Today we learned Square-Enix's Tokyo RPG Factory, the studio behind I Am Setsuna, has another title in the works called "Lost Sphear." We'll see it in early 2018 for the Nintendo Switch, the PlayStation 4, and PC.
The news has me wrapped up in mixed feelings. Let's discuss.
First, "Lost Sphear" is a weird and confusing title ("Oh, 'Sphere?' Like a baseball?" "Well, no – it's spelled 'S-P-H-E-A-R"), but we're at the point where complaining about Square-Enix's odd RPG names is as useful as complaining about the sun in Africa. Moving on.
I'm honestly glad to see Tokyo RPG Factory is working on another project. I respect the studio's modus operandi, which is to make simple but enjoyable RPGs that hearken back to Square-Enix's best days on the Super Famicom and SNES. I'm happy the studio exists, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Lost Sphear, goofy name or no.
But I'm also a bit worried. While I Am Setsuna tries to walk the path forged by Chrono Trigger's legacy, it stumbles every third step. Much as I want to adore Tokyo RPG Factory's snowy, silent world, myriad imperfections pull me out of the game every time I try to settle in.
I talked about some of I Am Setsuna's problems with Kat and Kotaku's RPG guru Jason Schreier on Axe of the Blood God last year. Not to sound self-important (too late!), but I think my grievances are worth re-visiting so we can catalogue the mistakes Tokyo RPG Factory hopefully won't re-visit with Lost Sphear.
I Am Setsuna's main character, Endir, is as blank as a white sheet after laundry day: The protagonist for I Am Setsuna is a stoic young man named Endir who makes a living as a mercenary. Endir is also a member of a tribe that wears masks, so it's not hard to understand why he's rather cold and detached from his fellow party members (read: Boring).
Thing is, silent protagonists shouldn't automatically be doomed to carry oatmeal-grey personalities. Crono from Chrono Trigger is highly likeable. Link rarely puts more than two words together, and he manages to capture our hearts time and time again. Silent protagonists aren't exactly the personification of a Shakespeare soliloquy, but no-one is asking them to be. We just want to have a clear guess at their likes, hates, and motivations.
It's a shame Endir is so flat, because his cat-eyed mask and nomadic lifestyle prompt a lot of questions. What was his life like before he met up with the eponymous Setsuna? Was he born into the Masked Tribe, or was it a position he ascended to? What motivates him to help Setsuna and the others? I Am Setsuna has a lot of opportunities to let us fall in love with its protagonist, and they're all squandered.
Not to put too fine a point on my argument, but Archive of Our Own, an online library that holds over 1000 fanfictions based on the Icelandic children's show LazyTown, has zero works about I Am Setsuna. That's how bland its hero is.
I Am Setsuna's cooking feature is cold and unappetizing: Cooking and eating can be a memorable way to buff up your character in a game. I still dream about Odin Sphere's succulent-looking soups, hearty stews, custard-covered puddings, and sizzling chunks of meat.
I Am Setsuna lets you cook up meals that boost experience and restore health, but there's rarely any motivation to do so. There are easier ways to restore your party's health, and while the recipes you garner sound tasty (I'd like some winterwhistle soup, please), you don't get to see (and drool over) the finished product. Even the ingredients you gather to make them show up as simple shining spots on the snow.
Yeah, I guess you can use your imagination, but imagination sucks. Plus, a game set in a cold climate shouldn't be shy about feeding up its heroes. What's more restful on a winter's day than some soup or hot tea?
Speaking of winter–
I Am Setsuna's wintry landscape is beautiful, but tiresome: I come from the land of the ice and snow, and I can confirm I Am Setsuna captures the dim but savage heart of winter. The watery light through pine trees, the muffled sound of powder crunching underfoot, the hush that invariably accompanies falling snow … I Am Setsuna's July release almost made me nostalgic for my least-favorite season.
Almost. Winter's beauty gets pretty old pretty fast in real life, and it does in I Am Setsuna, too. Exploration is a big draw in RPGs, and even if game after game has us re-treating the same terrain – castles, deserts, swamps, and what not – the change in scenery is appreciated, even if only on a subconscious level. Deserts are usually my least favorite game environment, but I started aching to see sand when it gradually became clear I Am Setsuna is All Snow All the Time.
The trailer for Lost Sphear shows off different environments, so that's encouraging. Hooray! Green fields!
I Am Setsuna's spartan soundtrack is pretty, but the lack of variety is noticeable: If I get reamed for any opinion on this list, it'll be this one. I Am Setsuna's soundtrack, which is 95% piano compositions by Tomoki Miyoshi, cries out for variety at the same volume as the game's graphics. While the solitary piano is a powerful mood-setter when used sparingly, you quickly notice something's missing when song after song comes bonging at you. I was about two hours into the game when I said, "Oh … I guess we're just getting a piano, huh? All right, cool."
I Am Setsuna's Magic Consortium and Spritnite adds needless complexity to an otherwise simple battle system: I Am Setsuna's combat system is almost a one-for-one translation of Chrono Trigger's. You fight enemies where you find them (instead of transitioning to a battlefield), and characters can combine skills to execute combo attacks. Many of the names and functions for I Am Setsuna's skills come directly from Chrono Trigger, e.g. "Cyclone," "Cleave," and "Aura."
There are two major problems with I Am Setsuna's battle system. First, its similarity to Chrono Trigger's own system invites direct comparisons. That makes it very hard for I Am Setsuna to stand on its own merits – and Chrono Trigger is a really high bar to reach for.
Second, the few measures I Am Setsuna takes to separate its battle system from Chrono Trigger's just mucks things up. Characters in the former don't just learn techs as they level-up like they do in the latter. Instead, you learn magic and skills in I Am Setsuna by gathering and selling material components that can be made into equippable "Spritenite."
In other words, learning new skills in I Am Setsuna involves keeping and carrying every scrap of material you win off monsters – even if a lot of it winds up being garbage – selling it to the Magic Consortium, and then buying it back in a new, usable form. It's an awkward and inefficient way for I Am Setsuna to differentiate itself, especially since the game is engineered to be a bare-bones straight-forward RPG.
I understand Tokyo RPG Factory produced I Am Setsuna on a very limited budget, so some of its flaws are definitely on Square-Enix. If you want a team to make a game that brings back memories of your SNES classics, Square, don't give that team $5 to work with.
That said, not all of I Am Setsuna's problems require costly fixes. A better story. Characters that are more fleshed-out. Heck, even palette-swapped graphics can be used to great effect (look at A Link to the Past for an enduring example. Even Chrono Trigger keeps things fresh by having the party re-visit old maps under new circumstances).
As someone who adores classic JRPGs, I want with all my heart for Tokyo RPG Factory to do what its name implies: Manufacture simple but personable RPGs like the ones I loved as a kid. Here's hoping I Am Setsuna helped the studio find its footing, and that it knocks Lost Sphear out of the park.