114 Lost Sphear
PC, PS4, Switch
There are surprises in the storytelling, with one or two genuine shocks, even if one twist is blindingly obvious
Developer Tokyo RPG Factory Publisher Square Enix Format PC, PS4 (tested), Switch Release Out now
Centred on a plucky group seeking to revive lost places by summoning old memories, Lost
Sphear’s story might seem a little on-the-nose coming from a studio whose raison d’etre seems to be just that. As with its wintry debut, I Am Setsuna, this is a consciously old-fashioned JRPG, designed to evoke fond feelings of a time before extravagant, fully voiced cutscenes and lavish presentation became the norm. It uses the same top-down camera as its predecessor, and also features a turn-based battle system with realtime elements. There’s some shared terminology, too, and a melancholic undercurrent to its narrative. Yet if this spiritual successor of sorts has been pressed into a similar mould, it’s not quite the production-line number it first appears – and not only because you have a party of four this time, rather than three.
The world’s still blanketed in white, but it’s not snow that’s covering the ground; rather, a strange phenomenon is occurring whereby towns and villages are becoming ‘lost’ – replaced by a twinkling, empty space. It turns out that they’re not so much gone as forgotten: the residual memories of these places have somehow attached themselves to nearby monsters, and only by defeating them can our heroes reinstate these settlements and their inhabitants.
In practical terms, that means guiding earnest protagonist Kanata and his growing party of allies from town to city to swamp to castle, defeating clusters of creatures while pulling the odd lever and hitting the occasional switch. Some of these monsters are subtly repurposed from Setsuna, but most are original designs. Indeed, it’s a more visually diverse journey in general: though it lacks a distinctive aesthetic identity, it doesn’t have the same problem where your next destination looks much like the last. The dungeons are structured in much the same way, but even from above the surroundings can be striking. There’s a strong sense of foreboding when exploring a desolate ship graveyard, its wrecks linked by creaking gangplanks; by contrast, a mirrored lake at twilight is so beautiful you’ll happily linger, splashing around in the shallows.
Not that you can afford to be idle when battle commences, of course. This time you’re free to move your party around the battlefield, positioning them to launch close-range melee attacks or use special skills from a distance. Each attack’s range is highlighted before you confirm your selection, letting you drop Kanata among a group of guards at the precise spot to ensure a cyclone attack hits them all, or drag rebel leader Sherra around to line up a magic bolt that can beguile a row of three razor-toothed penguins. Meanwhile, a momentum gauge steadily charges: once it’s filled, you can land a second blow by pressing a button as you launch the first attack. Then again, waiting for the opportunity can potentially waste valuable seconds, unless you can complete your actions for the next party member as the first gets into position.
By default, monsters and cooldowns will pause when you’re picking a move, a consumable or a target – though a fully active option is available for those keen to increase the pressure. We’re not sure we’d recommend the latter for most players, since an erratic difficulty curve can see you survive one battle without a scratch, with the next leaving you at death’s door. And though after a few hours you’re given the use of mech suits to boost your attack power – and to unlock potentially devastating combination moves to ease you through the tougher fights – they’re bound to an energy system so limited you can only realistically use them in emergencies. Eventually, you unlock the ability to refill the gauge at save-point markers and via consumables, but the latter are so rare, and so expensive, that you’ll mostly resort to fighting on foot.
Yet just as it establishes these limitations, Lost Sphear also affords you room to impose your own playstyle on combat – and, cleverly, it’s tied to how you redevelop its world. Though key locations are simply restored as they were, at other blank spaces across the map you can spend spare memories conjuring magical artifacts that have local or global effects. One might increase your momentum the more you move around in battle; conversely, another will boost your party’s collective attack strength when they’re in close proximity. Some are single-use, such as the Magic Eye that displays enemies’ HP meters, though others can be placed in up to three locations to amplify their impact.
There are surprises in the storytelling, too, with one or two genuine shocks, even if one twist is so blindingly obvious you’ll grow impatient at your team’s inability to catch on. In fact, the cast seems to be permanently befuddled, with any narrative ambiguity hammered out during lengthy exchanges where everyone stops to explain the plot to one another. Still, if most genuine threats are swiftly resolved by deus ex machina, it often finds ways to meet the needs of the story while also developing characters organically. Imperial commander Galdra takes a lot of convincing to switch sides, and Sherra’s understandable distrust of others doesn’t miraculously vanish once she joins the group.
Yet you could say much the same for I Am Setsuna, and that didn’t drag its heels to the degree this does, particularly in its final knockings. There’s a little too much backtracking involved, and though a party-chat option offers curt reminders of your next objective, you’re sometimes left meandering aimlessly. Eventually you come to feel less like you’re changing the world so much as being given a half-finished jigsaw: there’s a certain pleasure to slotting in the missing pieces, but completing the job can be a laborious process.