About Andy

Andy joined as contributor and editorialist in 2017. The stars aligned to indoctrinate him into the Final Fantasy fan base, and by extension, Kingdom Hearts and other JRPGs. He is obsessed with narrative in games, and how their multiplicitous features culminate into resonant experiences.

Lost Sphear Review

Tokyo RPG Factory’s first game, I Am Setsuna, was hit or miss. Using Chrono Trigger as its palimpsest, I Am Setsuna borrowed structural elements, character inspiration, abilities, and the famous double and triple techniques from the classic SNES title. This is not a bad thing, but it drowned these aspects in overly complicated systems and standoffish writing.

I Am Setsuna is not without its moments or merits, and it certainly charmed me, yet I found it lacking in some respects (you can check out our review on it here). So when Tokyo RPG Factory’s second game, Lost Sphear, was announced, I was not optimistic about the reused assets or the addition of a fourth party member. And yet, Lost Sphear turns out to be the first pleasant surprise of 2018.

Lost and Found

Kanata and his two childhood friends, Lumina and Locke, are their village’s only defenders against the occasional meek monster that wanders in. Then their village becomes “lost”—a phenomenon in which objects, people, and large swaths of geography fade into shimmering white. Kanata learns that by collecting memories he is able to restore the “lost”, an ability the big empire on the block recognizes and recruits him, his friends, and the dark-robed traveler Van, to resolve the phenomenon occurring around the globe.

The snowy aesthetic and the entirely piano soundtrack were my favorite parts about I Am Setsuna. Lost Sphear expands its soothing instrumentation and areas are now more diverse; idyllic villages dot “Gaiterra” (not my first choice of name either) along with dense cities and maze-like dungeons with built-in short cuts. A jaunt through a wooded area encapsulates the thoughtful mood of Lost Sphear, as the sound of trees shivering from a light breeze mixes with the bouncy and soothing music grounds the stakes of each character’s quiet despair.

The writing is more or less typical JRPG faire. The first few hours are uneventful, but as the cast builds and their conflicts unfold, the characterization and story go places. Dialogue also improves with time, but the frequent breaks for the party to assemble and discuss does grow wearisome. Because this is only about a 20 hour RPG, the finer details of the story are undersold and understated, and on occasionally tonally dissonant. At times, important elements of backstory or plot elements are suddenly introduced. That being said, the characters and emotional throughline are strong enough to wade through the overwrought or trope-y aspects.

Growth and Strategy

And indeed the characters are fun. The assemblage of all eight occurs by the mid-way point, and each has a clear battle style that the player can further customize. For example, the pugilist, Lumina, and the samurai, Galdra, gain buffs with their abilities that allow them to snowball. Some of Van’s abilities create green bits that other abilities consume to do more damage.

The player acquires abilities by equipping spritnite to each of their characters. Some spritnite gives the character an active ability, like Kanata’s “Cyclone”, or a reactionary or defensive ability, like a counter or protect spell.In addition, the player can affix momentum spritnite to normal spritnite that can produce an effect in battle. Equipping “Stop Boost”, for example, to Cyclone can cause the debuff stop. Other spritnite heals, weakens enemies to certain elements, and so on. On top of the simple equipment upgrade system, the spritnite system allows for the existing quirks of the characters to be personalized.

Furthermore, Kanata unveils areas of the map through erecting “artifacts” that can alter combat. Some artifacts increase critical hit rates or other in-battle effects, while others can impact the frequency of rare enemies. Deciding which artifacts to place on these finite spots is important as directly impacts how the player plays the game. No matter how you play, performing high damage attacks and felling imposing groups of enemies is satisfying. It is however fairly easy to sneak up on enemies and gain an preemptive strike which provides enough of an advantage to make short work of enemies, and overall the difficulty regular encounters do not increase quite as much as bosses do.

Mighty Morphin’ Vulcosuits

When performing an attack, ability, or using an item, the player moves their character across the battlefield. In this way they can maximize the enemies hit by an attack, group up for a team buff, or separate in anticipation of a concentrated area-of-effect spell. Positioning is paramount by the late game, and by then the player has sufficient familiarity with their team’s move-set as they respond to bosses’ arsenal.

My favorite aspect of Lost Sphear are the vulcosuits  These ancient personal machines are not only flashy, but also enhance each character’s stats and exacerbate the effectiveness of their attacks. When in vulcosuit mode (which is just the click of a button away) each character draws from a shared pool of “VP” to perform abilities rather than any individual’s MP. They therefore have a harsh limitation on their usage. Add in the ability to switch party members in battle and combat has multiple angles to approach from and strategies to employ. I do not wish to overstate and suggest they drastically change combat. I like this addition is because they add a flair to both the lore and battle system that, despite how silly they may appear, fits the presentation just right. 

Bosses are the highlight. They are fair for the most part, but require attention and preparation. Status ailments and flashy attacks fly from all corners of the battlefield, and encourage character swapping, VP management, and respectable knowledge of one’s momentum spritenites. The amount of late game and post-game content is not overwhelming and organically stretches the total play time.

Lastly, the game has three difficulty modes. Easy mode is good for those who just want to experience the power trip. Normal mode, what I played on, is a nice balance for new players and longtime RPG fans. The hardest mode I only touched for a few hours before turning it to down in order to finish the game but I look forward to playing again at a slackened pace to further explore the complexities of the battle system more formidable enemies.

Pros

  • The atmosphere and world are engaging
  • Combat allows for customization, experimentation, and strategy
  • Multiple difficulty modes

Cons

  • Dialogue can be tedious
  • Regular encounters become trivial by the late game

Lost Sphear realizes that to be nostalgic, it still needs to bring new things to the table, and that innovation need not carry with it a juggling act of mechanics. The sense of atmosphere is palpable, if a bit fuzzy at times, and the writing, music, and characters are not always united. The cast of characters is changeable and the world allows for experimentation and individualization. Lost Sphear is a refreshing title from Tokyo RPG Factory, and I hope they continue to build upon the lessons from their two titles and create something both reminiscent and modern down the line.

Lost Sphear is now available for PlayStation 4, Steam, and the Nintendo Switch for $49.99.

Disclaimer: A review copy of Lost Sphear (PS4) was provided to Nova Crystallis by Square Enix, the publisher.

Empire, Stormblood, and Gender

Empire, Stormblood, and Gender

Please note that this analysis includes story details through the end of the second expansion’s main quest line.

A story incited by an expanding empire, in a world with cruel and apathetic gods, is a familiar one. Yet each retelling presents new angles and perspectives that elucidate the limitless variability of an oft-used trope. From Palamecia to Niflheim, the Final Fantasy series is no stranger to ravenous powers that rip the seams of their respective worlds in pursuit of their despot’s ambitions, and with each entry there is nuance in these depictions, as the offending empire’s goals, means, and relation to the player all differ; in IV the empire is the dutiful Cecil’s own kingdom and in VII it’s an obscenely powerful electrical company. As a story device, empires’ goals naturally produce conflict with diverse extrinsic factions. At the intersection between the empire, the party, and other interests are fascinating developments that progress the story. However, in the series the specifics through which empires exert their control are often untold or vaguely implied. Instead, “evil empire” is used as a vehicle for character driven stories. The party, obvious underdogs, must climb the ranks to fell these narcissistic figures who, in one way or another, seek to or actually achieve divinity, as it isn’t uncommon for the leader themself to be the most capable fighter in their lands. The empire, therefore, is an extension of one or a handful of characters’ personal journeys or quests. This forms the dichotomy between the villains and party, which makes what is ostensibly a geo-political conflict an intimate one.

Much of Final Fantasy, particularly XIV, is world driven as well as character driven; the story moves by the sights and sounds of the environment, harnessing and mastering systems, and climbing the ranks to face an uncertain divinity. It’s hard to say if Final Fantasy says anything meaningful about government or organized religion, but it uses these generalized concepts to build a world that grounds the party members’ power and motivations. The worlds of Final Fantasy don’t end where they start. The decisions in these games affect the worlds to a degree that shapes them, and forms, perhaps not perfect worlds, but new flawed ones, and ensures even the final acts drag on into memory. Similarly, the characters change as a result of their tumultuous environments. Stormblood’s environments are the political and personal landscapes that surround the Garlean Empire’s exploitation of its provinces, specifically Ala Mhigo and Doma. Stormblood utilizes character foils of returning heroes and new villains to construct the complicated relationship between empire, provinces, resistance, while also considering these elements in terms of gender.

As with empires throughout human history, the Garleans bring their provinces to heel through control and manipulation. They maintain a military presence and exact retribution for even the most minor of slights. They require regular tributes, control major resources, and coerce locals to serve in the military, either in their own province or abroad, and thus the motherland grows while the individual provinces flounder. A running thread is the exploitation of captured territories that, in the Garlean mindset, deserve to be captured due to their inherent weakness. Only by serving the empire can they rise to citizenship and power. Every individual must make decisions in the face of control that affects their fate. In the depiction of the relationship between the center and periphery, Final Fantasy XIV touches on elements of its world and lore that it previously distanced itself from; the difference between the male and female experience in Hydaelyn.

Eorzea and Othard are relatively ungendered realms, in that an individual’s (whose race is among the “races of man”) career, life choices, and actions are unaffected by their sex. In XIV there are both male and female monarchs, guild leaders, revolutionaries, scions, and so on, and there is little discussion given to an individual’s capacity to fulfill these roles. I should emphasize the word ‘relatively’ here because when it comes to matters of gender depictions in fiction there are multiple schools of thought that I can’t wholly account for. Furthermore, there are hundreds of characters and millions of lines of dialogue to analyze in order to assess the exact degree to which the world is gendered, which is far beyond my means and scope. I also say ‘relatively’ because there are hints prior to the second expansion of life in occupied territories; forced labor, and for women, abuse. The latter mentions are always spoken in euphemisms and never depicted, however they are enough to ground to the stakes of failure.

She has a whole new Lyse on life

Visual distinctiveness is all the rage among twins nowadays

Since this expansion’s story deals with empire and periphery, the dilemmas of people existing in the territories are the focal point. There are three basic choices for the occupied; to resist the empire, to remain neutral, or to accept the imperial influence over their meager lot. Resisting, as mentioned earlier, can result in death, retribution on family, friends, and neighbors, and so on. However, this does not deter the Scions of the Seventh dawn. The movers in Stormblood include some of the usual suspects, namely Alphinaud, but also feature several characters whom we haven’t heard from for a while. The plucky pugilist Lyse (previously known by her sister’s name, Yda) was absent for most of the Heavensward expansion and for the entirety of the Dragonsong War arc, and Alisaie, who soon after her initial introduction split from Alphinaud due to a philosophical disagreement and was largely absent. Interestingly, these two, far be it from back row mages, are the adept fighters among the scions. Of the twins Alisaie is the better fighter. Allowing these two to bask in the limelight contrasts their experiences as free Eorzeans to those under Imperial domain.

Finally, Yugiri isn’t the only Au-Ra in the story.

Neutrality is only a choice a few possess. Sul-no-Sato, a literal bubble under the Ruby Sea from which Yugiri hails, lives in isolation and therefore is unaffected by Doma’s plight. However, if the Confederacy and Doma were to fail in their revolutions due to their inactivity, and the imperials were to discover them, they would have missed their chance to prevent occupation. Yugiri rejected neutrality and in so doing put herself at risk. The beast tribes of the snake-like ananta had a similar option. While the Vira allied with the resistance, the Qalyana’s policy was isolationism and they and the imperials mutually ignored one another. Their neutrality, however, backfired when imperial sympathizers took the broodmother’s daughter and mistakenly killed her. The imperial occupation led the Qalyana to turn to their mythological goddess who, once summoned in the form of a primal, Sri Lakshmi, sought control in perpetual worship. Whatever choice one makes is a gamble, and one could draw an entire chart emphasizing possibilities through game theory. These two examples are also distinctly feminine. Yugiri is another example of a capable, motivated, and powerful female character, like Lyse and Alisaie. The ananta are an all-female tribe who emphasize self-beauty, not unlike the biblical Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Even in neutrality are there potential consequences, and the desperate situation causes certain beliefs and behaviors to flare to the extremes. Lastly, there are those who join with the occupying force.  

Hobbies: Killing and Hair Pulling
Hates: Everyone
Natural Hair Color: N/A

Zenos yae Galvus is the cruel and sadistic antagonist of Stormblood. He kills for the enjoyment of the hunt, experiments on prisoners of war and unsuccessful soldiers (in the same way his father did on him), and rules Ala Mhigo and Doma with a magitek fist. In each of these provinces respectively are two female characters who appear to be quite similar in their cruelty as the Garlean heir himself; Fordola rem Lupis and Yotsuyu. Fordola and her kabal of “Skulls” run parts of Gyr Abania and cut down any resistance efforts. After Zeno’s departure west, Yotsuyu became the the acting viceroy of Doma. Both of them are natives of their respective regions and perform their roles with unrelenting aggression. Neither think twice about punishing and killing their former countrymen and women, and the latter particularly has a flair for physical and psychological torture. Fordola seeks liberation through assimilation, and Yotsuyu does through power, but neither achieve their goal. Despite any similarities and their loyal service, these two are not Zeno’s equal and are not treated with the same respect as native Garleans. Because of the inferior backgrounds, they must work hard to earn the respect of their master. So when the Scions and the Warrior of Light weaken the Garlean hold in their territories, they answer to Zenos, and the power dynamic between them is clear; they’re expendable savages who serve the personal interests of the emperor and Zenos. In addition to overcoming their inferior pedigree, they must also deal with gendered encounters.

Yotsuyu was worked to the bone as a child, seen as a burden, and was “sold” (she presumably refers to someone paying her family a dowry) to a drunken and abusive husband, before she worked as an imperial spy. Despite her successes, when she does falter, Zeno grabs her by the hair and threatens to kill her should she fail again. Fordola, when the Eorzean Alliance takes the bridge she was in charge of holding, goes to face Zenos in his throne room. Outside, she hears Garlean soldiers gossip about her and imply that the reason she rose through the ranks was through sexual favors. In lieu of being killed on the spot, the price of her failure was being experimented on.

Exploring these characters’ psychology produces an interesting dynamic; unlike Allisie and Lyse who lived outside of the empire’s influence, Fordola and Yotsuyu are trapped between different loyalties which are leveraged by their cruel master. Even in so emulating him, they cannot achieve what he did, and are constantly reminded of their birthplace, and their gender. The complex dynamics at play decided why they took the side that they did and explain why they are so ruthless; they have to work that much harder. So when they do fail, their falls are palpable and harsh, especially when compared to Lyse’s rise to the head of the Ala Mhigan resistance.

Stormblood stresses a dynamic A Realm Reborn and Heavesnward did not: the world is ungendered in some ways (males and females can rise to power) but not others (under systematic oppression other sorts of discrimination appear due to power differentials between states). Using gender to ground characters and their interiority in the face of multi-faceted dilemmas and as a point of comparison between two sides of a conflict proved to be an effective narrative technique. XIVdoes not have a perfect story, but it is thoughtful in its depictions of complicated sociopolitical situations, and forms an approximate basis for using elements of real world problems to emphasize character traits and struggles to keep a story that has been going on for seven years fresh.