Lost Sphear review: Imperial march

Tokyo RPG Factory’s 2016 debut, I Am Setsuna, was a masterpiece. More than simply a throwback to the JRPGs of the ’90s, it was a deep exploration of the very concept of nostalgia, and the weird cocktail of emotions that comes with it. That didn’t stop it from being widely criticised over superficial things—”it’s too short”, “there’s too much snow”, “the piano-only score gets repetitive”—but those very “faults” are what made I Am Setsuna such a focused, concise, masterful game.

Lost Sphear feels like it was made as a direct response to those criticisms, and it suffers as a result. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good game, and one of the better modern takes on the classic JRPG formula. But that’s all it is: a very good game. In an effort to go bigger, and check off some arbitrary list of what “should” be in a game like this, Lost Sphear loses the direction and depth that made I Am Setsuna so much more than that.

That said, the new game starts off very strong. It’s said in a world plagued by a strange phenomena where things, people, and places often become “lost”—they simply disappear, leaving a glowing white void in their place. After losing his hometown to this curse, a boy called Kanata discovers that he has the power to restore what is “lost” by manifesting crystallised memories and channeling their power.

A screenshot from Lost Sphear

After successfully bringing back his hometown, Kanata, along with a few of his childhood friends, sets out on a journey to to save the world, one “lost” thing at a time. His quest soon brings him in league with the Gigante Empire (of which his hometown is part), who are also looking for a way to stop this curse. Despite their ominous-looking capital city and the fact that they’re an “Empire”—almost always a sign of evil in JRPGs—Gigante is ruled by a kindly emperor, and its army is dedicated to protecting the people.

Related reading: my review of I Am Setsuna, Tokyo RPG Factory’s first game and an absolute masterpiece.

As you might expect, there’s more to this empire than meets the eye. Though they genuinely wish to stop the “lost” phenomenon, their methods are aggressive and militant, and conveniently line up with their goals of expansion. When they witness the ugly side of the empire first-hand, Kanata and his friends take it upon themselves to stop the aggression and find a peaceful way to restore the world.

Though many of these plot elements will be familiar, Lost Sphear uses them in a very clear-cut way: to pick apart the very concept of imperialism, and how it affects those who are conquered. Obviously, you see this in a literal sense with Gigante’s aggressive approach to foreign policy, but the very idea of the “lost” is central to this theme. Things aren’t simply being destroyed, they’re being lost to the mists of time, and the key to restoring and preserving them are the memories that people hold, passed on from one person to the next. In Lost Sphear, this happens in a literal way, but it directly mimics the way whole cultures are lost under imperialism’s heel. And when something becomes too far gone, when those memories are too hard to come by, it’s lost forever.

A screenshot from Lost Sphear

Each member of your party has their own particular relationship to Gigante and the imperial war machine. Kanata hasn’t known anything other than life under the empire, and to him it’s an empire that always seemed more or less benevolent. At the same time, he’s a man without a people, with no real connection to his ancestors, and much of the game focuses on him trying to find his place in the world. To people like Sherra and Dianto, both of whom come from communities in the empire’s crosshairs, Gigante is nothing but a soulless monster. Then there’s someone like Galdra, a high-ranking imperial commander who always believed they were doing the right thing, and has to come to terms with the discovery that that isn’t always the case.

It isn’t subtle, but as a criticism of imperialism, Lost Sphear is stark and potent—until it isn’t.

Roughly two thirds of the way through the game, the story takes an abrupt into much more cliched territory, and this comes at the expense of everything that’s been building up to that point. Once the “true” villain is revealed, that subtext and commentary falls to the wayside, as oppressed and oppressor learn to put aside their differences and work together to save the world. It becomes about stopping a nihilistic would-be god through friendship and teamwork—y’know, the JRPG standard.

A screenshot from Lost Sphear

It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel like such a shallow attempt to pad out the length of the game. Up until the 20 hour mark or so, Lost Sphear tells an excellent story, and had it ended it there, it could have gone out strong. Instead, there’s another 10 to 15 hours’ worth of meandering from one diversion to the next, without any of the depth or thought-provoking qualities of the early parts of the game. If I wasn’t reviewing it, I probably would have given up somewhere in that mire and never looked back. That would have been a shame, because the actual ending itself—when you finally get there—is a good way to close out this tale, and it even feeds back into those imperialist themes of the early game. It’s just such a slog to get there.

That isn’t helped by a world that lacks any real identity. For all the jokes and criticisms about I Am Setsuna‘s endless snowscapes, that was a game with a real sense of place and emotion in its world design. The places you went to weren’t simply sights to see; they were fundamental pieces of the ideas that the game explored. That isn’t the case in Lost Sphear, which offers a lot more variety in its environment design, but without that purpose behind it. The world here is every bit as beautifully rendered as that of I Am Setsuna, but it’s very much a generic JRPG world—here’s the forest area, here’s the desert area, here’s the snow area, and so on.

Fortunately, the gameplay does a much better job of holding itself up from start to finish. Like its predecessor, Lost Sphear uses a Chrono Trigger-inspired “active time battle” system. This time around, though, you can directly control your party’s positioning on the battlefield, allowing you to avoid certain attacks or target multiple enemies at once. Indeed, much of my combat strategy involves lining up my party members in such a way that that linear projectile attacks can travel through as many enemies as possible before they finally hit their actual target.

A screenshot from Lost Sphear

The other big change since I Am Setsuna is with the mech-like vulcosuits. Each character has one of these units, which they can equip or remove at the press of a button. In vulcosuit mode, they enjoy greatly improved stats and access to unique abilities, but the trade-off is that every action costs VP—a resource pool that all characters share. Use the mechs too much, and you’ll run out of VP and be left suit-less when you probably need it most.

Vulcosuits also come into play outside combat, where they can be used to break rocks and jump down from high cliffs. They also have a special field skill called Boost that gives you a burst of speed and lets you avoid combat, but the fact that you can only use it once per area really limits its usefulness.

Beyond that, Lost Sphear really just is your standard old-timey JRPG: let the story guide you through towns and dungeons, slowly building up your party, finding new equipment and spells, and eventually getting the freedom of an airship with which to fly around the world map. It’s all very familiar, and at least in the moment-to-moment of it, it really captures what made those older games tick.

A screenshot from Lost Sphear

And that, fundamentally, is what Lost Sphear is: a very good throwback to the JRPGs we remember from the Super Nintendo days. That’s what Tokyo RPG Factory set out to make, and they’ve done a good enough job here that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes that style of game.

I just wish it was more than “a very good throwback”—like I Am Setsuna was.

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Lost Sphear is developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and published by Square Enix. It’s available now for PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.