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Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Stella Glow (Nintendo 3DS)

Stella Glow Review

Stella Glow is Imageepoch’s swan song. Heartbreaking as it is to see yet another set of capable creative minds disbanded, it’s the most apt tune the company could have composed to go out on. It’s a game that brings the company full circle; Imageepoch kicked off with the niche but stellar tactics RPG title, Luminous Arc, and its final release is an equally positioned tactics RPG. There’s a number of other obvious connections; both Luminous Arc and Stella Glow were new IPs that landed on a Nintendo portable and follow the same gameplay general formulas. One has to believe the designers at every level knew this would be their last ride because Stella Glow offers such unadulterated respect to not just tactics games but the Japanese entertainment industry at large.

Related reading: Lord of Magna was another swan song from another talented developer, and like Stella Glow, it's great stuff.

Although it expends tremendous resources towards paying homage, echoes of the company’s inventive spirit can be heard and these elevate the game above the status of a simple tribute. Make no mistake, though; Stella Glow pays its dues before these more intricacies become apparent.

The very narrative itself follows the dreadfully conventional “save the world” formula - with a swerve, thankfully. This turning point is foreshadowed out of the gate; rather than instantly introducing the protagonist in a light-hearted fashion, viewers are brashly introduced to the world’s lore and can draw their own conclusions about its citizens and their god. The nature of this relationship lends itself to biblical parallels with the Old Testament’s Israel, particularly in that prosperity led to decadence. This world’s god sought to right the wrongs of humanity by stripping the populace of its right to sing. Oh, and there’s a morbid scene where humanity’s ancient hero begs incessantly for death’s sweet embrace.

Tactics JRPG review

After a cut to the present day, the dark tone hardly dissipates. A young man named Alto and his sister, Lisette, fight in vain to protect their village. As a result, their mother and entire hometown are crystallised by a song sung by the Witch of Destruction. Alto’s last link to his prior life is strained when his sister turns out to be a witch just like the one that robbed them of everything. The two are then detained by the Queen’s knights, who reveal that four witches must be gathered to in order to save the world from further crystallisation.

Despite this unsettling welcome to the world of Stella Glow, the story script adopts friendlier, easygoing dialogue loaded with comic relief and flavoured with otaku-oriented charm. It’s a tale choc full of anime tropes you’ll either love or hate. Throughout his quest, Alto encounters token knights and witches alike. On the male end you’ve got the soldier who is vigilant to a fault, the level-headed commander with a heart of gold, and the skilled but lethargic womaniser. Witches include the childhood friend who wants to be a little more, the innocent loli, the two-faced pretty girl, and a social recluse. Heck, Alto himself fits the kind-hearted amnesiac protagonist role to a tee. On the surface, they’re all uninspired mock-ups of beloved personalities you've seen in dozens of JRPGs before. Chapters go by, though, and before long Mr. Comedy Relief turns out to have a mean streak and terrorists become objects of sympathy.  

As the bulk of the game’s plot is spent gathering the four witches to sing an anthem, they’re appropriately crucial characters to the plot. In a nod to the harems that inevitably sneak into so much otaku entertainment in Japan, they’ve got varying reasons for adoring protagonist Alto. He slowly develops individual relationships with them and can romance the one of his choosing. Unlike some of the more smut-laden harems out there, though, Alto’s relationship with the witches has a refreshingly innocent tone more reminiscent of Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven. There’s something that resonates about the way Alto has to delve into their souls to awaken their dormant powers by reasoning with their inner demons. Given that most of these characters are in their teens, there’s ample justification for their anxiety and the exploration of why witches fear what they do occasionally offers subtle real-world psychological insights beyond the parameters of clichéd action stories.

Nintendo 3DS game review

Eventually that aforementioned twist rears its head. Anyone who’s paid attention to JRPG and anime plots will see it coming from the opening chapters, but that awareness only cushions the veer’s impact at best. It’s like reading a well-penned fantasy about a real-world disaster; you know what tragedy awaits before you open the book yet your stomach is in knots when you realise how much you actually love all these characters. By the time this narrative crescendo echoes, players have developed deep ties to their favourite characters. This is actually thanks to the overuse of archetypal personalities - they’re easy to grasp and, once the unique characteristics of each unit appear, they transcend the initial expectations you saddled them with. Without spoiling things for those who lack genre experience, rest assured that this tale simply wouldn’t have the same value without this shakeup. 

Admittedly, character building in the main campaign can be deficient at times. That’s always a challenge when you’ve got a loaded roster of characters but thankfully Stella Glow presents a remedy. Like Fire Emblem’s famed support conversations that bolster the bonds between units alongside their combat potency, Stella Glow features similarly profitable chats. In this case, however, all military banter occurs between Alto and the unit of the player’s choice and exclusively boost their skill set. Alto’s initial role as the nondescript hero assists in drawing out and juxtaposing others’ quirky traits. Banter excels at perpetuating existing stereotypes before eventually breaking the characters out of the mould. It’s regrettable that some of these segments were blatantly cut short in terms of dialogue, but - as we sadly know – Imageepoch’s clock was ticking.

These conversations are also a limited resource. In Stella Glow, gameplay is divided into two distinct categories appropriately christened Free Time and Mission time. During Free Time, players are permitted to undertake three time-consuming tasks, which range from the aforementioned chats to working part-time jobs for spare cash or exploring nature for random items. Here’s the catch: you’re only allowed to participate in three activities before the story forcibly progresses. Micromanaging your party and resources between skirmishes is often half the battle in JRPGs and this one is no different, but Stella Glow champions a broader degree decision making beyond battling that any genre expert will appreciate. There are two chapters that hand out Free Time like candy on Halloween, but even still, you’re not going to have time befriend every unit so players have to make firm decisions about which characters to develop. 

Tactics JRPG review

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mission Time, which offers up all the classic isometric grid-based action you’d anticipate from the team that brought Luminous Arc to life. Brawling with monsters, casting spells, and levelling up your crew are requisites to tackle the variety of mission objectives that are thrown your way. It’s this barrage of tasks that allow Stella Glow to stand out from the likes of modern Fire Emblem (which is now largely content to have players plough through a boss or a group and call it a day). Objectives range from protecting a unit or meeting up at a checkpoint to surviving for an allotted number of turns. It doesn’t end there, though. Prod a tab on the 3DS’ touch screen and you’ll reveal a tab with optional goals that reward players with elusive items that can’t otherwise be obtained. Many missions can be bested with relative ease if you’re well versed in tactics games, so these extraneous tasks up the ante.

Besides the diverse assignments, Stella Glow differentiates itself with the emphasis on utilising music in battle. Since humans lack the ability to sing in the game’s world, the witches become crucial party members that you’ll want to prioritise over traditional weapon users. Unleashing a song is akin to a fighting game’s super meter and takes a while to charge. Should Alto tune an adjacent witch with enough power, the ensuing song warps the atmosphere of an entire battle. Ignoring the stat boosts, there’s a dramatic spectacle to it unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. Flashing colours, dramatic J-Pop vocals, and gorgeous instrumentation weave the sensation of an eccentric idol performance. This is the rare 3DS game that demands a nice pair of headphones to fully absorb the splendour of each melody and subtle chord progressions that underline opera-influenced pieces.

In terms of raw combat mechanics, Stella Glow won’t be looked back at as a pioneer. That said, the way it scrupulously curates the many established JRPG and tactics RPG conventions and reworks them in to mesh together is something to behold. The result is an experience that owes as much to The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky as it does Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. Factor in Imageepoch’s own polish and that mash-up is the stuff of dreams.

Game review on Nintendo 3DS

Stella Glow should also be commended for finding an ingenious way to validate the play styles of casuals and strategy purists alike without having to create separate modes or difficulties. Those who optionally grind on generic battle maps will be rewarded with gratuitous cash, quicker access to abilities, and overall burlier stats.  If you want to ignore these opportunities, though, that can be arranged nicely. Similar to Luminous Arc, levelling up means a unit regains all of its health and magic. It’s an utterly indispensible tactic that your party can use to turn the tide of battle. You can send a dying unit with no magic off against a group of foes only for him to level up during the skirmish and whip out a powerful attack next turn. Since healing abilities are limited and each character can only carry two items, players that abuse grinding won’t reap the true benefit of levelling up since a higher level means less experience. I love that pouring time into the game isn’t an end-all solution because decision making ought to have consequences.

If one complaint can be lobbied at the strategic gameplay, though, it’s that certain story-driven maps evolve in overly unpredictable manners. I appreciate that war is erratic, but the way Stella Glow executes it can be rather jarring. It’s not like Fire Emblem where enemy recruits pop out from reasonably predetermined locations that can be countered if you’ve raised your army decently. Here, victory will be in your grasp only for the boss to randomly bail and summon a swarm of enemies in some location you had no reason to suspect. Other times, boss characters you believed could be felled get stuck indefinitely at 1 HP as if the game refuses to acknowledge your party’s superiority. One chapter pulls the reinforcement trick about four times in a particularly nasty way and I feel it tramples on the idea of developing long-term plans.

In terms of localisation, Stella Glow is an odd beast. The presence of Atlus means a solid script is a given, though anyone holding out hope for a Japanese voice track is out of luck. I can’t say I care for forced English dubs (especially when the amount of dialogue dubbed often pales in comparison to the Japanese edition), but I must admit that there’s a hidden virtue in this instance. As the witches speak English during voiced events, hearing them sing in Japanese adds an eerie layer of mysticism to every song that absolutely suits the lore.

Atlus game review on Nintendo 3DS

Related reading: Over on the PlayStation Vita, Hyperdevotion Noire is one of the better examples of a tactics RPG.

Stella Glow is influenced by traditional tactics games through and through, but Imageepoch’s distinctive contributions to the genre and glossy finish prove that it’s stellar on its own terms. It’s as if the company wrapped up its love for the industry in its masterwork and issued an open challenge to top it.

- Clark A.
Anime Editor


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Review: Stella Glow (Nintendo 3DS)
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