Going into 2018, Lost Sphear was one of my most anticipated games of this year. That's because I am Setsuna was easily one of my favorite games last year, specifically on Nintendo Switch where I played it. Its gut-wrenching story and beautifully flawed characters easily made up for an uninspired combat system and the relatively samey nature of its environments.
It's unfortunate, then, that in an attempt to revamp the turn-based combat and make the world seem more varied, Lost Sphear loses all of the heart and personality that made I am Setsuna so special. Staying true to the Tokyo RPG Factory name, Lost Sphear feels like a piece of machinery built on an assembly line.
Lost Sphear Review: Lacking Focus
For the vast majority of Lost Sphear, I found myself trying to piece together and figure out what exactly was the point of its story. This is due to a lack of focus, with the game trying to spread itself too thin and cover too many points in a rather brief amount of time.
The world of Lost Sphear is gradually disappearing, with whole towns and areas turning into white mist and being "lost" forever. The game's plot begins with protagonist Kanata and his companions on an adventure to stop this phenomenon, as Kanata is the only one with the power to use memories to restore the lost places to their former state.
It is a promising premise, but one that quickly collapses under the weight of the many other storylines that Lost Sphear quickly shifts between. For instance, Kanata briefly mentions early on that he wants to look for his missing mom while on the journey and then proceeds to never mention her again for almost the entire game.
That's far from the only example of this lack of focus, as there's a former King dealing with regret, themes of tyranny, and even the whole 'restoring the world' aspect that is brushed under the carpet. Everything does come somewhat together by the very end, but by then, it was too late. It doesn't help that the characters make that journey to the end a real slog.
Lost Sphear Review: Cookie Cutter Characters
It's impressive (in a bad way) that Lost Sphear is able to have a protagonist with a voice and motivations, and he's still far less interesting than the silent hero Endir in I am Setsuna. Unfortunately, he is just one problem with the cast in the game.
From the main trio of orphans to the anguished war maiden to the mysterious and dark Van, the foundation is there for interesting backstories and personalities, but they all failed to stand out. Much like the story, there are signs of greatness for a couple of the party members near the end, but it all comes a little too late.
In fact, the most disappointing part of Lost Sphear is knowing what it could've been. One character, in particular, has a single line in the latter half of the game that was so subtle but conveyed more feeling in that sentence than anything else had in the rest of the whole game. The characters are so cookie cutter formulaic in design that they almost all feel so lifeless and lack any type of personality.
This is contrary to the lively and gorgeous world that Tokyo RPG Factory has created. Learning from feedback on I am Setsuna, no area or city is like another. Lost Sphear takes place in an early autumn-like setting, with beautiful hues of orange, red, yellow, and brown highlighting its bright and charming aesthetic.
There is a lot of attention given to each specific region and area. The capital city of the Empire, for instance, is the dark blot on the world that purposefully contrasts everything else in the game. Its complex layout and steampunk design make it a location that I won't soon forget. Dungeons are intelligently designed, too, featuring non-linear paths and tons of secrets for the most diligent players to discover.
Unfortunately, Lost Sphear does suffer from technical issues on Switch. While exploring the world and battling monsters, there is the occasional stuttering that can be an annoyance. During combat, the frame rate also dips sometimes, slowing down the action and even hindering input.
Lost Sphear Review: Shut Up and Dance
If it weren't for the aforementioned beautiful world and also the turn-based combat, I would've never enjoyed my time with Lost Sphear. It's in these two aspects that the game is truly able to capture the feeling of old-school JRPG greats like Chrono Trigger and Xenogears. As for its gameplay, Lost Sphear takes the foundation laid by I am Setsuna and builds upon it in some great ways.
Timing and placement is everything in Lost Sphear's combat, and each person in your party has a different style of attacking. Kanata and his best friend Lumina are melee fighters with a limited area of reach, while ranged characters like Van and war maiden Sherra shoot projectiles in a straight line across the field.
When you select a character to attack, you are shown a shadow version of the person onscreen. At this moment, everything else is frozen and you are able to move this shadow around the field freely using the left thumbstick. Instead of cycling through enemy targets, you are able to set up your attack wherever and on whoever you want.
This simple addition makes Lost Sphear's combat one of the most strategically engaging turn-based systems I've ever experienced. For melee fighters, you can maneuver them in-between two enemies in order to hit both with one attack. For ranged fighters, you can shift them around the map and line up attacks on multiple enemies at once.
Every enemy also has a weak spot on them that does extra damage. Mix all of these elements together with the Momentum system from I am Setsuna where you press a button at the right moment to do an extra hit, and Lost Sphear becomes a delicate dance of dazzling effects and positioning.
That's just the tip of the turn-based combat, though, as there is also the return of spritnite and a few new additions. Spritnite is like materia in the Final Fantasy series. Equipping these items gives your team new abilities, ranging from healing skills to offensive magic spells.
Vulcosuits are mech suits that you can use in battle and in solving environmental puzzles. Using these suits in combat opens up new ways of fighting enemies, including Chrono Trigger-like combos. Each character has attacks that they can combine with other party members for major damage on multiple enemies at once.
Artifacts are another game-changing mechanic that is more tied to exploration and the restoring the world side of Lost Sphear. As you explore the overworld map, you'll see optional lost areas that you can restore using memories found when fighting monsters.
When you restore an artifact, you get to select what is built there. Each artifact grants a permanent bonus to the game from seeing all enemy health bars to increasing critical hits. These new features are welcome, as well as the considerably better difficulty level of Lost Sphear compared to I am Setsuna. It has a more even challenge, gradually growing at a reasonable pace while never being too easy.
Lost Sphear Review: Conclusion
Lost Sphear feels like it's at war with itself. In trying to be so much and do so much, it forgets what made I am Setsuna such a memorable and special experience. The forgettable characters and lack of focus undermine what it does do right: crafting a stunning world that begs to be explored.
However, that isn't to say that Lost Sphear isn't fun to play. The numerous gameplay features like vulcosuits, spritnite, and artifacts come together to create an enjoyable and complex turn-based system that promotes strategy. Here's hoping that Tokyo RPG Factory's next project takes that gameplay design and applies it to a heartfelt story that doesn't feel like it was assembled on a conveyor belt.
A Switch copy of the game was provided by the publisher.