Lost Sphear, like its predecessor I Am Setsuna, wants to remind you of the 16-bit RPGs that were so beloved in the '90s. Developer Tokyo RPG Factory has succeeded in terms of the basic look and mechanics, but after two games, it's starting to feel like the studio's name is intended more literally than we initially realised. Lost Sphear isn't a bad game by any stretch; it does some genuinely interesting things with its combat system, but everything surrounding that often feels like something that came off a factory assembly line.
Lost Sphear follows Kanata, a young man who sets out on an adventure with his two childhood friends, Lumina and Locke--along with Van, a stranger that the team adopts with very little vetting or discussion--after a calamity strikes their hometown. It soon becomes clear that Kanata is the key to solving a worldwide epidemic of people and places becoming "lost," meaning that they've disappeared, leaving behind a sparkly white silhouette. He and he alone can restore the lost thanks to his special, mysterious ability to compile and restore memories, and as whole chunks of the world disappear Kanata learns more about the disaster and why he alone can turn it around. This likely sounds familiar, because it's hitting on the same broad tropes that many RPGs have in the past. This is a standard "chosen one" story, albeit one that gets fairly bogged down in game-specific terminology. You and your slowly-expanding crew of fighters travel around an overworld map straight out of the SNES days, discovering new towns and smacking down a variety of monsters. Structurally, there's nothing here you haven't seen before if you're even a casual fan of RPGs.
Lost Sphear's battle system--despite being very directly based on Chrono Trigger's Active Time Battle system--has a stronger sense of craft to it than the story does. Each member of your team has access to unique weapons and moves, with no overlap, and by visiting the magic consortiums and blacksmiths in each town you can equip them with all sorts of abilities. Over time, you can play around with the "momentum" system--which lets you add buffs and bonuses to certain abilities that can be triggered during battles--and "sublimation," which lets you build up passive effects on these abilities over time. Each attack has its own area of effect, and each character also has access to a "vulcosuit," which lets them suit up in a mech during battle to access more powerful attacks. Figuring out strong attack combinations, and which attacks to assign which momentum bonuses, is satisfying, and while the game throws a lot of terminology at you as more combat abilities unlock, it never feels overwhelming.
You also have full control of your movement when each character's turn rolls around, meaning that you can choose where to place them. You might position someone who attacks from ranged distances in a safe spot behind the rest of the party, or spend ages trying to find a pixel-perfect position that will let one character's attack hit two enemies instead of one. This means that you have a lot of control over your placement on the battlefield and by playing strategically you have the potential to execute attacks that will let you deal a lot of damage at once. The strategic depth imbued into these systems means that even the most basic battles, the ones you can't possibly lose, remain enjoyable. Over time you can build up a huge number of passive buffs by restoring lost parts of the overworld map with Katana's powers, meaning that diligent players will have the opportunity to really boost their effectiveness in combat.
Some abilities are fundamentally much more useful than others, but harsh cooldown times and resource penalties mean that, in a long battle, you can’t spam your strongest attacks over and over. But while the system behind combat is great, most enemies will go down quickly if you just throw your biggest attacks at them without worrying too much about being strategic. I only died once outside of a boss fight, but when the bosses arrived, I never knew what to expect. Playing on normal, some were a cakewalk, while others were a brutal slog that the game had in no way prepared me for. Bosses will throw out incredibly cheap tricks, often right at the very beginning of the fight--instant-death attacks, sleep powders that put your entire team out of action for a long time, punishing area-of-effect attacks that trigger upon the boss' death, you name it. Thankfully, you can change the difficulty at any time if you get frustrated and don’t want to take a long trek back to the nearest town to buy new abilities and fortify your weapons in the hope of becoming strong enough to endure their attacks. And Lost Sphear not only allows you to quick save, but it signposts boss fights with save points--modern concessions that you'll likely be thankful for.
Outside of combat, working through Lost Sphear's campaign can often feel like busywork. It gets bogged down in glorified fetch quests for long periods of time, sending you pinging between different points on the map to take in unexciting dialogue exchanges. There are very few formal side quests with dialogue and objectives, and while there's quite a bit you could do on the map there's not much incentive to strive for 100% unless you're committed to finishing it on Hard.
For a while Lost Sphear feels aimless and flabby--it takes a while for an identifiable villain to emerge, and many early plot threads drop by the wayside as new, less interesting conflicts and dramas pop up. There's a lot of exposition, and the plot justifications for what you must do next often feel flimsy or forced. But lore is built up over time, and the plot pulls a neat trick on the player later on, subverting expectations and eventually connecting various dangling threads across the final act. It builds to a satisfying conclusion, albeit one weakened by uninteresting characters.
Lost Sphear also has an odd aesthetic to it. It has the look of an older portable title that has received an HD remake, with some pleasant scenes and locations offset somewhat by numerous repeated assets, bland textures, and dull interiors. Every now and then there will be a moment of beauty--a lovely vista, a quaint village--but other sections of feel like placeholders, too empty and boring to feel like real places. The character designs are indistinct, and the lack of close-ups or FMV cutscenes mean that it's hard to get a sense of personality from them. Tomoki Miyoshi's score is a solid fit for the events that unfold, but is lacking in earworms and unique boss themes.
It feels like the main purpose of Lost Sphear is to remind you of your favourites of the genre, rather than to join their company. Its enjoyable combat system and late-game revelations are satisfying, but it's hard to pin down its identity or to point towards anything that really makes it stand out beyond its ability to provoke nostalgia. For some players, that may be enough, but for others, the best thing about Lost Sphear might be that it inspires you to replay Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI.