If there ever was a blueprint for how a JRPG from the 90s should be designed, Lost Sphear is a game that would follow it to the letter. But instead of it having some form of special valuable selling point or aspect that sets itself apart from the norm, the game just simply exists as some form of nostalgic throwback with the warts of the past still attached to it. This is a game that I wrestled with continually throughout my 40-hour playtime since it straddles the line of being a worthwhile experience but constantly cripples itself with its various shortcomings. It wants to be a monument to JRPGs of the past, but in doing so, it failed to create its own identity.
What is lost may never be found
Lost Sphear takes place in a traditional steampunk-esque setting reminiscent of Chrono Trigger where people still live in villages with elders, but the capitals of the world are these thriving technological marvels with advanced machinery. If you’ve played any JRPG in your life, nothing of this will be new to you. The world of Lost Sphear is essentially the product of a cookie-cutter and while there are one or two unique aspects sprinkled around, it’s still bathed in absolute mediocrity. Things in this world can become “lost”. It’s a phenomenon that happens where something freezes in time and becomes blindingly white. The only way to recover things that are lost is through the use of the memories that were made of that particular object or person.
Naturally, a young boy in an unbecoming village is the only one that gains the power to use memories that can retrieve things from being lost. His name is Kanata and he is joined by his childhood friends, the spunky Lumina and the kooky Locke. They also meet a mysterious and rude man called Van that has some deep secrets and often murmurs to himself that he will definitely betray you eventually but naturally you couldn’t quite hear him. If you haven’t picked up on it, my snarky descriptions of these characters were done with intent as they are essentially the embodiment of JRPG tropes. The unbecoming hero who everyone naturally adores (and whose mother is dead), the sidekick with some attitude and the one kid who is just an idiot.
You can reliably make a pretty solid bingo game with Lost Sphear where you see just how many tropes they pull out.
You can reliably make a pretty solid bingo game with Lost Sphear where you see just how many tropes they pull out. The dialogue can also be infuriating as characters are seemingly blind to the obvious and will meander their words to the point where you want to scream at them through the television. There was a mystery early in the game that you can figure out in literally seconds, but the characters only come to the revelation 10 hours later. More characters eventually join your travelling band of misfits and unsurprisingly, they suffer from the same trope sickness. All the characters in this game are one dimensional and you’ll be extremely hard pressed to find anything worthwhile to say about any of them.
The story also suffers from the same fate since, from the getgo, it’s predictable and plays it so safe that playing it feels like successive instances of déjà vu. Entire towns and cities end up becoming lost by some mysterious phenomenon and as a response to this, the Imperial Empire is on a destructive warpath for anything that can be held accountable. Our band of merry misfits are the only ones that can save the world and the story follows them being caught up in paranormal events and battling against the powers that be. The concept of things becoming lost could have been an interesting premise, but the game fails to properly execute it. This is partly because of the glacial pace that the game moves in where revelations and significant story advancement happens within an unreasonable span of time and the interim is spent purposelessly wandering around.
After the halfway mark of Lost Sphear, I found a glint of hope as the story started to pick up steam and the characters went through enough strife for them to develop some personalities. However, the adage of “too little too late” couldn’t have been truer. I wanted to love this story, I wanted to become invested in these characters, but the game simply didn’t allow me to thanks to its poor writing and tired storytelling. It’s a trope to say this at this point, but given the circumstances, I think it’s fair to say that Lost Sphear had way too much wasted potential.
The sphear of violence
Where the game slightly redeems itself is with its mechanics and combat. This is as traditional as a JRPG can get, but they streamlined many of the mechanics that you’d expect, making the process of upgrading, levelling up, buying equipment and traversing relatively smooth. There was a nice flow to everything that contrasts the extremely slow story. The combat is comprised of an ATB (Active Time Battle) system where the fighting plays out in real time where you have to select skills and attacks for each party member. What was interesting was how positioning made a dramatic difference as you can hit multiple enemies with long-range attacks and buffing allies that are close by. There are also things called vulcosuits that you get early in the game that transform your characters into powerful mechs. The mechs can turn the tide of battle with hard-hitting attacks that synergise with each other, but they are also limited in their usage due to their power.
Where the game slightly redeems itself is with its mechanics and combat. There was a nice flow to everything that contrasts the extremely slow story.
Enemies have weaknesses, there are status effects and each character has some sort of special ability or affinity. The combat was definitely the most engaging part of the game as there is a fair bit of strategy involved and there are many potential permutations thanks to something called Spritnite which is essentially different abilities, as well as the vulcosuits delivering something unique. There are also things called Artifacts scattered around the world where you build a building from the memories you’ve gathered and these Artifacts give special buffs or abilities depending on what you build. They can provide something simple such as faster walking speed on the world map or you can have an Artifact that gives a boost to your party whenever you dodge an attack, but the tradeoff is that the enemies can also benefit from it. It added a nice layer of strategy to the game through these passive structures all over the world.
It is also worth noting that the game was too easy on Normal mode and after bumping it up to Hard, it really started to gain some momentum and tension. While the ATB system and many of the mechanics are far from unique, the combat experience ended up being quite enjoyable. The combination of this battle system along with a solid story would have made this a fantastic game, but sadly we’ve established that the latter didn’t come to pass.
No lost love for old visuals
A persistent headscratcher throughout Lost Sphear was just how the visuals are so simple and reminiscent of extremely old handheld JRPGs. They utilise very simple 3D visuals with flat-looking backgrounds that can almost be described as minimalist. The art style is extremely bland to the point where you would be excused to think that everything looks the same. There are a few moments where they show off some vistas where things get slightly interesting, but I’ve seen games on a PS Vita that would massively rival this game in terms of visual fidelity. It looks like something that would have existed in the previous decade and still would have been criticised for having bland visuals. It is no problem if a game doesn’t have shiny and spectacular graphics, but there still needs to be some form of cohesive art style that makes it interesting.
As a positive byproduct of it looking like an HD PS2 game, the game runs unbelievably smooth. No frame drops, saving is lightning fast and loading times are minimal throughout. However, I’d happily sacrifice any of those features for something that doesn’t look like it’s the personification of beige. The soundtrack also confuses you as it initially sounds like some beautiful piano and orchestral music, but as you play more and more, it quickly becomes like an extravagant lullaby. You start to realise that the sweeping flutes and the dancing pianos are just like the rest of the game; generic. The game also features no dialogue except for some grunts and attack sounds in combat. Outside of combat, you’ll be doing a lot of reading.
Lost Sphear was an exercise of my patience and tolerance. I have, on more than one occasion, fallen asleep while playing it. The story was so bland, the characters so uninteresting and the world so boring that I found almost no engagement. The only saving grace is in the form of the combat and a couple of interesting mechanics that made the gameplay tolerable, but it wasn’t enough to assuage the other massive pitfalls. Lost Sphear could have stood on its own as many things. A simple JRPG that is a testament to its wonderful forefathers. A fun and quirky journey through a lost world. A beginner level JRPG, even.
Unfortunately, it was none of those.