Delve into ancient memories to save your homeland.
PC Release: January 23, 2018
By Ian Coppock
Truly, strange times are afoot. A reality TV star is president, Britain is leaving the EU, and weirdest of all… a JRPG is being reviewed on Art as Games. Lost Sphear is the first ever JRPG to get a spot on this page, and it seemed like a good place to start because its developer, Tokyo RPG Factory, insists that it’s a collage of everything great about the genre. Lost Sphear does indeed offer up a lot of JRPG conventions; whether those constitute a successful game is the question of tonight’s review.
Created by the one and same Tokyo RPG Factory that produced 2016’s I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear is an isometric Japanese role-playing game that just screams Final Fantasy. The game kicks off with a nameless king battling an ancient evil before fast-forwarding to a small town in a magical kingdom. As JRPGs so often go, players are given command of three heroes with whom to stop the moon from destroying the world… or something. The exposition is a little vague on that one.
The aforementioned protagonists hit every JRPG checkbox. The star of the show is a kid who lost his parents and is destined to save the world. His sidekicks are a blatantly obvious love interest and an embarrassing best friend who provides forced comic “relief.” Each character also adheres strictly to the JRPG dress code with crazy hair, bright clothes, and shoes that are about 10 sizes too large. Likewise, the game’s villains are the usual flamboyant masterminds who look like they’re on their way to a Criss Angel lookalike contest.
Lost Sphear‘s characters look straight out of a 2004 JRPG, and not just because of their attire. This game’s characters look dated, with fuzzy facial features, stiff animations, and blocky extremities. They also do that JRPG thing where they awkwardly move their entire bodies for even the smallest physical expressions. It would seem that, in its haste to emulate the JRPGs of yore, Tokyo RPG Factory ripped off even the now-obsolete graphics of Lost Sphear‘s predecessors.
Even though Lost Sphear‘s character models look like they were copy/pasted from Final Fantasy VII, the game’s environments look fine. They’re lovely. Tokyo RPG Factory can’t render a character model worth a damn, but the studio excels at creating intricately detailed environments that burst with color. There’s also plenty of object detail to draw players’ eyes. While it’s great that Lost Sphear‘s world looks pretty, that prettiness cuts a conspicuous contrast with the mannequin-looking characters. Save some pixels for them, Tokyo RPG Factory!
Lost Sphear scores some additional art points with its soundtrack. The game’s background music is a lovely assortment of light strings and woodwinds, while the combat anthem sounds straight outta Pokemon. While Lost Sphear‘s music is mostly pleasant, it has a nasty tendency to loop. There’s one town in the game where players have to suffer this problem in the extreme, as the same dainty little song repeats itself over and over and over again.
Lost Sphear is incompetent when it comes to other areas of sound design. While its music is nice, everything else from the sounds of combat to exploring the wilds sounds muffled. This is particularly troublesome for the combat. Part of the thrill of battle lies in hearing the force of every hit, but even the fiercest sword strike sounds more like a butterfly kiss than a blade rending flesh. Like many JRPGs, Lost Sphear is so focused on making its world look cool that it forgets to make that world sound cool, and that’s a problem. Nothing breaks immersion like a conspicuous audio-visual imbalance.
Lost Sphear‘s combat isn’t much for immersion, either. As with many JRPGs, Lost Sphear relies on that clunkiest and most boring form of “battle”: turn-based combat. Y’know, that system wherein the combatants stand in neat lines slapping each other instead of actually fighting. Some JRPGs have agonizingly long “battles”, but Lost Sphear‘s are mercifully quick. Use an item or ability, sit there like a b**** while the bad guy slaps the player back, rinse and repeat.
That last sentence is more of a tutorial than Lost Sphear ever provides. This title continues the age-old JRPG tradition of burying players alive in an avalanche of menus and expecting them to just… figure it out. The tutorial points out how to use a few specific attacks, but fails to illustrate how to effectively use the overarching combat system. Seriously, even a few button prompts would be great, Tokyo RPG Factory. Anything to help this game’s combat system be less of a sleep aid.
Lost Sphear‘s exploration is marginally more interesting than its combat. It’s not anything that JRPG veterans won’t already have done a million times, though. Walk around neat little mazes of houses (or trees), open treasure chests for money (or items), and occasionally uncover hidden paths (or not). This exploration system isn’t odious but it sure doesn’t deviate from the road trod by dozens of other JRPGs. Isn’t blazing new trails the point of exploration?
Lost Sphear‘s strident dedication to rehashing what’s already been beaten to death in other JRPGs seeps into its user interface. The game’s combat and navigation menus feel primitive… almost as if they’ve been plucked from an early Final Fantasy game rather than built for a contemporary title. Lost Sphear‘s options menu is an unadulterated train wreck that contains a few paltry options for visual and audio fidelity. There are no options for rebinding controls; worse still, players who opt to play Lost Sphear with a controller may still have to input a few commands with a keyboard!
Lost Sphear has committed many egregious sins so far, but the title’s piece de res***stance is undoubtedly its writing. Lost Sphear‘s writing is stilted, awkwardly phrased, and feels like it’s there more to fill space than to tell a story. The game’s character writing is laughably bad. Every person in this title spends ten minutes arguing about the most trivial details, and not a single joke lands in the entire production. None of the characters evolve beyond their well-worn JRPG niches, nor do they ever shut up about the usual platitudes that this genre drowns players in.
The narrative that these characters trudge around in is worse even than the dialogue, and it only kicks in after about five hours of playtime. That’s par for the course with JRPGs, though; nothing terrifies these games more than letting players jump into an actual story. No, Lost Sphear says, let’s slow the narrative down with drawn-out character intros and running around in the woods doing nothing of interest.
Lost Sphear‘s story doesn’t have much to tell, especially to JRPG veterans. Basically, an ancient evil is returning after many years away, and a boy has to stop it using the powers of love, friendship, and phoenix down. Lost Sphear gets a point for its evil taking the form of a white fog instead of something more conspicuous (like the Heartless), but its narrative goes through the exact same motions as the stories of many JRPGs before it.
Lost Sphear is one of those rare games that disappoints all gaming audiences equally. Players who dislike JRPGs will despise it for exalting the genre’s worst tendencies, while JRPG fans will grow bored with the game’s reluctance to innovate. In trying so hard to be a love letter to past JRPGs, Lost Sphear ends up being utterly derivative. It’s a flavorless, unoriginal blob that’s too busy ripping off of other games to conceive a single iota of novelty. Gamers of all stripes are thus best off giving Lost Sphear a wide berth.
You can buy Lost Sphear here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.