Back in 2015, Square Enix announced that Tokyo RPG Factory, a brand new studio under their umbrella, would be forming to work on a title called “Project Setsuna.” In 2016, that project would come to fruition under the guise of I Am Setsuna, and would go on the receive relatively positive reviews from most media outlets. Although spirits were, for the most part, high and hopeful for this new division from Square Enix, reports six months after Setsuna’s launch in Japan struck fear in some, considering the company revealed a two million dollar loss at that point in time.
Do take into consideration a few points here, however. While this financial loss certainly doesn’t look great on paper, I’m not sure how it equates when you take the given length of time between the figure readings and launch day, the actual amount of units sold, as well as the fact that the North American launch didn’t come into play until a few months later. Reports suggest that the numbers for day-one sales in Japan were actually impressive, considering it was a new IP from a new developer (despite backing from Square Enix). Still, you can’t deny the fact that posting a loss in any situation doesn’t bode too well for that entity.
Regardless, it apparently did well enough in the end to merit the creation of its spiritual successor, Lost Sphear, a short while thereafter. Lost Sphear released in late 2017 in Japan and early 2018 in the NA/PAL regions. Although clearly a superior product in comparison to Setsuna in my opinion, the numbers once again were not that great. According to numerous sources , the Japanese release only sold through 20% of its initial shipment. While I was unable to retrieve to-date information regarding how it fared in all markets up to now, all signs point to it being a questionable endeavor for Square Enix’s mini-studio. With all of the information currently on-hand, it would be hard to argue the fact that we may never see another Tokyo RPG Factory game again.
But why? What went so wrong that the backing of a JRPG juggernaut like Square Enix couldn’t stimulate enough interest in a new game series even in their native market? How come so many indie developers experience great success from retro-inspired titles, while the brainchild of one of the grandfathers of the genre couldn’t even get their new outing off the runway? Unfortunately, I can’t give you a definitive answer, but I can certainly speculate as both a fan of JRPGs and having experience with both I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear. Before I begin though, I should make it clear that while I did not really enjoy either game, I don’t think that they are bad by any means. With that out of the way, here is my take on what sank Tokyo RPG Factory.
Ask any RPG fan to list their reasons why they like a series such as Final Fantasy, and the musical score is bound to come up unanimously amongst the sample. Whether you are an audiophile or just a casual listener, it is hard to argue against the impact and importance of a soundtrack in gaming. That importance is further amplified in a traditional JRPG setting, as often it plays a crucial role in conveying the emotion of a given situation, often due to the lack of voice acting, 3d environments, and so on.
I Am Setsuna took a big risk by sticking to the single, piano-driven score, and though it wasn’t terrible by any means, it just lacked any meaningful impact in my opinion. It certainly helped drive home the bleakness of the situation, but there’s only so much you can take of a solo piano before you desire something more, especially if its quality is about average. The only instance I can think of when it comes to single instrument-driven songs that left a lasting impact on me in my almost three-decade gaming experience would be the original Sims game.
Even then, it didn’t hinge its entire soundtrack on a singular device, only a handful. I just don’t think it’s a great idea to ever limit yourself musically in this way, unless there are actual limitations you have to work around (which, let’s admit, would almost never be the case). Lost Sphear vastly improved the quality and instrument variety in its soundtrack, but still fell short of being memorable, at least to my ears.
Probably the most important aspect in any RPG are its characters, and this is actually where I preferred I Am Setsuna over Lost Sphear. It is my belief that you can have a mediocre, or even terrible, story but still have interesting characters, but you cannot have a great story without the proper cast to back it up. I felt that Setsuna had a pretty interesting cast, from the cold mercenary-for-hire who ends up having a constant moral struggle, a youthful girl set to be sacrificed well before her prime and her companion, the rugged veteran whose past haunts him every waking moment.
Even though I found myself drawn to all of these characters, the supporting systems in Setsuna turned me away from truly appreciating them before I could stomach finishing the game. My admiration for Setsuna’s characters is one of the main reasons why I was excited about the impending release of Lost Sphear later on. Sadly, after playing it I felt like they took a step back in terms of actual character quality in comparison to its predecessor. Lost Sphear had some interesting ideas of course, but it ultimately failed to grip me anywhere near as tightly as Setsuna did. On top of that, the story fell a bit flat for me in later chapters. Again, it is my opinion that you must have sound characters in order to have a truly engaging story experience.
I believe that it was a mistake for Tokyo RPG Factory to describe the combat in both Setsuna and Lost Sphear as Chrono Trigger-like, as that alone cultivates a larger-than-normal anticipation and expectation for the content. While it definitely draws inspiration from the classic RPG title, its not nearly as enjoyable in execution. A lot of what made Chrono Trigger’s combat exciting, at least for me, were the ability animations, the average level of difficulty, and the tech combos. Let me explain.
Combat abilities in Chrono Trigger will often go off with a real sense of weight behind them. Even as something as simple as Crono’s melee critical strike sound effect will register meaningful impact in your brain without even considering any visual cues. In comparison, both Lost Sphear and Setsuna lack that same sense of force for the majority of abilities. The base level of Chrono Trigger offers what I’d consider a moderately challenging level of combat while not being unforgiving, especially to a newcomer to the game. Random battles may not always be challenging, but you may find yourself in a pickle from time to time. Boss battles will certainly test your mettle, especially if you don’t know what to expect.
Both Setsuna and Lost Sphear are an absolute joke when it comes to random encounters, and many of the boss fights are a pushover. On the flip side of the coin, Lost Sphear in particular also suffered from some boss overtuning on harder difficulties as well. One boss fight specifically served as an immediate, unexpecting wall to progression that could only be overcome by dropping the difficulty or through excessive grinding, neither of which would be an issue if it felt natural to the difficulty progression already in place from the earlier parts of the game.
Obviously, you can’t talk about combat in Chrono Trigger without bringing up its tech (or ability) system. Techs can be performance solo, or with two or three-person combos that unleash some insane firepower. Chrono Trigger succeeded with this system because it often justified the tech combos in relation to their cost and damage output. A less complex version of this system exists in both Setsuna and Lost Sphear, but I rarely found myself drawn to using them at all. Many times, it was more beneficial to use singular abilities because it just didn’t make sense to tie up two party members when factoring in their relative output (or lack thereof).
In short, I felt that the entire combat system in both Tokyo RPG Factory games just didn’t feel right, and lacked a true sense of enjoyment in its presentation. After all, what is a traditional JRPG without enjoyable combat?
I could go on, but now, I’d like to present the question to you. What are your thoughts and impressions on Tokyo RPG Factory? Do you think that their time is up, or is there a possibility that we may see a third title from them in the future?