Not having played I Am Setsuna, I had no idea what to expect from Lost Sphear. Fortunately, Square Enix was kind enough at PAX West to give me an hour with the game and the opportunity to chat with Atsushi Hashimoto from Tokyo RPG Factory, director of both I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear.
The demo started out with a short cameo appearance of a man who might be a king. He's fighting a losing battle with an automaton. No matter how much damage is dealt, the robot just keeps getting back up. After a few rounds, the king fades to white and it's revealed that it was all just a dream our protagonist Kanata was having.
Kanata wakes up in his home in a small village. As he heads outside, he's greeted by Lumina. These two children seem to get into the usual mischief that children do as they make their way to the elder's house. There's no guidance on where this is, but since I can't leave town until I find it, I assume it's the building the farthest from my starting location. On the way, I find an inn, as well as meals to help me on my adventures. I'm sure these will come in handy later, but for this demo, they weren't needed.
Eventually, the duo make it to the elder's house only to be sent off to finish their friend's task of ringing the bell to warn the town of monsters; monsters that haven't actually shown up yet. On the way to the bell, they also find their friend, Locke, passed out from hunger. When he gets too hungry, he literally falls over. Thank goodness this doesn't happen in battle. Once he's awake, the three children ring the bell, then fight a single battle where the basics are explained. After that, it's back to the elder to get the next quest, fishing up some dinner with a simple timing mini-game.
On the way back to town, however, the world starts disappearing. Our trio rushes back to find it all bathed in a white mist. A strange figure hints they will learn more from a greater height, which is all the children need to know to dash off to a new dungeon. Throughout the new dungeon, the four work together to begin unraveling what happened to the world. After the first boss falls, the group rests in a shack. It's here that Kanata meets the king from the beginning once again, but this time, the king explains what's going on and why Kanata needs to gather memories. Only this can bring the world back from the brink of nonexistence.
The entire time I played the game, it felt like I slipped back into the 1990s. The graphics, while hardly the blocky 16-bit quality, still have a very simple style. The palette is subdued from the other vibrant games of today. The musical variations have a strong overtone of piano, making for simpler melodies. It feels like Lost Sphear is trying to bring back the older times, but that also means bringing back the slow, methodical storytelling and slow battle pace from those times as well. The time flew by while I was playing, but I didn't feel like I really achieved much at all. At the same time, I didn't want to stop playing either. The story did its job in pulling me in. The battle system harks to others I've enjoyed a great deal, yet it doesn't feel old.
After spending time with the game, I was able to speak to Atsushi Hashimoto, the director of Lost Sphear. He showed off various aspects of the game on the Nintendo Switch. Instead of staying with the beginning of the title, he delved into deeper aspects of the game. Showing off the Vulcosuits, he explained how using their abilities burn the MP bar, giving these overpowered suits a finite life. It wasn't explained how the MP is refilled, but it seemed likely to involve resting at an inn, or other kinds of camps. He also showed off how to use memories to restore a part of the world. Not just limited to a story mechanic, whatever the player turns the spot into will give a bonus to the party. Creating a tower will provide a mini-map, for example. This allows the player to choose when to use one bonus over another for upcoming challenges. There's no penalty for swapping out these areas either, allowing for full exploration.
After the game demo, I asked quite a few questions about Lost Sphear and Tokyo RPG Factory. He wanted to make it very clear that the development team has listened to the feedback from I Am Setsuna and tried to address many of the issues that players had with that game with improvements in Lost Sphear. Some of these improvements include inns in town, double the expected play time, and more diverse music and environments.
The most marked improvement is the combat system. By adding movement during combat, the player can take full advantage of the special abilities, where each may have their own effect range. Some can be a small circle for a single target, a larger circle for an area of effect, or slender lines for ranged attacks that can pass through multiple enemies. Since the combat is turn-based, players won't be rushed to move into position and select the proper skill. However, unlike I Am Setsuna, the developers hope the enemies won't fall for the same tricks again and again, forcing the player to explore their options instead of exploiting the same attack combos every time.
Mr. Hashimoto also wanted to make it clear that this is not a sequel to I Am Setsuna, nor have they ever tried to simply clone another game. There are a lot of games that Lost Sphear may feel like, but his team strives to make it a game on its own, not another version of a game that's already been made. He hopes to bring back what made the JRPG style the overwhelming positive experience the games of the 1990s had for the industry.
Thank you to Square Enix and Mr. Hashimoto for taking the time to show us Lost Sphear as well as field our questions. I'll be eagerly awaiting Lost Sphear when it's released for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC (via Steam) on January 23, 2018.