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The small studio trying to keep classic Japanese role-playing games alive

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Tokyo RPG Factory takes another stab with Lost Sphear

Lost Sphear

On June 16th, 2015, a new division within Japanese publishing giant Square Enix posted a short, handwritten message online. “The ‘good old days’ are coming back,” it read. “To every RPG fan in the world… this is for you.” Square Enix made its name in the ‘80s and ‘90s with classic JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest, and around 2013 president Yosuke Matsuda had noticed that a number of Western developers were finding success creating titles inspired by those games. “He thought ‘Can’t we also do something like this in Japan?’” recalls Atsushi Hashimoto, director of the new studio, which was given the straightforward name Tokyo RPG Factory.

A year after its statement of intent, the studio released its debut game, a sweet, sorrowful adventure called I Am Setsuna. Last week, it followed up with its sophomore release, Lost Sphear, on PS4, PC, and the Nintendo Switch. Both games are about loss; Lost Sphear takes place in a world where objects and people can become forgotten and literally disappear, while I Am Setsuna follows the doomed quest of a young girl who must be sacrificed to appease powerful demons.

And neither game is shy about their nostalgic inspirations. While they take place in different worlds, both I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear feature a top-down perspective with relatively simple 3D graphics, reminiscent of the original PlayStation era. Other homages abound: Chrono Trigger-style active combat, robotic armor pulled straight out of Final Fantasy VI, and a solemn orchestral soundtrack that evokes the work of long-time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.

For Hashimoto, his love of that style of game was cemented when he first played Dragon Quest III on the Famicom, which originally debuted in Japan in 1988. Turned off by the challenging nature of action games of the era, he wanted a more cerebral role-playing experience, and Dragon Quest III delivered. “[It] was simple but deep, a well-balanced game that offered freedom but was also well thought-out, and above all else, a shocking story and wonderful game,” he says. “That is what got me hooked on JRPGs. To me, it was a title that I consider my beginning, and it is still one of my favorite RPGs of all time.”

In 2014, when Matsuda began recruiting for Tokyo RPG Factory and what was then dubbed “Project Setsuna,” Hashimoto jumped at the chance. He’d worked on RPGs in the past, as an artist on 2006’s Blue Dragon, which was helmed by Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, and later as the director on the multiplayer-focused Final Fantasy: Explorers on the Nintendo 3DS. But “Project Setsuna” offered a very different opportunity: the chance to go back to the style of games that he fell in love with three decades prior.

Most Japanese RPGs today look very different from their forebears, utilizing flashy animated cutscenes, voice acting, and combat that feels more like an action game than a classic JRPG. Square Enix’s own Final Fantasy XV, which came out in 2015, is a prime example: it updated the series for modern expectations, with a huge open world to explore and fast-paced fighting that felt unlike any game in the series before it. It’s a continually evolving experience that has been regularly updated with new chapters and even a massively multiplayer mode. In the other direction, mobile titles like Final Fantasy Brave Exvius may visually resemble pixel-art RPGs, but their free-to-play format puts an emphasis on collection and repetitive play, at the expense of dramatic storytelling, an integral aspect of the most iconic JRPGs.

It’s not that Hashimoto doesn’t like these newer games, but he feels that something has been lost as the genre has grown and expanded. “I believe one of the appealing points of RPGs from the ‘90s is that they left room for the imagination,” he explains. “I feel that this element may be fading away nowadays because graphics in games are now able to depict things in such detail. When we develop our games [at Tokyo RPG Factory], we take great care to leave room for the imagination and we want people to experience that, even with a modern game.”

One of the biggest challenges for the studio is carving out its own identity, especially considering the iconic nature of its inspirations. But while you can see the influence of beloved classics when you play I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, their games still feel distinct. Lost Sphear takes place in a world where everything, whether it’s a person or an object, is imbued with memories. When those memories fade, that thing or person disappears in a state known as being “lost.” You play as a character named Kanata who has the mysterious ability to gather memories and use them to restore things that have been lost, starting with his own hometown.

Lost Sphear

Characters are forced to deal with their memories, including dark or upsetting ones, in an unavoidable, tangible way. There are powerful moments of heartbreak. And unlike a lot of JRPGs, which often balance tense, emotional scenes with quirky, offbeat moments, Lost Sphear remains solemn. For Hashimoto, the poignant, often sad moments are what stuck with him in his favorite games, and it’s something he wanted to explore further. “I do admit that what I feel is interesting tends to be more serious,” he says. “It very well may be reflective of my personality as a director.”

Hashimoto says that the reception to I Am Setsuna “greatly exceeded” the studio’s expectations, which helped solidify the studio’s resolve to focus on an increasingly niche genre. The size of the team has remained mostly constant — between full-time staff and contractors, he estimates that about 50 people worked on each game — as have the studio’s ambitions. Tokyo RPG Factory’s games may be inspired by the past, but the studio’s leader believes the genre still has a bright future.

“It might be too much to say that anything is possible in the RPG genre, but as a developer, I do feel that the genre offers a lot of freedom,” Hashimoto says. “As such, I don’t feel that the restrictions get in the way.”