When I Am Setsuna released in 2016, the writing was already on the wall—Tokyo RPG Factory’s first title was a carefully honed JRPG that would find a home as a favorite among diehard fans of the genre, but would do little to sway those who weren’t already interested in turn-based combat. The game succeeded where Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory wanted it to, thriving through fans who couldn’t possibly hate its callbacks to genre titans like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, but it also felt like something of a missed opportunity. The game was gorgeous, featured one of the best soundtracks of the year, and didn’t demand too much of its players’ free time. Marketed a little differently, with a slightly larger slant toward attracting new fans to the genre, I Am Setsuna could have been much bigger.
Lost Sphear, then, seems poised to answer the what-ifs that were left behind in the wake of I Am Setsuna‘s JRPG brilliance. The follow-up effort from Tokyo RPG Factory is a brand new title that has learned from its predecessors mistakes. Where I Am Setsuna was a restrained, careful walk through some of the genre’s most tried-and-true tropes, Lost Sphear is a whirlwind, a vortex that absorbs every well-received element of classic JRPGs and coalesces them into one singular game. Lost Sphear is Tokyo RPG Factory’s fever dream, the result of a studio with more confidence beginning to try something new under the guise of something old.
During our hands-on time with Lost Sphear, it became abundantly clear that the snowscape of its predecessor had been abandoned by Tokyo RPG Factory in favor of a world with more variety. We navigated through a forest, a desert, and a mine—none of which are groundbreaking in terms of environmental design, of course, but are a welcome change from just snow—and each environment felt distinct. The soundtrack, too, feels more diverse, eschewing the constant presence of heartbreak that echoed through I Am Setsuna with notes of hope and bravery mixed in too.
Even the protagonist and his party are vastly improved, with personalities that feel nuanced and, at times, a little strange. The protagonist, Kanata, isn’t quite sure why he has his powers, and seems to wield them without much consideration despite the implication that they are extremely dangerous. He’s a tool being used by multiple political forces, and it hints at a narrative that has the potential to blossom into multi-faceted conflicts by the end of the story. The sense of intrigue that permeates both the player characters and those around them make for a fascinating world.
That world, however, isn’t one that is immediately familiar, even to fans of JRPGs. Lost Sphear is more like a buffet-style indulgence of some of the most popular tropes in the genre. Magitek-style robotic suits are present, alongside the typical Chosen One powers that make the protagonist a one-of-a-kind hero chosen by fate. There are the Artifacts, the tools the protagonist uses to rebuild the world in an almost Fallout-esque manner, and there is the nothingness that Kanata is forced to heal, a mysterious force that causes entire swaths of land to utterly cease to exist, replaced by a bright white void that nobody can traverse.
To combat that nothingness, players must battle monsters to collect their memories, which Kanata can then combine into the aforementioned Artifacts that heal the blighted land that is slowly enveloping the rest of the world. The combat that is necessitated by Kanata’s quest is another eclectic collection, equal parts Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy Tactics. Positioning party members takes on a huge role in battle, and can be the deciding factor in some of the game’s tougher fights. During our hands-on, we wiped our party twice simply because we weren’t paying close enough attention to where party members were once they finished their attacks, leaving us wide open to counterattacks from the game’s well-prepared AI. It’s a welcome addition to Lost Sphear, which feels like it has refined turn-based combat to feel more dynamic than it did in I Am Setsuna.
Ultimately, our hands-on experience with Lost Sphear seemed to reveal a game that, for better or worse, is aiming for the absolute peak of the JRPG mountain. It plays like something of a greatest hits catalogue for what has worked in the genre before, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as deft implementation of key features and its unique qualities being compelling have Lost Sphear set up to shock the world. Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory have a hit on their hands—now we just have to see where it lands.
Lost Sphear releases on January 23, 2018 for Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Steam.