Stella Glow is the swan song of Japanese game developer imageepoch. Even if their name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably played one of their games – they’re the ones behind the Luminous Arc series [DS], Yoshi’s New Island, the Criminal Girls series [PSP/Vita], and other cool games like Black Rock Shooter: The Game [PSP] and Time and Eternity [PS3]. Unfortunately, imageepoch shut down earlier this year. On the bright side, though, they didn’t leave quietly. Instead, they released Stella Glow, and it’s something that any RPG lover with a 3DS should be playing right now.
Stella Glow has a story that will probably feel familiar to anyone who has played a lot of JRPGs in the past. In the past, the world was peaceful and prosperous. Unfortunately, the world eventually fell into ruin, with war raging. The God of this world took the “power of song” away from humankind. Things were going well for a while, but now war is on the horizon once again. You play as Alto, a young man who lives in the small village of Mithra. Abandoned at birth, you were taken in by a young girl named Lisette and her mother. With Lisette by his side, Alto must set out on an adventure to find and recruit the five witches who still hold the power of song – together, you’ll restore order by battling the forces that are working against the world.
It’s a pretty standard JRPG set-up, but it actually gets much more interesting as you get further into the game. Each witch has a different personality – Popo, the naive, energetic witch, is probably my favorite. Her bow-wielding skills are pretty awesome, and she has some great dialogue (made possible by a localization team that obviously worked very hard on this game).
Lisette is also extremely hard not to like. She’s quirky and sweet, but she and her magic staff can pack a hell of a punch in combat. Even the Harbingers (the antagonists) have an interesting backstory. I found it hard to just hate them – instead, I was curious as to why exactly they were doing such terrible things. The same goes for Hilda, who starts the game as a villain but gradually develops into a much more interesting character.
By watching trailers and looking at art, you might think that Stella Glow is a shallow harem game that stars a young man surrounded by gorgeous anime girls with no personalities. Nothing could be farther from the truth – these characters are deep, and it’s fun to get to know them as the game progresses.
Tuning is one of the stranger elements in Stella Glow. In order to harness the power of song, a witch must be “tuned.” At first, I was confused because it seemed like I was just putting these young women through strange rituals, but I quickly learned that the process actually means more than that.
The witches you meet have been through a lot, and they have a lot of negative energy inside of them. From that energy, monsters are created. Tuning is the process of entering a witch’s spirit and defeating the monster – you can see a shot of a map within a witch’s spirit world below. Destroying these bosses clears the witch’s heart and mind, and allows them to harness their full potential. It reminds me of the way that dark thoughts and emotions created monsters in Persona 4, but Stella Glow‘s tuning system is much less intense and meaningful than the shadows of Persona were.
Sometimes you’ll encounter puzzles and enemies while tuning, and these levels are a great way to break things up when you get tired of the standard gameplay. It helps that they naturally occur every so often, so you’re never stuck doing exactly the same thing for too long.
Classic grid-based SRPG gameplay is what dominates Stella Glow. The battle system is similar to that of Fire Emblem: Awakening and the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor series. At the beginning of the battle, you’ll be able to choose your party and place them in a starting position. After that, a turn-based battle begins. Each of your party members has a specific range of motion, and you move them about the map when it’s your turn. You can use your turn to attack, use items, and support your other party members.
When you get close to an enemy, you can choose to attack. I’m sure this is all information that anyone who has ever played a SRPG knows, but Stella Glow changes things up when it comes to actually initiating combat. My favorite part of combat is that where you attack is just as important as how you attack. Attacking from the front gives your enemy fair notice, and they’ll be more prepared to defend and possibly counter-attack. If you attack from the back, though, you’re at a much greater advantage. Your enemy won’t be able to defend as well when you use a stealth attack, so your moves will do much more damage. In the screenshot below, you’ll see Alto getting ready to perform a stealth attack.
The environments in Stella Glow aren’t just flat battlefields. You’ll fight in forests, in villages, and in areas with hills and valleys. These changes in scenery add a new challenge to gameplay, particularly when playing with a full party. You’ll want to explore the map, find items, and destroy monsters. As the game goes on, the maps get more complex, and it makes things much more interesting.
Like Fire Emblem: Awakening, you’ll see the estimated results of your attack before you decide to make a move. You’ll see the HP and SP of both your party member and your opponent, as well as the stats, level, drop items, and steal items for the monster you’re up against. As if that weren’t enough, you’ll also be able to see how much damage your attack will do and the chance that you’ll be successful (as a percentage). This really emphasizes the “strategy” part of SRPG. You can either rush into battle and attempt to defeat your enemies as quickly as possible, or you can take time to carefully calculate your every move.
Experimenting with different weapons and equipment also gives you an edge, since no two weapons are the same. Even if your character can wield a weapon, it doesn’t mean they should. As you play, you’ll start to figure out which characters are best with certain weapons and pieces of armor. The pre-battle screen is one of the game’s best features, and even though it has been done before, I’m extremely grateful that it was included here. Not since Fire Emblem: Awakening have I had so much fun planning my moves. There are times where I spent five or ten minutes considering my next attack. The strategic elements of Stella Glow are a refreshing change of pace from the shooters and sports games that dominate the market (especially at this time of the year).
Exploring the World of Stella Glow
When you leave your home (the hub world of Lambert), you’ll be transported to a 3D map with a top-down view, similar to games like The Legend of Legacy and Fire Emblem. Here you can make your way to your next objective, or you can choose to take part in a free battle, which will give you an opportunity to earn money and grind for experience points. When you get to a part of the map where a mission objective is located, there’s a small summary of why you’re going to the area, which is nice if you put the game down for a while and somehow forgot the reason why you were heading across the map. It’ll also give you a recommended level, so you won’t run into a fight that you won’t be able to finish.
After a mission, you’ll be given “free time.” Free time allows you to interact with other characters in the Barracks to grow closer to them. If your relationship with another character is deep enough, you’ll activate special events that explain more about that character’s story. They’re really fun to watch, too.
Free time isn’t just for sitting around and talking though – you can take on part-time jobs at the Red Bear Tavern, help the witches unlock new abilities at the Tuning Hall, or simply explore. Free time is great because you can earn money, find items, unlock new powers, and deepen your bonds with others. You can only complete three events per free time segment, though, so choose wisely.
After your free time ends, mission time will begin and you’ll be prompted to leave town and complete your next task. You can still use Bianca’s Armory, Franz Atelier, and Alto’s Room (where you can save, sleep, check your StreetPass functionality, and see a story summary), though. These three places are usable no matter what you’re doing. You can even come back from the map and head in to the Armory if you’re feeling like your equipment just isn’t good enough for your current task.
Franz Atelier specializes in orbs, which are magical spheres that provide extra power to characters that use them. For example, some orbs will increase accuracy, and others will allow you to gain extra experience points. There’s even an orb that gives you a small chance to poison your enemies when you attack! Orbs are really cool, and they add an extra dimension to an already deep combat system. If you find some orb fragments while you’re out exploring and fighting enemies, you can bring them back to the shop to refine them into brand new orbs that your characters can use. There are a lot of different ways to experiment with orbs, and I recommend using the system as much as possible – even if the combat upgrades aren’t always very noticeable (you might use an orb that raises your defense, but you get cut down just as easily as before).
Audio & Visuals in Stella Glow
Stella Glow looks great. If you’ve got a 3DS, I definitely recommend playing with 3D on. The characters just pop out of the screen, and it’s beautiful. The graphics aren’t revolutionary – they’re on par with Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Persona Q, and The Legend of Legacy. I thought those games looked awesome, though, so I’m ready to say that this game looks pretty great.
The battle movies are where Stella Glow‘s graphics stand out. Once you begin an attack (or are attacked), you’ll see a short video of the fight. Each move has a cool animation, and the monsters look great. Below, you can see Hilda in the middle of battle. These scenes help keep battle fresh, but if you find them annoying and time-consuming, you can just decide to turn them off.
The music of Stella Glow is good, but it’s not groundbreaking. It sounds good in the background, and there are some tracks (particularly tracks in battle) that stand out as being particularly lovable. As far as a soundtrack for a 3DS RPG goes, it’s absolutely fantastic, but I just didn’t feel very excited by the majority of the tracks.
I found the voice acting to be more interesting than the music itself. The actors and actresses did a great job bringing these characters to life. This is definitely a rare game that makes you want to wait for the voice actor to finish the entire line before skipping ahead to the next text window.
Stella Glow has a lot of content. The story mode will easily take you around 40 hours to complete, and that’s assuming that you didn’t stop to finish all the quest lines, level up all of your social links, and dominate the free battles. Like most SRPGs, Stella Glow is a bit slow at first. However, once you really get into it, it’s a hard game to put down. Once you finish the story, it might be a bit difficult to replay the game immediately – there’s so much content that it’s intimidating. It’s definitely a game that I’ll be holding onto and playing through again in the near future. The real value here is found in all the content you’ll find in your first playthrough. Stella Glow is packed with fun stuff to do, and it’s definitely worth what you’ll pay for it.
Is Stella Glow just another standard SRPG? On the surface, yes it is. Underneath that familiar JRPG cover, though, you’ll find a thoughtful, deep, challenging game that will grab you and refuse to let you go until you’ve completed it. It’s a shame that we won’t be seeing more games from imageepoch, but if there was one way to go out in a blaze of glory, it was this – Stella Glow is great, and any fan of SRPGs, JRPGs, or just good video games should be picking this one up soon.
Review copy provided by ATLUS