One of my favorite aspects of video games as a medium is its penchant to evolve. Japanese role playing games have been around for over decades and they've gone through a myriad of changes over the years. Sure, many of the core tenets have remained the same, but it's been a pleasure to watch the genre grow and expand its scope. That's why Tokyo RPG Factory's sophomore release, Lost Sphear, has me slightly bewildered. I suppose it was never exactly touted as a game that was going to revolutionize the genre. In fact, both of Tokyo RPG Factory's outings have been advertised as pretty much the polar opposite. I've never been the one to yearn for the games of yesteryear, which is why Lost Sphear feels like a throwback JRPG checking all the boxes on the genre nostalgia spreadsheet.
Lost Sphear is certainly trying to cater to retro gamers and in that regard it succeeds. The turn-based combat is serviceable, the dialogue is entirely text based, and the plot hits some very familiar beats. In short, the game is JRPG comfort food. To its credit, though, Lost Sphear has an enticing, dreamy and sleepy atmosphere. It's the kind of game you play while wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket on a cold night. The art direction and the music blend together to further accentuate this warm, nostalgic mood. While the atmosphere hits a lot of the right notes, the moment to moment gameplay is a grab bag of dull shades in-between.
Tokyo RPG Factory's first game, I Am Setsuna, shares a lot of similarities with Lost Sphear. The art design for both games is cute, and the minimalist soundtracks are endearing. However, the various combat systems, the torrent of items, and somewhat obtuse spritnite system (the game's magic/tech abilities) killed a lot of my motivation to continue playing both games. I will admit that the addition of being able to move your characters around the battle field in attempts to line up AOE attacks or long range projectiles that travel through multiple monsters is welcome. This side of the combat is fun. It's a small touch that peels back a layer of depth for the combat and forces players to be more cognizant of enemy movements and attack patterns. But things fall apart when the game starts stacking unnecessary systems and items until you're buried in an avalanche of spritnite, memories, artifacts, and enough food to open a respectable grocery store.
There are lots to spritnite system, both in good and in bad. There are regular skill spritnite, momentum spritnite, and counter spritnite. Momentum spritnite can be affixed to skill spritnite, and momentum abilities can only be activated with a timed button press - but only if you have at least one charge in your momentum meter. You can only charge your momentum meter by initiating attacks, moving around the battle field, or taking hits. There's also another facet to combat that has its own meter, namely special abilities and complications, but since mentioning exactly what that is might dip into spoiler territory, so I'll just leave it at that. The point is, the combat systems can get unnecessarily complex, yet it still somehow manages not to feel as tedious as in I Am Setsuna.
By the end of game I was just dumping random spritnite into momentum slots and calling it good. Despite all the complications, the normal difficulty of Lost Sphear is incredibly easy. Sure, you can bump the game up to hard mode, but playing on the default difficulty I found myself steamrolling the majority of the boss fights without much of a resistance. It's kind of a shame too, since the boss encounters are where the combat gets to spread its wings and potentially opens up for some creative strategies. But when the final boss has room to attack your party only one before he dies, it might be an indication that the game is leaning a little too far towards the simple side of things.
The writing in Lost Sphear starts out relatively simple but quickly builds into a crescendo of almost every genre trope conceivable. We have the amnesic lead character with a mysterious power, the spunky childhood friend, the brooding mage who may or may not have ulterior motives, the gruff tank with a heart of gold... you get the picture. The writing, though, shines through at moments and can be surprisingly charming and funny, which helps the characters feel real and believable. However, there's still a healthy dose of techno babble and more than a few instances where the main story threads weave in the "power of friendship", and something about memories and feelings and hope having the power to restore the world. The overarching premise of the narrative is so absurd at times that it almost feels like a parody of JRPG plots. However, I'm pretty sure this isn't the case as the majority of the dialogue (especially towards the end) is presented as very stern and self-serious. For example, you can find this kind of dialogue: "fall into the gentle arms of oblivion... and embrace the eternal white darkness that awaits you."
Lost Sphear is a tough sell. Its nostalgic veneer might be enticing for some but it doesn't do enough to draw the interest of newcomers to the genre. After I Am Setsuna, I was hopeful that Tokyo RPG Factory's next outing would get it right. Instead, Lost Sphear has taken a few steps backwards. We're left with a cold, perfunctory box of bargain brand cereal going for a premium price. There are signs of life, like promising combat mechanics and endearing moments within the narrative, but as a whole, Lost Sphear is just trying to play it too safe. I will admit that there is a sizable chunk of content here as my fifty five hour playthrough was made up of about ninety five percent main story and five percent of late game sidequests. But when the game feels chore to play, some brevity would have been welcomed. It's a shame to see a title with so much promise feel so flat, but I guess Lost Sphear's main characters' optimism has rubbed off on me. I still think the folks at Tokyo RPG Factory have the ability to make a truly outstanding game. Here's to hoping.