I have a slightly passive-aggressive habit of using header images to signal where a review is ultimately headed, but there’s no way of adequately describing in a single image how many problems Lost Sphear—perhaps better thought of as “I Am Not Setsuna,” where all of the good parts of the previous game have been stripped out and replaced with generic jRPG equivalents—ends up being weighed down by. It starts to feel similarly passive-aggressive in the way it does things, too, including a fake ending that plays out countless hours of busywork prior to the real ending. That means we’re dealing with pacing issues in a game that, like its predecessor, still agonizes fruitlessly over how it can best pay homage to Chrono Trigger’s legacy while blatantly ignoring the things that were actually good about that game. Namely: tight pacing, relatable characters who existed as more than tropes and info dumps, varied music and locations, and basic internal consistency. Expect none of that here.
One step forward…
Developer Tokyo RPG Factory’s previous game, I Am Setsuna, was one that I could have recommended if it had been better written. Sadly, it was a mess of superfluous characters who were designed to be stupid beyond belief, which is to say nothing of the way everyone constantly agreed with each other in order to say the same thing using different phrasing (this ended up giving conversations a strange hive mind vibe). The main character in that game wasn’t even Setsuna, though that was a small mercy given how impossibly saccharine her dialogue always became. Lost Sphear avoids a small handful of these pitfalls, with the most important story characters being the ones you start off with, and minor party disagreements popping up occasionally over the course of the story. Another positive change is that supporting characters are better realized, with one faction in particular exhibiting a surprising moral grayness. That’s not to say that some (or even most) of the villains here aren’t reduced to cartoonish caricatures whenever someone needs to be tied to the metaphorical train tracks, but it’s nevertheless possible to understand how specific acts of villainy are justified by the perpetrators. Not a bad touch.
… Two steps back
Main character (and bane of spell checks everywhere) Kanata is basically a gender-swapped Setsuna, which is to say an infuriatingly righteous character. He’s also a veritable deus ex machina factory, and that’s ultimately Lost Sphear’s biggest sin; the power of impossible goodness always wins, however far the universe’s rules need to bend in order for that to happen. As a result, there are no rules. Having finished the game, I still have no idea what’s possible and impossible in this world because of how arbitrarily the rules are defined. For example: memories and feelings are tangible things that can be sensed by others for reasons never adequately explained, and their physical manifestations can be used by Kanata to restore things that are “lost,” which is to say that they’re effectively erased from the world as part of a phenomenon no one understands. The phenomenon and Kanata’s ability to bring things back from being lost are both explained, but the details eventually become fuzzy. One character who was brought back from being lost recalls something plot-convenient from that time, while every other character brought back has that time simply missing. There are countless inconsistencies like this.
There are lots of dumb conveniences, too
I’ll get into what vulcosuits are a bit later when I start getting into the combat, but suffice it to say that they’re incredibly rare ancient battle armor. The main heroes end up obtaining some of their own as part of the story, and there’s nothing wrong with how this happens. Then a new character joins up and she just so happens to have a vulcosuit, which is a little convenient. Later on, a literal monster joins the party and also happens to have a vulcosuit that he found lying around. Even if you can look past all of this convenience, however, a late-ish dungeon is explained to take control of vulcosuits in order to justify you having to fight a bunch of them as enemies. When asked why the party’s vulcosuits aren’t affected, it’s explained that those over a certain power aren’t affected. How lucky that all of this convenient battle armor everyone ended up with is strong enough to avoid these effects! One of the party members is even from the same faction whose vulcosuits have been taken over.
Most things are obvious ahead of time
Lost Sphear’s story is full of holes, then, existing more as a series of problems inexplicably resolved by random friendship magic than anything resembling a coherent plot. There are never any stakes because there are no actual rules the universe consistently abides by, and problems are frequently solvable by some contrivance the game suddenly introduces out of nowhere. Still, it’s a remarkably predictable game despite the main plot eventually devolving into a Mad Lib; for the first 70-80% of the game, I called every plot twist long before it happened. It’s not difficult to do so if you’ve played a generic jRPG before, because the way Lost Sphear pads out its play time is similar to how, say, the original Lufia padded out its play time: busywork. If a random new enemy shows up the second someone’s unaccounted for, you know they’re the same person and an overlong, overly sentimental cutscene about it awaits you in the near future. If a bridge needs fixing and the person doing the repairs claims that he only needs a day, then you’d better believe that time itself is broken and requires lots of running around and monster fighting to fix. If you go in understanding that every solution will be as circuitous and contrived as possible, everything will happen exactly as you expect it to.
The base mechanics are familiar
Lost Sphear has a lot in common with I Am Setsuna, though the terminology has of course been changed again. SP is now called MC, and “fluxes” are now “sublimation.” Basically, you buy and equip character-specific spritnite attacks, counters (which trigger when you have a certain number of MC points), and passive bonuses for the aforementioned spritnite attacks that trigger when you use an MC point with them. For the newbies: all characters have a secondary bar that fills up when a character’s turn comes around and they don’t immediately act (and also when they attack and get hit), and each time it fills up they obtain an MC point. If they attack normally when they have an MC point, there’s a short window of time where you can use it up for a better attack. If they use a special attack with no passive spritnite on it, you don’t get this prompt. If, however, they use a special attack that does have passive spritnite on it, you can use up an MC point to include whatever secondary effect the passive spritnite confers onto your attack, and a lesser version of these secondary effects sometimes sticks to that special attack after battle. That all probably sounds horribly confusing, but suffice it to say that you can slowly customize your special attacks to heal the party’s HP, hit enemies with status effects, and do all sorts of other fun stuff that breaks the game.
There are some improvements
One of the few things I hated about I Am Setsuna’s mechanics was how much of an emphasis it put on positioning while not actually letting you determine who moves where. There are only so many times I can handle characters running out of range of a heal spell they desperately need before casting it. Thankfully, Lost Sphear allows you to move around freely after selecting an attack in order to aim, and this becomes surprisingly strategic; some enemies have attacks that only hit characters in front of them or within a certain range, so you’re not only moving to get into range, but also trying to figure out if the damage of a melee attack is worth risking eating a hit over. Another improvement are the artifacts; Kanata can restore certain areas of the map and place a building there that confers a local or global bonus, and these bonuses can range from increasing movement speed on the overworld map to restoring HP/MP/VP after battle. This adds a lot of flexibility to your play style, though it does take awhile to build enough of these artifacts that you can feel their influence.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows
Combat isn’t great for the first half or so of Lost Sphear. You don’t have enough spritnite or artifacts to do anything interesting, which means you have no viable way of restoring your health and magic outside of inns (inconvenient) and items (a bit expensive). Compared to I Am Setsuna’s heavy focus on allowing you to keep these pools up with special attacks, the early game feels like much more of a slog. Even once you finally start tearing through normal enemies and using MP with impunity, however, there are boss fights that are simply awful. You’re not the only one who has the ability to inflict status effects, and the bosses who do so are gigantic difficulty spikes. Granted, various armors grant bonuses against certain statuses, but if you can only equip one at a time, how are you supposed to defend against confusion/sleep/poison all at once? The fact that I still don’t know the answer to that highlights another major issue: the mechanics aren’t explained very well here. Pop-ups during combat disappear too fast to read, and even if you pause the game to catch up, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll know what they mean. The final boss put up a shield at one point and the game said that it was “weak against friendship.” I think that these shields are weak against specific characters, but “friendship” is such a vague description that it borders on being useless. I mean, the entire party is riding the magical-friendship train in Lost Sphear, so that could apply to almost anyone. Spritnite descriptions can be similarly vague, too, leading to moments where you buy something, only to realize that it does something totally different than expected.
Finally, there are the vulcosuits. You can use these things in battle to raise character stats a bit (though putting them on and taking them off uses up a turn), but every character’s vulcosuit has a different main attack, and the whole thing becomes more confusing than it should be. Beyond which, doing anything in a vulcosuit requires (and uses up) VP, and inns are the only way to reliably restore VP for much of the game. Since it’s never obvious how long an area will last, I spent most of the game ignoring them for that reason. They just feel tacked on, and worse, Kanata’s vulcosuit attack is the only access you have to combo techs. That’s a huge step back from one of the most enjoyable parts of I Am Setsuna and Chrono Trigger.
The graphics and music are disappointing
When I Am Setsuna finally abandoned its all-white aesthetic in favor of a orange-red sky toward the very end, I suspected that the art style would lend itself to sunnier locations like that. How wrong I was—the visuals in this game are incredibly boring most of the time, and I think the issue is that they lack contrast. Areas aren’t designed to be interesting, visually distinct places, but instead follow the traditional “let’s throw a couple houses and trees together and call it a village” mentality. There are some visually striking areas, of course, but they’re the exception instead of the norm here. Even the menus are a huge step back from I Am Setsuna; the frosty, foggy aesthetic of that game’s dialogue bubbles and menus have infinitely more personality and visual flair than the minimalistic approach Lost Sphear takes. Then there’s the music, which has finally abandoned the piano barrage of the last game, but replaced it with something far more generic. Given how headache-inducing the piano was, I’ll take it. It’s not always used well, though, which is curiously highlighted in the first village where the background music loops from its loudest point to its quietest, clicking in the process because the loop was designed sloppily.