Is pizza ever really bad? This is a common question asked around college dorms and awkward family gatherings, and I think most people would give the same wishy washy answer: “Even bad pizza is good pizza.” This truth apparently works the same for turn-based retro-inspired JRPGs, because even though a game like Lost Sphear (from developer Tokyo RPG Factory) isn’t particularly offending, its lack of imagination, and what it brings (or rather, doesn’t bring) to the genre, lands it firmly in the category of bad pizza.
Lost Sphear is a JRPG in the same vein of Super Nintendo and original PlayStation RPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, as well as I Am Setsuna (its spiritual predecessor). The studio’s second game aims to build on their mission statement, which, as Square Enix put it, is “to recreate the golden years of JRPGs.” Setsuna succeeded in bringing back this feeling, but Lost Sphear instead fails to reinvent or build upon the foundation laid down by many of the genre’s standouts. All of which constantly left me asking myself, do we really need another one of these every few years, or should JRPG developers look to push forward, rather than recreate the past?
When I Am Setsuna released back in 2016, we were in the midst of a JRPG drought that had many critics and fans asking if the genre had disappeared from the mainstream conscious. This lack of any standout games made Setsuna’s adoption of traditional genre tropes and systems feel welcome, and much more like comfort food for a weary spirit. However, over the past 18 months, the games industry has seen the likes of Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV, both of which ushered a resurgence to the genre that it hasn’t seen in years. This new territory makes it hard for one to look at Lost Sphear with the same pair of rose-tinted glasses.
Standing on its own, Lost Sphear isn’t immediately disappointing by any stretch of the imagination. The game begins with your party discovering that large swaths of the world are disappearing into the ether, which only you can save humanity from. This might seem incredible cliche (with its one hero to save them all trope) but it actually isn’t a bad foundation for a lot of the core mechanics and narrative in the game.
The source of your power to bring cities back from the void, comes from channeling memories of people who have disappeared. If this doesn’t sound like a JRPG by now, I don’t know what else will. But it’s through this logic that I was hoping Lost Sphear would find something interesting to do with an interesting premise. However, instead of the story facilitating some of the game’s most interesting moments (the way time travel does in Chrono Trigger), its characters and set pieces weigh the game down more than they lift it up.
Aside from the story, the battles in Lost Sphear are neither extraordinary nor terrible. The active time battle system is copied from straight from Setsuna (along with a number of the game’s enemies). Traversing through areas is also identical to the developers previous game. Like traditional JRPGs, characters are kicked out to an overworld between walking through a dozen or so towns, most of which feature dungeons or shops to explore. These dungeons vary in size and contain memories to bring back what has been lost to the white fog. This formula however does become a bit tiresome after that 5th or so such dungeon which offers no variation to the standard premise.
The biggest change in the game is the addition of mech suits dubbed Vulcosuits, which your party brings into battle. These suits offer new attacks for your characters, which are more effective than your standard attacks. While this is cool idea in concept, its execution leaves lot to be desired. First and foremost, the amount of times which the suits are available to you is few and far between, which hurts a lot when trying to get adjusted to the new mechanic. Also, the suits’ abilities rely on a pool of shared Vulcosuit Points, similar to MP in a traditional RPG, that are incredibly uncommon until late game. This left me feeling as though I had a secret weapon in my back pocket which I constantly couldn’t use, taking away any agency the system might give to me. With this in mind, at the end of the day, I would’ve prefer if the Vulcosuits had just not existed at all if I was only going to be given a tease of what they could be.
The active time combat system seen in the previous game has been fine tuned to the point where it’s undeniably good, but at the same time, less special than the way the system has been used in the past in games like Chrono Trigger, or even in contemporary titles such as Ubisoft’s Child of Light. The way movement works does allow for some creativity in its implementation, but it’s not enough to spice up fights so that you’re not repeating the same combos over long chunks of the game. This leaves fights often repeating themselves enough that the grinding becomes stale after a short amount of time. Thankfully, grinding isn’t really necessary to complete the main quest, and side areas are often low enough level that they aren’t too much of challenge. That being said, I never felt terribly inclined to actively seek them out, which goes to show how little Lost Sphear’s story beats and combat left me wanting more.
One major feature that would qualify as a simple quality of life change, but feels like a major change in Lost Sphear, is the ability to chat on command with your party members. Overall, a lot of these interactions aren’t too interesting in terms of dialogue, but they are an effective way to communicate the current quest objective in game while keeping everyone in character and allowing you to bypass the less than glitzy menus and keep you on track.
Throughout my time with, Lost Sphear I couldn’t help but think that the game might actually be better played on the Nintendo Switch as opposed to other platforms such as the PlayStation 4. While the systems and main gameplay wouldn’t be changed, being able to mindlessly running through fights while I watched the NFL Playoffs or a show on Netflix might’ve been a way for me to unfocus on some of the staleness that large sections brought by having the game take up my entire attention on a big screen.
All in all, Lost Sphear isn’t a genre defining experience by any means. However, publisher Square Enix never really touted it as such. While it might be a little milquetoast and unsure of what it wants to do in order to assert itself in a genre going through a revival, I’m sure hardcore JRPG fans will still find something to enjoy in Lost Sphear. If simply by relishing in just how close it holds itself to the roots upon which the genre was founded.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Square Enix.
Despite its attempts to captures the essence of JRPGs of yesteryear, Lost Sphear fails to live up to the classics it's trying so desperately to emulate.