new role-playing game inspired by the company’s classic games — specifically, Chrono Trigger. But, like its predecessor (2016’s I am Setsuna), this retro-style adventure borrows from the greats without ever quite finding its own identity. It certainly comes a lot closer to being a modern-day Chrono Trigger than Setsuna, but it’s far short of being a work on par with the games it cribs from.
Where Lost Sphear shines most is in its story, which feels very much like the kind of thing that could only come from a Japanese developer. People and places around the world have begun to vanish, transforming into blank white voids in the fabric of reality, and our hero Kanata finds he possesses the unique ability to restore them by gathering memories of those things. It’s a little like playing a haiku in RPG form.
Of course, this all happens through turn-based combat—it is an RPG after all—but the concept of places and things existing through the power of memories has a sort of beauty of impermanence, and there’s a sense of animism (the philosophical concept that all things contain a living spirit) about it that neatly underscores the drive to rekindle nostalgia behind Lost Sphear itself.
Lost Sphear’s design consists of a hodgepodge of elements lifted from classic games.
The problem is that Lost Sphear’s design consists of a hodgepodge of elements lifted from games many of us loved 20 years ago. For example, the combat system is specifically designated as “Active-Time Battle,” like the one in older Final Fantasy games. Yet in practice, it plays like Star Trek’s Scotty accidentally merged Chrono Trigger with Grandia in a dramatic transporter accident. It combines elements from all of those vintage works, but is lacking their elegance.
Kanata is joined in his quest by one of the most motley assortments of characters you’ll ever see band together in an RPG – to the point where they strain the limits of plausibility. They run the gamut from demons to kings to kids, and these allies make for quite a ragtag sight when they step on-screen to chatter during cutscenes. It relies a little too much on our familiarity with the genre’s tradition of pulling an unlikely assortment of characters into one another’s orbit, and the dialogue doesn’t always the heavy lifting that would justify such a strange troupe teaming up… not to mention how bizarre the townspeople you encounter must find the sight of a hulking monster and veteran soldier hanging out with a couple of kids.
Still, the basic battle system can be pretty fun. Your party members move freely about the battlefield once their turn comes up, targeting foes and gunning for an advantageous angle. Not all characters are created equal here: Given a choice between, say, Dianto and Van, who would use Dianto? Van wields energy beams that can hit multiple enemies at once, and many of his combat skills multiply his firepower every turn. On the other hand, Dianto just hits people with a hammer and uses basic magic spells. It turns out his greatest talent in my playthrough was warming the bench.
Tokyo RPG Factory clearly wanted to build on every classic RPG all at once.
The divide between these characters is typical of Lost Sphear’s messy, kitchen-sink approach to game design. Rather than simply building on the ideas of one or two classic RPGs, Tokyo RPG Factory clearly wanted to build on every classic RPG all at once. But a big part of what made those older games so great in the first place came from the way they specialized on a handful of ideas and explored them thoroughly. Lost Sphear, by contrast, constantly throws out new elements until quite late into the 20-hour story, and they come so fast and frequently that you rarely have the time to explore them deeply enough to get the most out of them.
Consider the Vulcosuits, the robotic armor your party can eventually wear in combat. They appear to be lifted directly from Xenogears, except that Vulcosuits don’t dramatically change the balance of combat the way Gears do. In some ways, they actually make combat more of a chore, since it’s difficult to tell your characters apart from one another when they’re suited up, and the interface doesn’t bother to indicate whose shiny mechanical armor you’re targeting with (for example) a healing spell. Each suit has its own unique combat trait—Kanata, for example, can use Chrono Trigger-style combo attacks with his comrades—but you’re given so few opportunities to experiment with these options that they amount to little more than a confusing complication.
The entire Vulcosuit feature feels like wasted effort.
Finally, every action a Vulcosuit takes is powered by a collective energy pool called Vulcosuit Points, which party members have to share. VP are scarce and difficult to recharge until late in the campaign, greatly limiting the suits’ availability. Then, right around the time the suits become practical, you lose access to them for a lengthy stretch of story. All of these factors help make the entire Vulcosuit feature feel like wasted effort.
Lost Sphear is jam-packed with clumsy systems like this. You can upgrade weapons and armor with magical ores, greatly boosting their strength… but the price of these ores adds up quickly, and new, more powerful equipment appears so frequently that it rarely makes sense to invest in improving your party’s current gear.
You can temporarily buff your party’s stats by eating different meals… but in order to acquire those dishes you not only have to pay restaurants cash, you also have to provide your own ingredients. There are hundreds of different types throughout the world, so even finding the items you need to buy a meal can be a crapshoot.
The magic system is similarly hamstrung. Each character has access to about half a dozen different spells which you have to create by forging the non-food resources you collect. Each spell can be further enhanced with secondary effects — and, yes, these also have to be forged with foraged materials. There’s a lot of flexibility within this system, but it’s incredibly difficult to make full use of.
Lost Sphear contains enough mechanics to fuel a 100-hour game.
In short, Lost Sphear contains enough mechanics, systems, and vendor-trash collectibles to fuel a sprawling, 100-hour, open-world game. Yet this is a game in which you can feasibly see the credits roll within 20 hours, so there’s simply not enough game here to support all the things its creators attempt to do.
While Lost Sphear often feels undercooked and unfocused, it does often manage to rise above its muddled elements. When its systems are given room to stretch, they come together nicely. The “Momentum” combat mechanic is a great example: it allows each character to build up a power meter as they act in combat, similar to Final Fantasy’s Limit Breaks. Once you store up enough energy you can use a timed button press to enhance your next attack or skill. Learning to make use of Momentum, and understanding that sneaking up on foes gives you a Momentum boost at the outset of combat, gives battles some genuine tactical depth.
The true value of Momentum comes into focus once you begin building Artifacts, structures you place on the world map to modify different conditions both inside and outside of combat. Artifacts’ effects can stack and interact, so it’s possible to set up modifiers to give you all sorts of advantages that built on one another. For example, you can set up Artifacts that make you more likely to land a critical hit when activating Momentum and when hitting an enemy’s elemental weakness. These will boost the value of Artifacts that cause you to act faster and debuff foes by landing critical hits. In turn, critical-hit buffs make it easier to strike a killing blow while activating a Momentum boost, which can feed into Artifacts that grant you additional experience, resources, and health buffs by striking critical hits and making Momentum kills. While they never quite cross the line into game-breaking, Artifacts can definitely give a leg up to anyone who goes to the trouble of exploiting them.
If Lost Sphear’s brevity underserves its numerous systems, it feels like a perfect match for its plot. Aside from a couple of insipid subquests, the story moves at a brisk pace, avoids needless padding, and wraps up before overstaying its welcome. Really, of everything Lost Sphear borrows from the 16-bit era, this might be the best: Knowing when to call it a day. If only the nuts and bolts were as sensibly restrained as its story, it might actually have had a shot at living up to the masterpieces that inspired it.