Role-playing games, especially of the Japanese variety, are one of those genres you either love or you hate. With often repetitive battle systems, lots of wandering around, and some all too familiar narrative tropes (amnesia, anyone?), they were games that some people just loved to hate - but we've never been able to get enough of them.
Of course, things have changed in recent years. With Final Fantasy XV being more of an action game than anything resembling its earlier instalments, and more and more games abandoning their classic battle systems for button mashing boredom, you could be forgiven for yearning for the days of old. And Lots Sphear is a game that'll take you right back to it.
In the land of Lost Sphear, a strange phenomenon has been sweeping the kingdom, as people, places and items just up and disappear, leaving a strange white mist in their wake. When Kanata's home town becomes 'lost', he discovers he has an unusual power to take the memories of the missing and return them, which actually brings the disappeared back from the abyss. With the help of his fellow orphaned friends, feisty female Lumina and comedy relief Locke, he sets off on a journey across the land to recover everything that has been lost, and get to the bottom of the mysterious phenomenon.
By the Tokyo RPG Factory, a branch of Square Enix specifically set up to create old school role-playing adventures, it's no surprise that Lost Sphear is very much a traditional, turn-based role-playing game. Your ragtag group of youngsters set off on a mission to save the world, beating up bad guys, exploring dungeons and helping people recover their lost family, friends and possessions along the way. It may be a rather cliched plot, but it's nevertheless a well-written one, with a few twists and turns thrown in for good measure - as well as some fairly entertaining banter between the characters.
Split between intricate towns, winding dungeons and forests, and a larger scale world map, Lost Sphear itself is actually a fairly linear game, as you move from A to B, and from story scene to story scene, mopping up various monsters along the way (perhaps unusually, there's not all that much in the way of side quests and extra missions to divert you during your adventure either).
Instead, much of your journey is concerned with recovering the 'lost' people, places and things all across the kingdom.
Thanks to Kanata's innate abilities, the memories of such lost items form solid crystal fragments, which can then be used to restore the missing things. Some can simply be found lying in and around the surrounding areas, some are earned through battling certain monsters, while for others you'll need to talk to people who knew the area/missing person well, and look out for anything that seems to have particularly strong feelings associated with it. In practice, such key words and phrases will be highlighted in blue, so they're fairly easy to identify, and holding the corresponding button lets you solidify the words into a memory fragment for later use. Most 'lost' things require several different memories to rebuild them, so you'll have to keep your eyes peeled for any and everything that may yield the fragments you need.
Taking a leaf out of the doyenne of role-playing game's book, Lost Sphear uses a variation on Final Fantasy's much-loved Active Time Battle system - or ATB for short. Essentially, your party and your enemies take it in turns to attack, use special skills or chug items, with the order of play loosely determined by the speed of the characters. Each character's portrait fills up at a rate dependent on their speed stat, and when full, they're able to perform an action - which can mean that faster characters get more turns in a battle than slower ones.
In an extra twist, you can also move your characters around mid-battle. Rather than a grid based system, after choosing your move, you can move your character around the battlefield freely to make the most of your coming attack - with each type of attack having an area of effect associated with it, if you're crafty, you can pierce three or four enemies with a single arrow shot, or smack a group of goblins into oblivion with a single punch.
As you land hits on enemies, a Momentum gauge will start to charge up - and, when sufficiently full, you'll be able to pull off an extra attack with a well-timed press of a button, a moment before your attack hits. Fairly easy to time thanks to the big blue glowing circle around your characters' feet, its well worth spamming as many of these momentum moves as you can, although things can feel a bit hectic as you're try to manage momentum button presses and divvy out list-based instructions to your team at the same time.
However, if you're looking for a way to majorly buff up your characters' attack and defence, you'll want to don your Vulcosuits - a set of special mechs that give your stats a big boost and unlock some more devastating attacks. In theory, these suits should be able to easily turn the tide of a tough boss battle, but in practice, with each move using a massive chunk of your very limited VP (presumably Vulcosuit Points?), and with only a handful of special skills they can use (each with several turns of cooldown required), they can feel like a bit of a dud. You'll either spend most of your time skipping turns to let attacks recharge, or end up hopping in and out of your mech to perform normal melee attacks, meaning it just ends up feeling like too much trouble.
Similar to Final Fantasy's Materia system, Lost Sphear has magical 'Spritnite' crystals that govern the special attacks your party members can use. Each Spritnite crystal contains a special magical power, and so by choosing the crystals your party members equip, you customise their move set. While some Spritnite crystals can be equipped by anyone, others can only be equipped by certain characters, letting you deal character-specific special moves - perhaps a lightning fast wind attack, or a protective shield that reduces damage by 20% - with new crystals found during your quest, or bought from stores along the way. Some of the more powerful moves have a bit of a cool-down period too, forcing you to think a bit more strategically, rather than simply spamming your strongest spells ad infinitum. Rather than giving you new special moves, some Spritnite crystals instead buff your Momentum moves, adding extra effects whenever you activate them, perhaps restoring a small amount of health, or dealing some extra damage, depending on which crystals you equip.
Lost Sphear may be a fairly traditional, by-the-numbers role-playing game, but that's not to say it doesn't have the odd inventive moment - like Artifacts. As you're exploring the world map, you'll come across suspiciously round clouds of the 'lost' white mist. By clearing these, you're able to erect various Artifacts - towers, gates and monuments - that in turn will give you various permanent advantages, either in battle or while exploring. From increasing your movement speed whilst on the world map, to making critical hits more likely when in Momentum mode or simply showing enemy health bars, Artifacts have all kinds of useful effects, and its up to you which ones you build when and where, although we'd say its well worth investing in the battle-specific modifiers first...
You see, while the standard battles in Lost Sphear aren't all that bad, the boss fights can sometimes be real stinkers. It's probably an understatement to say that bosses tend to be overpowered, and with many having attacks that can hit your entire party at once, regardless of how well you try to position your weaker members out of the firing line (one early boss had a move that 'sucked' your entire party in from the edges of the screen, before following up almost immediately with a powerful swipe across your whole party, damaging everyone), it's all too easy to find yourself staring at a game over. We don't think we've managed to escape a single boss fight with all our party having survived until to the end - even scraping by with only a single character left will take multiple replays and near-immaculate planning and positioning of your characters to get by.
On the plus side, those who find the game that little bit too tricky do have some options - or, at least, one option - the difficulty. Turning the game down to easy not only makes the battles much easier, but has the added bonus of giving you more money too - one of Lost Sphear's scarcest and most precious commodities, and one of the other big issues with the game. Just like that Dolan Duck meme, you'll walk into most stores and leave empty handed, because everything is too expensive - particularly if you try to outfit all eight party members with the best gear, rather than just the four you're actively using in battles. You can't even get a decent amount of cash from pawning your old stuff either, meaning you'll need to save, save and save some more to get that spangly new sword or jacket.
Despite a few hiccups, we do rather like Lost Sphear though, for its old-school charm and solid role-playing game stylings. There's nothing especially new or experimental here; just a straightforward, story-driven adventure, with a pretty solid story, a few twists and a handful of funny moments, particularly when your goofy partner in crime Locke is involved. It may not be as grand an adventure or as epic a tale as your average Final Fantasy, but its a nice little game nevertheless, and one that's well worth looking into if you have a fondness for the role-playing games of old - the Final Fantasies, the Dragon Quests and the Chrono Triggers.