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August 2018

Lost Sphear

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Release Date: Jan. 23, 2018

About Andreas Salmen

I'm sure this is all just a misunderstanding.


Switch Review - 'Lost Sphear'

by Andreas Salmen on Feb. 8, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Lost Sphear is a JRPG that begins in a remote town where a young boy, Kanata, awakens from a devastating dream to find his hometown disappearing.

Buy Lost Sphear

Looking for a decent collection of JRPGs to go? To date, the best choice is still the fading PS Vita. The Nintendo Switch isn't there yet, but the niches take time to develop, and the Switch already has a heavy hitter with Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I Am Setsuna offered a more classical and old-school approach, and although Tokyo RPG Factory's first title polarized critics, it was still a solid genre title for the Switch.

The same developer is ready to improve upon the formula with its second game in the vein of classic JRPGs, Lost Sphear. The title succeeds in moving the studio forward incrementally, but it doesn't live up to expectations.

Lost Sphear is a spiritual successor to I Am Setsuna, so the gameplay and tone are similar, but its story is self-contained. We face an unknown threat that could end the world, unless a chosen boy, Kanata, uses his abilities to discover its origin and fight it. He doesn't have to fight alone, as he meets diverse characters along the way, and they join his quest. Within the first hour, we're introduced to three characters — Kanata, Locke and Lumina — as well as an unknown stranger. Our hometown is slowly becoming "lost," which means it's being replaced by a white-silver mist. Kanata is the only person who can reverse the effect by regaining the lost parts of the world through memories.

The quest evolves into the Imperial Empire informing Kanata about several similar incidents across the world, and his assistance is requested. The remaining story takes a few twists and turns, many of which can be seen a mile away. It's a well-written JRPG story, with characters we can easily connect with and care about enough to finish the relatively short 20+ hours of gameplay. While I Am Setsuna tackled the topics of death, loss and mourning in a depressing winter atmosphere, Lost Sphear explores creation and hope in beautiful environments.

A well-written story is one thing, but what makes and breaks a well-thought-out JRPG are its mechanics and design, especially the battle system. Lost Sphear uses a familiar turn-based battle system but refines the formula a bit. Such systems can feel antiquated and passive, since active tactics take a backseat to statistics running in the background. In Lost Sphear, instead of waiting for our turn and choosing a move, we can actively position our characters (up to four per battle) on the battlefield with every action. Each character has an area of effect for every attack, so we can hit more enemies at once with clever positioning or avoid taking damage if we line them up differently. It also makes boss battles interesting because a few of them have attack patterns that can be avoided if we correctly position our characters.

It doesn't redefine the genre, and it's hardly a deep battle tactic, but it gives players something to do apart from just choosing the next move or item. Depending on what you prefer, the battle system is either active or semi-active, never pausing the action and leaving it up to the player if enemies should wait their turn or attack when they're ready. Throughout the match, we also fill a momentum meter that can be spent to deal special damage during attacks or pull off special countermoves.

The key to Lost Sphear is spritnites, which are materials with several battle-related properties, such as  special attacks, counters and momentum bonuses. Spritnites are earned, found, purchased and traded throughout the story, and they have several uses. Some allow the team to use special attacks in battle and use our mana meter. That also means that we can modify the special abilities that we want our characters to use between battles and find the right combinations. In addition to the skills, we can add momentum and counter spritnites to characters to provide bonuses, buffs or debuffs. Different spritnites can fortify our equipment and improve our stats, so buying new equipment isn't always the best way to pack a punch into the next battle.

This alone would make Lost Sphear a decently feature-packed JRPG, considering it's on the shorter side. However, the game is packed with a number of overlapping systems that can feel excessive considering the short playtime. Some never get the time to fully develop or achieve their potential. For example, we acquire Vulcosuits, which is an ancient battle-tech that every character can use. The suits are used to destroy boulders for minor exploration and shortcuts, but they can also be used to boost around or boost your stats in battle. To balance their power with limited usage time, they use a certain kind of energy that depletes quickly. After completing the story, I've barely used the feature except when the game mandates it. Another mechanic that the game actively pushed was cooking meals. While out in the environment, we can collect items, most of which are ingredients to cook meals at inns to boost certain statistics. We can also go fishing for ingredients in what is perhaps the most insulting fishing minigame I've ever played since you can never actually fail.

As expected from a JRPG, Lost Sphear has an overworld, but it doesn't have any random encounters, and battles only occur within the levels. Due to the game's length, grinding is hardly ever necessary, especially since all of our characters earn experience even when they aren't battling. You can return to levels and fight the same monsters for experience, collect memories or look for items you may have missed the first time. The objective of the story is to recover lost parts of the world by reapplying memories that we find in the environment, and this is mainly done by killing monsters in the area. Most lost areas are recovered within the main storyline, but other parts of the world can be recovered at a more leisurely pace. Some may be lost chests within a level, but others might be entire landscapes.

Throughout the story, we'll find several artifacts that can change the tide of battle. For example, an artifact may improve the critical hit chance at the cost of lowered defense stats. We can choose which artifact we want to build and can always replace it with different artifacts. This can create an interesting way of playing the game by altering our preferred play style while uncovering the lost parts of the maps. That also alters the game for our enemies, so we have to consider our strengths and weaknesses before deciding what to build.

Can there ever be too much? In the case of Lost Sphear, the abundance of different gameplay systems hurts the overall game experience. The title can seem unfocused in what it expects from the player, and while certain aspects feel like great ideas, like the revamped battle system and artifacts, the Vulcosuits and meals don't feel right. The individual systems of Lost Sphear can feel overpowered and, in conjunction with another system, make the game easier than it's meant to be.

Seasoned JRPG gamers will jump into the midst of it and try to make the most of every system. Compare statistics, ensure the armor and weapons are the best, and most importantly, fortify them with every possible spritnite. By doing this, players can pretty much waltz through the game. If we ran into a tough spot, using the otherwise neglected Vulcosuits with their improved stats gave us the edge to rampage through. It felt like the game punished us for taking their systems seriously instead of brushing over them because there are too many in a small space. This is partly rectified if you go into hard mode, but we expected to get an occasional challenge out of the medium difficulty level. Overloading the game with these extraneous systems can make you very powerful early on, but it's temporary.

Visually, Lost Sphear is simple but visually appealing. Fans of this classic art style won't be disappointed, and there should be something for everyone to like here. The game runs reasonably well both docked and undocked, but every so often, it has the occasional hiccup during battle. It was far from distracting, and otherwise, Lost Sphear ran perfectly. The music is a vast improvement over the last game, and it sounds mostly good and atmospheric. However, the music doesn't often react to actual events in the game, so it can sound repetitive. The soundtrack is a mixed bag but has a few good tunes. Boss battles and enemies are varied and can makes us think about strategies and best formations. The character design isn't overly ambitious, but there were great boss battles and noteworthy moments.

Overall, Lost Sphear is a solid JRPG title. It incrementally improves upon I Am Setsuna, but players who didn't like that game likely won't like this offering, either. There's an imbalance that feels like it's punishing us for being good by making the game a tad easy on occasions. It feels like an indie game in length and ambition, since it tries out new things, but it falls short. The $50 price tag doesn't align with what Lost Sphear achieves, so this game is best for fans and nostalgia seekers.

Score: 6.7/10

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