Lost Sphear PC, PS4, Switch
Tokyo RPG Factory’s second project mixes melancholy with nostalgia
Compared to those of his colleagues tasked with figuring out the future and profitability of the Japanese RPG,
Atsushi Hashimoto’s day job is more straightforward. As director of Tokyo RPG Factory, a small team stationed within Square Enix’s lavish Shinjuku headquarters, Hashimoto’s brief is simply to make affordable games that recapture the spirit and ambiance of the company’s beloved 16bit catalogue. He is, in other words, in the business of nostalgia-making – a comfortable place to be when the contemporary JRPG is faltering. While the director of the no-doubtin-development Final Fantasy XVI sweats somewhere else in the building in search of maps to places that don’t yet exist, Hashimoto need only unfurl the well-worn and proven blueprints of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and all the rest, and follow their example.
Not that he hasn’t brought his own vision and flair to the enterprise. I Am Setsuna, Hashimoto’s directorial debut, was released in 2015 and was both a critical and commercial success. Built in Unity, it was a thoroughly straightforward game with a straightforward score, a straightforward plot and the straightforward rhythms of team combat and recuperation. But in its plainspoken confidence and competence, the game filled a yawning gap in the JRPG market. It sold enough, seemingly, to guarantee the future of Hashimoto and his team’s continued excursions into the past: Lost Sphear is the team’s second game, one that aims to address some of the niggles and complaints aimed at its predecessor, without the need to pick up its narrative threads and build a formal series. This is an all-new story with an all-new cast, even if its style and approach offer a continuation of I Am Setsuna’s example.
Hashimoto, however, is not taking anything for granted. “With I Am Setsuna, we had an idea of what would be a good game and an interesting approach,” he tells us. “To a certain degree, we found there was a gap between our perception of what we thought a contemporary RPG in the classic style would
need, and what fans were looking for. For example, there were no inns in our game. It turns out that a lot of people love inns. So we’ve put them in to the new game. Wherever possible, this time around we’ve tried to close those sorts of gaps.”
I Am Setsuna’s theme was the folly of unexamined tradition – of doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done (an apropos subject, considering the current state of the genre). Lost Sphear also has a subject relevant to its form: that of fading memories. When a recollection is lost in a person’s mind, that location or individual disappears entirely from the world, to be whisked off to a purgatory known only as Lost, where it remains, unrecoverable. One day 16-year-old protagonist Kanata returns home to find his home town wiped off the map in this way. He soon discovers that, unlike the rest of the population, he has the power to restore that which is lost. Together with his childhood friends, Lumina and Locke, as well as an older man named Van (names that will be somewhat familiar to Final Fantasy aficionados), Kanata works to reinstate these lost pieces of the world.
If Hashimoto sees himself as a kind of Kanata, lifting a style of forgotten game from obscurity and anachronism, he’s not letting on. He is willing to admit that Lost Sphear has a deliberately melancholic tone to match its theme. All of his favourite games from childhood ended in sadness and loss, he says. “That’s the mood I want to create here.”
Despite the success of Tokyo RPG Factory’s debut, the development team has remained the same size for this follow-up. “There’s no negative reason for why we haven’t expanded the team,” says Hashimoto. “We just happen to think that a dozen or so people is the ideal size for a game of this vision and scope.” It’s a diplomatic answer. As any blockbuster developer knows, balancing the financial costs of large-scale development with the potential sales is a delicate, high-risk enterprise.
Perhaps for this reason, RPGs are increasingly being made by smaller, often wholly independent teams. There was a notable dearth of ambitious studio JRPGs at this year’s E3. “It’s certainly true that there are fewer games like this being made today,” Hashimoto says. “There are various reasons for that. More than anything, the amount it costs to make any kind of game of that size is prohibitive these days. But I like to see that as an opportunity. It is a time for smaller teams like ours to shine through.”
Assume the position
I Am Setsuna’s battle system allowed characters to seamlessly enter battle when encountering a foe on the map. But each combatant was limited to fighting from a predetermined position. In response to criticism, Lost
Sphear will allow players to direct the positioning of their squad in order to, for example, include as many enemies as possible in a ranged or area attack. “We did a lot of experimentation with different ways you could position team members in battle,” Hashimoto says. “The solution we came up with adds a keen strategic element.” Hashimoto was unwilling to discuss specific details, but characters will, at some point, be able to wear mystical Vulcosuits to expand their combat options.
“We just happen to think that a dozen or so people is the ideal size for this game”
Critics argued that IAm Setsuna became too easy through a combination of powerful combos and an unlimited inventory, two facets that have been overhauled to maintain challenge in LostSphear
ABOVE Chrono Trigger’s battle system once again provides the template for Lost Sphear’s combat, albeit now with the capacity for positional strategising
IAmSetsuna proved an early success on Switch. Lost Sphear has been designed specifically with the console in mind, since it’s a platform that Hashimoto says is ideal for the kinds of games the studio wants to make
ABOVE The objects that ‘disappear’ from Lost Sphear’s world range from rocks up to entire towns
TOP LEFT Play switches to an overhead world map whenever you exit a town or dungeon, in the familiar style of pre-PS2 Final Fantasy games.
LEFT Where IAmSetsuna limited its scenes to the bucolic – thick forests, thunderstruck mountaintops, rolling hills – LostSphear has a wider range of locales, including dour, yet oddly striking industrial cities