The first twenty minutes or so of The Lost Child set up an intriguing mystery, but once the game settles into a comfortable rhythm things become decidedly less compelling, and at times, an outright slog. The game begins in a Tokyo subway station with an investigative journalist who specialises in the occult named Hayato looking into a spate of mysterious suicides. People are throwing themselves in front of subway trains in record numbers, but are these open and shut cases of coincidental suicide, or is there something more sinister afoot?
Hayato meets a strange girl at the subway station who hands him a suitcase to look after before promptly disappearing, and after nearly finding himself the victim of another "suicide" he sets out to solve the mystery of why people are really killing themselves and to find justice for the dead. What sinister forces are lurking in the shadows of the Tokyo underground, and why are they targeting seemingly innocent and unrelated victims? Who is pulling the strings from behind the scenes, and to what end are their evil machinations working toward? Why are the character designs perilously close to NSFW territory for no discernible reason? The answers to these questions and more will be revealed across dozens of hours of investigation around contemporary Tokyo and while battling the denizens of evil with an array of supernatural skills. Well, maybe not that last question.
If you've played any of the Persona games then this will all sound distinctly familiar to you - it's a supernatural mystery set in modern Japan, with dungeon crawling, turn based battles - and the similarities don't end there, but the comparison isn't at all favourable to The Lost Child. The time you'll spend wandering Tokyo is all handled in the style of a visual novel with limited options in terms of making dialogue choices, and once you get into the dungeons you'll find yourself traversing drab, empty, three dimensional mazes in first person, only to occasionally be accosted by monsters to vanquish.
Battles in the game make use of creatures that you'll collect on your journey - called Astrals here - as party members, and as you progress through the game you'll find more and more of these. The Astrals all have different skills, strengths, and weaknesses, and so if you're heading into a dungeon in which a lot of the enemies have a shared vulnerability to a particular element, then it might behove you to bring along an Astral or two that specialise in dealing damage of that persuasion. Choosing attacks is menu based, but most of the enemies you'll face and the skills you'll use aren't animated in any way, and so all you'll see is a damage effect appear over your target, and the amount of HP you've taken from them expressed as a number.
The big problem here is that the dungeon crawling sections are almost unfathomably dull, and the bare bones battling offers scant respite. Some of the dungeons are huge, and take place across numerous floors, and as you progress they become more complicated, requiring you to solve puzzles like flipping switches at one end of the map so a door opens at the other. Variety here is limited, and so it seems like you're just walking around identical hallways for long stretches of time, watching the mini-map on the screen to see if you're heading in the right direction. The dungeons are incredibly rudimentary, graphically speaking, and while this might not seem out of the ordinary for the Vita version of the game, on PS4 it looks dated. The fighting breaks up the monotony every now and again, but it's so easy to defeat most of the entities you'll go up against that you'll rarely require much in the way of strategy to proceed.
Boss fights are a little more involved, and they're when The Lost Child is at its best, gameplay wise. While it seems like a lot of the battles - particularly in the early going - can be handled with little more than standard attacks, bosses will keep you on your toes, and you'll need to make sure your Astrals are as strong as they can be if you want to proceed. Levelling up Astrals is a simple process, taken care of using a currency called karma. Every choice you make and enemy you defeat will fill up either your good, evil, or mixed karma stock, and then you can exchange this good - or ill - will for experience points for your allies. Once they hit maximum level you can evolve them into their next form, and if this all sounds eerily reminiscent of a certain monster collecting game you might find on Nintendo handheld consoles, then you'd be right.
The story is quite nicely paced and remains mostly entertaining, despite adhering to some tired tropes and the treading of some well worn territory. Obviously, since this is a Japanese role playing game, the stakes quickly evolve until the very existence of the human race is under threat, but the religious slant to the storytelling is well done, with some interesting depictions of characters important in Christian mythology. If you have no problem with grindy dungeon crawlers then the narrative here will probably serve as worthwhile table dressing for your adventures, but it's unlikely to provide enough justification to persevere for those unfulfilled by the exploration or combat.
The Lost Child isn't a game bereft of merit, and we're sure that there's a number of people who'll enjoy the visual novel slash first person dungeon crawler approach taken here. But it's certainly a game with limited appeal - even among the role playing game demographic - thanks to the lifeless battles and cumbrous dungeon design. It's a game that pays more than a passing nod to numerous other RPGs - Pokemon, Persona, and other Shin Megami Tensei titles - but sadly, never approaches the quality of any of them.