Tokyo RPG Factory’s sophomore release is a return to an old-school way of thinking
When Atsushi Hashimoto was a kid, he loved role-playing games. He’d settle in front of the television for hours, controller in hand, lost in quests full of magical spells and powerful evils. He was particularly enamored with the works of Squaresoft, now known as Square Enix, the developer behind 16-bit classics like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. As he grew older, classic-style Japanese RPGs largely went out of fashion, replaced by a combination of big-budget action games and smaller mobile titles. But Hashimoto never forgot about the games that helped define his relationship with the medium. In 2014 he had the chance to bring them back as the director at Square Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory studio.
Last year, under Hashimoto’s guidance, the studio released I Am Setsuna, a game that was designed explicitly to evoke the same kinds of feelings Hashimoto had had playing RPGs as a child. It featured a sorrowful story, memorable characters, and an acclaimed soundtrack. And its success resulted in a follow-up, Lost Sphear, which launches early next year.
“It gave us a lot of courage and confidence,” Hashimoto says of the reception to I Am Setsuna. “We wanted to make the kinds of games that really affected us as children. Nowadays you don’t see many of those kinds of RPGs out there, so it was good to see that there is an audience who wants to play them.”
Part of what made I Am Setsuna so striking was its focus: it only did a few things, but it did them very well. Its story was a memorable, sorrowful tale of a quest destined to end in heartbreak, while its soundtrack was all the more stirring for its relative simplicity. Instead of a grand orchestral score, as is common with the genre, the music often consisted of a bare, solitary piano. I Am Setsuna managed all of this in a tight, streamlined package. Whereas most RPGs span dozens of hours, I Am Setsuna clocked in at comparatively brisk 20-or-so hours, yet didn’t really feel lacking because of the brevity. “[When] you try to really distil the game elements down,” Hashimoto explains, “you can get that deep, impactful experience because it’s so concentrated.”
Lost Sphear looks to follow much the same blueprint as its spiritual predecessor. I was able to play through a brief 30-minute demo of the opening of the game, and it felt instantly familiar. The game opens like a typical RPG: your character awakens to discover that his best friend has gone missing. They live in a peaceful, friendly village that’s surrounded by an untamed wilderness full of monsters. There’s a huge bell in the center of town that is only rung when a monster is spotted. According to Hashimoto, the defining narrative conceit of the game is the idea that everything in the world — from people to objects to places — is imbued with memories. If those memories disappear or are removed, the person, place, or thing will disappear. It’s a phenomenon known as being “lost.” It feels like a setup with the potential to evoke the same kind of sweet, sorrowful moments that made I Am Setsuna so poignant.
That said, Lost Sphear takes place in a completely new world, and has a slightly different vibe. For one thing, the locale feels more modern, and less like a traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy realm. As I explored the quiet village during the opening, I came across a phone booth and what looked like an old-timey popcorn machine. The color palette also makes a big difference. I Am Setsuna had a cold, autumnal vibe, with lots of reds and oranges, and other areas that were completely covered in snow. Lost Sphear is brighter and livelier with an emphasis on greens and blues that makes the world a touch more inviting. Also key is the visual effect when something is “lost”: it completely disappears, with a blank white space in its place. It’s especially startling when an entire village or forest is simply erased from the map, which happened at the very end of my demo.
Hashimoto says that while the two games will be very similar, Lost Sphear will also feature some improvements based on the feedback from the first game. “I think we did largely achieve what we wanted to with I Am Setsuna,” he says. “But certainly we discovered a couple of new challenges, and goals, that we wanted to do because of that reception.” The new game will include the much-requested addition of restorative inns, but the most noticeable change I found during my time with the game was the combat.
As with I Am Setsuna — and most of the classic JRPGs that inspired it — Lost Sphearfeatures turn-based battles, where you take turns with enemies performing attacks, using items, and casting spells. But the system in Lost Sphear is slightly more flexible, as you can move characters around the battlefield. This is especially useful for characters with ranged attacks — say, someone who’s good at shooting a bow — as you can line up shots just right in order to hit multiple targets at once. Even in the short time I had with the game, its combat felt much more dynamic.
For the most part, though, Lost Sphear appears to be more of the same — and that’s kind of the point. Tokyo RPG Factory was founded on the idea of bringing back a very particular type of game, and Lost Sphear is a continuation of that concept. The studio may have only released one game to date, but it’s already well on its way to creating its own unique fingerprint. Soon you might be able to spot a Tokyo RPG Factory game simply by looking at it. “I don’t think [we have] a very recognizable culture or brand yet,” Hashimoto says, “but we certainly intend on creating that.”