Square Enix knows the score. At PAX West, they showed off a series of games that ranged from the incomprehensible (Dissidia NT) to the nostalgic (the Secret of Mana remake), all of which fit Square’s post-Final Fantasy XV image of a Japanese publisher bringing Japanese experiences to the West. It’s an admirable tactic—make the stuff you’re known for and don’t bother with trying to appeal to that ever-elusive “wider audience.”
Lost Sphear, a deliberate SNES JRPG throwback set for release on the Switch and PS4, feels like the epitome of that mindset. You already know how this game plays, because it plays like every other game of its ilk. It’s as JRPG as a JRPG can get, right down to the comedy sidekick that is perpetually sleeping or eating, like a poorly translated Schrodinger’s Cat. There’s a mysterious wizard character in your party who might as well punctuate every other sentence with “Tch.” The plot centres on the collection of “Memories,” which are both tangible and intangible objects that will save the world. I bet you a crisp $20 the protagonist will use his memories of his friends to save the world at the end of the game.
I don’t mean to disparage the existence of cliché—if you want to make a deliberate throwback to the world of 90’s role-playing (and 90’s localization), then by all means, embrace your clichés. Be the very best version of this thing you could possibly be. I’m just saying it’s probably not a coincidence that Lost Sphear’s demo station sat right next to the 3D Secret of Mana remake. The folks making Lost Sphear want you to make that connection.
As someone who has only a purely academic view of 16-bit JRPGs, I liked what I played of Lost Sphear quite a bit. With my Switch currently gathering dust thanks to my newfound Destiny 2 obsession, I’ll take any reason to pick up a pair of Joy-Con and Lost Sphear seems like as good an excuse as any.
In case you like your nostalgia a little more direct, there’s a new Secret of Mana remake, which I am wholly unqualified to evaluate. This is partially due to the fact that I’ve never played Secret of Mana, which I hope to fix if I can get my hands on an elusive SNES Classic, but also because the demo was as surface-level as you can get. It was a fine representation of how the opening 20 minutes of a 16-bit JRPG can be dragged into the modern era, but I don’t know that it sold me on the full game. Years of critical adoration has already sold me on anything Secret of Mana-related.
Square also showed off a mobile port of Final Fantasy XV, which keeps the story intact and the structure mostly intact. It’s certainly a more linear experience, but that’s not a bad thing for people who just want to see what all the fuss is about. I suspect FFXV Mobile exists as a sort of honeypot. “If you like this game, maybe you should check out the full product? Ehh? Ehhhhhhh??” Using other games to sell larger games isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it worked like gangbusters for the completely unrelated Dead Rising: Case Zero. If you don’t have time to play the full game but want to understand why everyone seems to love Prompto so much, FFXV Mobile should fill that hole in your heart.
Again, before this article comes to an end: I must reiterate that I played Dissidia Final Fantasy NT and I did not understand one iota. I won a single game and lost two more. Tidus sucks even in Japanese.
Square has caught flak in the past for placing unrealistic expectations on big-budget Western games—the Tomb Raider reboot comes to mind. But the games they showed off at PAX were imports that will likely have no trouble finding an audience. It’s a canny soft rebrand, the kind that harkens back to the games Square was known for publishing in the SNES era. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Secret of Mana has found its way onto the newly-released SNES Classic, just in time to drum up interest in that aforementioned remake. Can’t get your hands on a SNES? Well, if you have a PS4, just play our updated version!
Anecdotally, the company is associated with Japanese games. And yeah, Square Enix is a Japanese company, but I’m talking about cultural perception rather than an ostensible nationality. Generally speaking, I don’t think the public thinks of Nintendo as a “Japanese” developer any more than they think of Ubisoft as a “French” company. Square Enix delivers JRPGs to America; to be associated with a uniquely Japanese genre is to be associated with Japanese development, so I think it’s really cool that Square is leaning back into that mindset.
Anyway, get excited for Battalion: 1944, a multiplayer shooter set in World War II that Square Enix is publishing.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Mike Cosimano’s interview with Suda51 about No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Again or his preview of Total War: Warhammer!