Sunday, January 17, 2016

Game Review: Stella Glow

SRPG; Nintendo 3DS; Image Epoch; 2015
Just so all of you know, I'm feeling rather sick at the moment. Why why WHY did I have to get sick over the weekend!? Why couldn't it be during the week so I wouldn't have to work? Anyway, I have just beaten Image Epoch's final SRPG; Stella Glow. In case you didn't know, Image Epoch, the creators of Luminous Arc and Arc Rise Fantasia, filed for bankruptcy early last year after a string of disappointing sales and the disappearance of the company's president. However, before going belly up, Stella Glow (which was to be the celebration of the company's 10th Anniversary) was completed leaving the in the hands of it's publisher SEGA and ultimately handed off to Atlus for US release. So how is Image Epoch's Swan Song RPG? Read on to find out.

Alto is a young boy living a quiet life in Mithra village on the outskirts of the Regnant Kingdom, despite not remembering anything from before his was found three years ago. However, Alto's quiet life was torn asunder when Alto hears a mysterious sound, a Song, a source of great magical power only gifted to Witches. This Song belonged to Hilda, The Witch of Destruction, and caused the entire village to be encased in crystal. The only survivors where Alto and his best friend Lisette, who had become the Water Witch thanks to a pendant Alto gave her. Now Alto and Lisette must join forces with the Regnant Knights and search for the other Witches and undo Hilda's crystallization once and for all.

Stella Glow's story is very VERY well traveled territory, and to people who have played Luminous Arc before you can easily predict several plot twists that occur later in the game. But that doesn't mean the story is bad, it's a charming little return to a simpler time of RPG storytelling that isn't found too often these days. And while the story holds no surprises (apart from one REALLY good twist later into the game) and the characters fall within clear anime stereotypes, there is a nostalgic charm to it that is aided by a really good script and voice acting. The story might not move mountains, but it is certainly worth your time to be invested.

Stella Glow can be best described as Luminous Arc spliced with Ar Tonelico. The game is a Strategy RPG with much the same mechanics as the Luminous Arc series. During battle you move a number of your allies across an isometric battlefield fighting against enemies and slaying bosses. Much like Luminous Arc and other similar SRPGs, each character takes their turn individually based on their Agility stat and the number of actions taken during their previous turn. Attack and moving takes the longest until their next turn, attack or moving alone takes less time, and doing nothing takes the least amount of time. Now unlike say Fire Emblem, there is only 15 character maximum in your roster; however, each character is very unique with their special attacks and even unique commands. For instance, the Merchant Ewan can spend money to get a healing item added to his or a nearby ally's inventory, while our cardboard box wearing ninja Nonoko can make herself invisible to enemies and then unleash a potentially lethal attack. Even your Witches are unique from each other with only Lisette falling cleanly into the Mage archetype you'd expect. The Fire Witch Sakuya, for example, is far more of a Fighter using her Katana and switching stances for more lethal physical attacks. However, where the Ar Tonelico influence comes in is the powerful Song Magic. As you fight in battle a Song Gauge fills up. Now you can use a small portion of it to have your Witches Sing, which range from a powerful area of effect attack to giving a major buff for nearby allies. However, if you fill the gauge even further you can have Alto "Conduct" one of the girls which will give an all allies buff or an all enemies debuff for several turns as the girl sings her own unique song. These songs are game changing since the first one you get prevents ALL ENEMIES FROM ATTACKING! Another completely restores your HP and SP, and another gives everyone a guaranteed critical. Simply put these songs range from completely turning the tide of battle to making the conflict pathetically one sided.

However, Stella Glow isn't all about combat. The game is split into two types of "Time": Mission Time and Free Time. During Mission Time you are free to battle any of the free battles as many times as you want (the harder versions of which are locked with Play Coins) until you reach the next story mission to progress the game. During Free Time, Alto can do a number of different activities including going to part-time jobs for extra gold and perks, exploring the surrounding area for items, and talking with your party members. By spending time with your allies you can not only learn new things about them but also gain new abilities for them. However, spending time with your Witches will sometimes cause them to "close off their hearts" which means you need to "Tune" them. The process of "Tuning" is another thing that reminds me of Ar Tonelico, especially the innuendos surrounding it, as Alto (and your other party members) must enter the Witch's heart and battle their inner demons. While the idea of "Tuning" is to help the girl solve her insecurities the actual mechanics of it is simply a battle with unique victory conditions, like defeat more enemies then the Witch's Shadow, or defeat all enemies without using any Skills. Tuning takes up a segment of free time but the reward for it is more powerful Song magic.

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But of course I have to talk about the bad things about the game. Perhaps the most prominent is the cutscene to gameplay ratio. Now this is a Strategy RPG and thus there can be some rather lengthy talky bits, which is fine for the genre, but for a handheld game can lead to moments where you really need to turn the system off (because your bus ride is almost over or because your batteries are almost dead) but there is no way to save your progress until it is over. Fortunately, battles don't have this same problem given there is a Suspend Save option (one that is automatically prompted when going into the next phase of a multi-phase battle). Another problem is that while the voice acting is really good across the board, the audio levels is skewed towards the quiet end. A lot of character voices get drowned out to the background music, and the overall sound can be hard to hear in loud locations even with ear-buds and the 3DS volume cranked to max. The 3D effect, while for the most part is alright, causes some eye-bleeding moments when an object the 3D renders behind everyone goes IN FRONT of characters. And lastly, this game is designed for you to play the New Game+, because with how it is set up there is NO WAY you can accomplish EVERYTHING in the game on your first run through. It requires the bonuses of New Game+ to get anywhere close to a completionist run.

Stella Glow is perhaps Image Epoch's finest game, or at least it's their finest game I've ever played. It might mot be game changing but it's a fun little SRPG that manages to invoke the nostalgic games of our past, while still having enough of an identity to keep it from being lost in the shuffle. It is full of mechanics that we have seen time and time again, but they are all expertly crafted. Which is why I find it to be a shame that Image Epoch folded before this game's release, because that means we will probably never see another game. However, I still want this game to do well, because who knows maybe SEGA will turn enough of a profit to continue this series after Image Epoch's demise. It's an outside chance at best, but hey a guy can dream. As for Stella Glow, it comes Highly Recommended.

Until Next Time.

-CRES, Harsh, very very harsh.

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