The latest adventure from Tokyo RPG Factory has arrived, and once again players have been granted access to a school of game design that hearkens back to the glory days of the JRPG genre. Like with 2016 release I Am Setsuna, the studio's new release Lost Sphear is meant to recapture the magic of a genre filled with memorable games like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, or even Xenogears. These were games that didn't need cutting-edge graphics or modern gameplay designs to push their way into players' hearts. Instead, they told stories — stories of war or of loves lost, stories of a world in danger and of an unlikely band of heroes that come together to save it.
Lost Sphear is a title that aims squarely for that classically-inspired form. Not only does the game eschew modern graphics and presentation elements in favor of a more old-school style, it's also filled to the brim with bits and pieces that feel cherry-picked from some of the biggest JRPG titles of yesteryear. With that said, while the some elements of the game's traditional form are capable of stirring up nostalgic feelings, the rest of the experience comes off as having a distinct lack of personality.
An Eerily Familiar Presentation
Considering the game's obvious old-school foundation, it's little surprise that Lost Sphear isn't much to look at. Though the visuals are crisp, and characters and environments have a smattering of 3D-modeled flair, the whole of the game's presentation comes off just like titles JRPG fans were enjoying around 20 years ago. Naturally, this gives the game a very dated feel.
The game's audio is a similar story. The various town and shop themes certainly sound like familiar JRPG fare, but their melodies overall felt ill-suited to the environment or to story elements prevailing at the time. To make matters worse, certain combinations of instruments, keys, and progressions make many of the game's themes sound strikingly similar to standout themes in JRPG history — so much so that the game's apparent drive to stoke players' nostalgia is instead replaced with something more like deja vu, a feeling that players have heard all of these tracks before.
Because it's an RPG, the game puts a particular emphasis on storytelling. Unfortunately, in this regard Lost Sphear really doesn't seem to have much to say. Characters go through the motions of what feels like a story cobbled together from RPG titles of the past, with everything from missing parents to young children being tasked with saving the world from an unknown and all-consuming peril. Most lines of dialog feel devoid of emotion, serving only as light padding to help keep the player pointed in the right direction.
A Matter of Memories
The bulk of Lost Sphear's story centers around the idea that people, places, and things can eventually become "lost" due to fading memories. As might be expected, the game opens just before bits and pieces of the realm start disappearing by being enveloped in a dense white fog. Protagonist Kanata soon realizes that he has the power to use memories to restore things that have become lost, and before long, he and his ragtag group of childhood friends are setting out on a mission to restore the world.
As it turns out, memories are one of Lost Sphear's primary currencies. They take on the form of stones that can be found everywhere — being dropped by enemies, tucked away in people's houses, or just sitting around on the overworld map. Players will collect hundreds or even thousands of memories throughout the game, and they're in such an abundance because they're used for loads of different things. Kanata can use memories to restore parts of the world, including entire regions or just buildings in town; he can also use them to restore people as well as their belongings. Memories can also be used to forge Artifacts on the overworld map, each of which bestowing the player with a unique passive bonus.
In a sense, memories are meant to serve both as a game mechanic and a plot device. They work well as a mechanic; as a story element, however, the interesting ideas behind the role of memories in preserving or even saving life are obfuscated by the game's script, which makes the story feel like something pulled from a Saturday morning cartoon. It's a shame, because the concept could have come off as something that felt much more impactful, but the dialog never allows it to feel as genuine as the underlying tones might suggest.
Not All Old-School
Fortunately, there are some pieces to Lost Sphear that manage to feel fresh despite their decades-old design principles. Battles in particular feel nice for a number of reasons: players can equip characters with both weapons and armor as well as Spritnite, which functions sort of like Materia did in Final Fantasy VII. Spritnite offers different battle abilities as well as sub-abilities that can be triggered to provide a bonus effect. It can also be used to strengthen new weapons, if players so choose.
Battles themselves get an interesting twist in the new ability to move characters around on screen. Between selecting an attack and executing it, players can freely move their heroes around to maximize their potential. While it might not make too much difference for melee attackers, ranged characters like Van are able to position themselves in such a way as to hit multiple creatures in a line. This little tweak helps battles feel much more fluid, giving players the option to narrow groups of enemies together for AoE hits or to scatter so they don't get stuck in the path of an attack.
Players will also eventualy unlock Vulcosuits, which provide an increase to stats as well as different abilities. They're a questionable addition overall, mainly because there are so few opportunities to make the most out of their power. They do come in handy for some of the game's tougher battles, which is good, because some late-game creatures are surprisingly hard to take down.
Regarding The Classic Form
Lost Sphear is a game that seems to fall victim to its own ambition. It presents plenty of classic JRPG elements that fans of the genre will enjoy, but its efforts to follow a nostalgic form result in something that ultimately feels insincere. The foundation is solid, particularly with regard to its battle system, skill customization, and overall presentation, but the soul of the experience just isn't there. Lost Sphear is meant to feel like a proper return to a traditional form, but its lackluster dialog and underwhelming plot development instead result in a game that simply can't stand up to the classics it's inspired by.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 download code provided by the publisher. Lost Sphear is available in retail and digital storefronts for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam for $49.99. The game has been rated E for Everyone by the ESRB.