While games like Mass Effect, Skyrim, and The Witcher have stolen RPG headlines over the last decade, there’s still room for the likes of Lost Sphear, a homage to a self-proclaimed golden generation.
But where most of the aforementioned games have gone on to expand upon, and somewhat define the modern day definition of the genre, Lost Sphear, unfortunately, often struggles to find its way. Stuck somewhere between pandering to the games it aspires to be, and trying to thrash out unique qualities to help it stand apart, Lost Sphear is full of old, bad habits and erratic narrative, blended together by some entertaining mechanics and charming aesthetic.
Seen as something of a spiritual successor to Tokyo RPG Factory’s I Am Setsuna, a lovely game in its own right, Lost Sphear places you in the role of a young man called Kanata who’s family and loved ones mysteriously vanish in a white fog, along with all the major landmarks and cities around the world. He, along with a small group of others, unexplainedly remain and so decide to set out to face this phenomenon before everything is completely erased from existence. Yes, it does sound like a typical heroes premise, but the developers do a good job of not only emboldening it with emotion, but enlivening it with some intelligent symbolism.
And where Lost Sphear immediately succeeds is that it successfully turns the narrative into one of its core mechanics. By having players gather memories and collect crystals, they can clear away some of the fog and restore the world, one artifact at a time. Each artifact can then be crafted in your own image and imbued with various modifiers. These lighthouse-esque towers can give you all kinds of stat boosts if nearby, like increasing the damage you deal in battle or the amount of damage you can take from certain attacks. It’s a smart inclusion that immediately draws you in and helps connect you to the plot which, sadly, takes a bit too long to get off the ground.
That’s one of my major issues with Lost Sphear is that the pacing keeps going on and off the boil throughout. When the game gets a burst of momentum, the player is really swept along with it. But all of sudden, it collides with this concrete roadblock that slows everything right down to a snail’s pace. Before long, your attention will start waning and the frustrations start to set in. Inevitably, when the game does pick up again, your enthusiasm for the tidal wave diminishes ever so slightly each time.
Not helped, of course, by Lost Sphear’s insistence of going old school and making you grind the same battles in order to ‘git gud’, which takes up more time than you might expect (or like).
It’s interesting because I mentioned in my Pillars of Eternity 2 preview – an RPG which also respects and acknowledges its roots – how Obsidian are rethinking that method of play by giving you experience based on the way you play. It almost cuts out the need to keep seeking out the same mobs in order to raise your skills so you can take on that boss battle. Not so, with Lost Sphear, as you’ll often find yourself outmatched if you’ve somewhat tried to breeze your way through. A bit of backtracking does eventually become essential.
By no means is that the end of the world, though, as Lost Sphear’s combat is actually quite different from any 80’s Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger. While it’s use of the dynamic Active Time Batte System will immediately be familiar, there’s the addition of the momentum system TRF developed in I Am Setsuna. This also lets you gain bonus attacks if you time your strikes correctly and you can also customise yourself quite extensively through spritnite slots. These not only give you new techniques, but you can also boost the momentum which can even add additional effects.
The big story is the Vulcosuits, though. Your characters can jump into these mech-like shells and literally double (sometimes treble) their damage output. Physical attacks are substituted with other kinds of weaponry and you also share a team meter to provide bigger boosts. Each time a Vulcosuit is used, however, the party’s shared meter takes a dent. What’s more, once the meter is wiped out, in most cases you’re not going to be able to refill it. It’s the old adage, with great power comes great responsibility, and that really drives home the strategic layer prevalent throughout Lost Sphear. You really do have to think about your positioning, the attacks you use, how you use them, when you use them or who you use them on.
The action does feel as great as it looks as well. When you fire off screen-wide laser beams and take down three enemies at once if you catch them all in one line? That’s genuinely satisfying. Everything moves so smoothly and the transitions between action and story are seamless as Lost Sphear is all told through the in-game engine, using its low-poly 3D models and 16 bit sprites. And while you don’t get the effect of voice acting taking you through each scene, plot points can still resonate through animations and expression.
Fortunately, the soundtrack helps to fill some of that silence, playing softly and succinctly in the background. There are some wonderfully recorded melodies which can get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face. Though the games’ reliance on repetition sometimes makes it seem as if you’ve listened to the same track over and over for the last five hours.
And speaking of the overall aesthetic, at times, it feels like there’s something a little bland about the colour palette being used. Colour choice sometimes makes certain scenes appear dull and uninspiring when you’re tapping through reams of dialogue, and then there are the directional choices. When you’re stood outside a village, introducing yourselves and talking about feelings, and nobody has moved an inch or decided to take the conversation elsewhere, or even turned some of these recollections into a bit of gameplay.
To be brutally honest, it does make some characters come across as a bit bland. It’s a journey and each really builds an identity the further into the game you go, but none of them really stand out or are particularly memorable. Which is a shame.
All that said, I did enjoy Lost Sphear. It wears its faults, somewhat proudly, on its sleeve, and it shows plenty of bravery in trying to iterate in a space that has seen plenty of innovation come before it. Content wise, it is substantially bigger than I Am Setsuna with more to digest and sink your teeth into. Lost Sphear can last you a good 40 hours if you pursue all leads and try to develop the map as much as possible. It’s just such a shame that some of that content is sluggish and lacking the polish of the idols it wants to impress so badly.
+ Tons of content
+ Smart mechanics
+ Beautiful retro aesthetic
– Narrative pacing very hot and cold
– Reliance on grinding can frustrate
– Character building a bit lacking
– Music can be repetitive and grating
7.5 out of 10
Tested on Playstation 4