I Am Setsuna’s spiritual successor challenges its player and its past
The bitter winds of snow-driven JRPG
I Am Setsuna were harsh; its battles, less so. Players quickly realised certain powerful skills and combos could drop enemies in mere moments. As a wistful nod to the good old days – Chrono Trigger, Final
Fantasy VI and so on – it made a case for itself through sheer charm. Tokyo RPG Factory’s follow-up pays similar homage to the greats, but is also freshly determined to set some ants among the nostalgic picnic.
While I Am Setsuna subtly tweaked the Active Time Battle System made popular by
Chrono Trigger, Lost Sphear has made a more drastic change, letting you freely move party members around the battlefield. The tactical depth this adds is distinct. When our party runs across a clutch of Mories in a nearby forest, our thoughts are as much on positioning as they are on combinations of attacks. We can now, for instance, send tough-gloved Lumina sprinting around the back line to hit a whole cluster of the angry green parrot-creatures at once. Locke’s crossbow, meanwhile, requires some light geometry: if we move him to the top of the screen, we’re able to catch four enemies in our line of fire. And these are basic attacks to boot – characters’ regular blows can often hit across more squares than their indicators might suggest, and, coupled with this new range of realtime motion, there’s more utility and creativity to be wrung out of the battle system than ever.
The constant reevaluations of a highly changeable battlefield force a proactive approach: in Setsuna, you’d simply have to hope foes would move into vulnerable groups of their own accord. Here, the result is akin to a mildly stressful game of bowling, setting them up with hero Kanata’s defense-lowering skill, then knocking several down with a well-placed blow. Even this introductory Mory encounter is somewhat tense, since these small feathery y nuisances hit decently hard. Fortunately, I
Am Setsuna’s Momentum system returns to lend a hand, as you boost damage with a timely tap of a face button before an attack k fires. Liberal, irrelevant applications of the e prefix ‘Setsuna’ also feature. Our shrine maiden hasn’t been forgotten just yet.
But the continuation of Setsuna’s spirit, t, if not its story, is welcome. Kanata’s home e town of Elgarthe is a delight to explore: delicate lighting and showers of autumn leaves depict a warmer melancholy than
Setsuna’s snowy island. There’s change in
Suiting up one character and keeping them close to the enemy works well
the air. Nevertheless, the village is bustling with life and little stories: the universally beloved innkeeper; the kid patiently teaching his pet tricks; the deadbeat husband who spends too much time in the sauna to escape his in-laws. A giant bell serves as a warning when monsters attack, and comically named dogs play in the streets. Soon, however, Elgarthe and everyone in it will disappear, whole chunks of the game’s overworld falling into a white void. Only our hero Kanata can return these forgotten parts of the world, using memory fragments recovered from battling enemies.
The caveat of Lost Sphear’s flexible combat is that bosses are cannier, using your poor positioning against you. A later battle against bow-wielding warrior Sherra and her two gorilla-esque guards is punishing, even at a lofty level 18. When we unconsciously move our characters into a tempting line, Sherra fires off a charmed arrow attack, bewitching three of our four party members. The unfortunate Van is duly knocked out, and a restart soon follows imminent. Our next run at the fight is more carefully spaced, as we hit all three enemies with long-range attacks as often as possible (Kanata has an area-of-effect skill that can lower multiple foes’ defence, which proves essential) and keep our heroes separated. A scattered formation, however, spells disaster for AOE healing efforts. Things are tense, our decision-making swift and not always correct – and here, at least, there’s no single overpowered attack to lean on.
We suppose there are the mech suits, though, great clanking piles of metal that can turn your dinky warriors into supercharged robot terrors on a whim. The Vulcosuits are more balanced than they sound, however. Pressing the left bumper transforms one or all of your party into mecha, each with a different and more powerful set of attacks and skills. Higher defence properties mean they’re a great option for your wounded characters to retreat to. Potential balance issues are mitigated by a Vulcopoints meter: using the suits and their abilities in combat rapidly drains the team’s shared charge. As long as the items that must be found to charge the meter aren’t too plentiful, this mechanical curiosity is set to add a new layer of strategy to Lost Sphear’s combat. Suiting up one character and keeping them close to the enemy to tank big hits works well.
We also quickly learn the benefits of transforming a single character with a specific skill, at certain points in more difficult battles, to conserve meter – although the quick thinking and forward planning required will doubtless take further getting used to. There are reasons to hop into Vulcosuits during exploration sections, too: meter can be spent to rocket-boost your party through areas and past enemy encounters, and sometimes we find that we need the extra clout to break through tough obstacles in our path. The whole situation feels slightly off, tonally. In our demo, at least, it’s never explained why Kanata and friends can instantly morph into robots like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Then again, it’s preferable to the appearance of ‘moral choice’ events later on. Though they are, admittedly, removed from the context of the full game, choosing to save or spare certain copy-pasted soldiers you’ve defeated feels half-hearted in its execution.
Combat refreshes and some melancholic mecha aside, Lost Sphear is mostly rather familiar. But, as the name implies, Tokyo RPG Factory is a studio knowingly carving out a nostalgic niche for itself – and, on this evidence, doing an excellent job of it. Lost
Sphear is making a strong case for the relevance of the quietly accomplished, retrostyle JRPG in a market of bombastic action. It’s a product of both Setsuna’s failures and successes – its classic spirit arguing that we shouldn’t forget the past, lest we lose what makes it so special.