They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The line between inspiration and imitation is often as clear as Inaba on a foggy day. The point at which a game succeeds in taking inspiration from more mainstream titles or fails from simply copying them is all in the eyes of the beholder. Figuring out the sources of inspiration for The Lost Child from NIS America doesn't take long. From the dungeons and demon collecting of Atlus titles to the evolution mechanics made famous in the Pokemon franchise, it’s difficult to spot any original ideas. But as easy as it is to point out flaws, ultimately the only thing that matters is whether I enjoyed the experience, and I most certainly did.
The best piece of advice I can give is to not think too deeply about any particular aspect of the game. Take the story for example: occult journalist Hayato Ibuki has been chosen by God to wield a weapon in an ongoing war between Heaven and a mix of demons and fallen angels. Playing as Hayato, you and an angel sent from Heaven travel across areas of Japan investigating occult myths meant for the pages of the supermarket tabloid magazine that Hayato works for. Low and behold, what many thought were simply conspiracy theories spread by tin hat wearing crazies turns out to demons executing a master plan to destroy God. Though I don’t expect any awards for writing, the pacing of the reveals and the characters you meet along the way kept me engaged and invested in the outcome. There were a few times I extended my play session just so that I could see how a particular investigation played out.
By pure happenstance, my last review was SMT: Strange Journey, which just so happens to be the main inspiration of the core gameplay. Each investigation that you embark on reveals a dungeon (or layer) that feels like it was pulled right out of a handheld Atlus title. The dungeon is explored in first person and utilizes the grid-based map familiar to players of Strange Journey or Soul Hackers. Each step you take represents a square on the map, with the ultimate goal of discovering the route that will lead you to the boss of the dungeon.
The Atlus inspiration doesn’t end with exploration. In order to survive the dungeons you’ll need to assemble a team made up from the husks of fallen enemies. Instead of trying to convince demons to join you through negotiations, you simply trap them with your weapon from God and purify them with karma. Three different types of karma are gained through different means: neutral is earned through speech options, good karma is collected from defeating fallen angels, and evil karma is earned by defeating demons. It kinda sounds ridiculous trying to explain it, but in practice, there is a lot of strategy required as karma has a number of uses. Not only is it required to purify enemies to join your team, but it’s also used as a currency. Karma levels up teammates and can even be exchanged for a continue from a mysterious witch if you find yourself defeated.
One of the most interesting areas I found was the cybernetic den of Chodenji. An AI represented by a face in a tv provides the transfer of abilities from one member of your team to another. The transfer of one ability is at the cost of giving up another, so you have to be cognizant of handicapping members of your team for the benefit of others. Once a team member has reached its maximum level, you can bring them to Chodenji and, with the right material, they can be EVILved (evolved) into a stronger form. I just loved all of the different supply management strategy that comes from deciding whether to concentrate your limited resources to a few strong demons or to keep a balanced team of many to cycle through.
It would be an easy task to find faults simply by focusing in on individual aspects of The Lost Child. The vast majority of the game can be traced back to another JRPG that probably did it better, and if you can’t get passed that, than you probably aren’t going to enjoy it. But what I can’t deny is that when I just stopped caring about how much was borrowed from previous titles, I had a lot of fun, and that’s all that really matters.