Review: Stella Glow – A Catchy Debut that Hits All the Right Notes
Stella Glow is the latest name to be added to the already princely list of JRPGs exclusive to Nintendo’s 3DS. Releasing on a platform with tons of competition in the genre, Stella Glow needs to be unique and refreshing to help it stand out from the crowd.
Our story begins in the Regnant Kingdom, with a witch implementing her magic to turn scores of people into an indestructible crystal substance. This is the first of many events that leads our hero Alto to discover his remarkable destiny and to a high stakes adventure. The game’s story is simplistic, which I feel made it overall more enjoyable and significant. There are surprise villains, plot twists and more thrown in to make the tale feel epic and grand.
Technically the game isn’t amazing but it is comparable to some of the better games on the platform. The character models used for the battles reminded me of titles like Fire Emblem: Awakening or the more recent Lord of Magna.
The characters, enemies and environments are all designed with bright colors, and it lends a whimsical atmosphere to game. On top of the colorful characters and environments, the game’s art style is just lovely. The character portraits, event stills and obligatory handful of fully animated scenes are beautiful and crisp. If you have a thing for anime games like I do, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out.
All of the major scenes in the game are fully voiced, and while I do lament the lack of dual audio, I must say the English voice cast is definitely passable. On the topic of audio, music is a big theme in Stella Glow and I feel that this comes through clearly in the game’s soundtrack. The battle themes in particular are catchy and upbeat and I felt that they really stood out while adding to the game in a big way.
The song witches you interact with in the game also frequently need to sing to activate their magical abilities. Whenever they do, the player is treated to a Jpop song. Despite already being predisposed to love Japanese music, I never thought any of these were too terrific, but I did think it was a really cool way of shoving this stuff in; a great excuse to use Jpop themes, if you will.
You can see the influence of numerous franchises as you play Stella Glow. It seems surprisingly solid for a new IP, but there’s a reason for that. This title is apparently the spiritual successor to the Luminous Arc franchise, so the many mechanics and systems you’ll find here have already been tuned and polished. The game plays like some delicate hybrid of Fire Emblem and Persona. Combat is grid-based. The player will eventually control various kinds of units and be tasked with navigating through some interesting battles.
The game is surprisingly tame for this kind of title where difficulty is concerned. This is partly due to the very powerful song magic that you get to control. These spells can influence every unit on the map, no matter how large, and bring hard hitting effects like negate action, fully restoring the party’s HP and even bringing all foes to a complete halt. Furthermore, experience points are gained at such a brisk pace that you may never find yourself grinding for levels or resources. You are free to do so should you wish to thanks to the free battles but you should hardly ever need to.
This helps keep the pace of the game smooth and wards off any shocking difficulty spike – until you reach the end of the game that is. The diversity in the units is very cool. You don’t get buckets of playable characters like you do in the Fire Emblem series, so instead each character feels a tad more unique.
One character is an expert at ranged combat while another trades mobility for power. One character is very slow to move but is balanced out with staunch defense and attack stats, while one of the witches is slow to act and not very mobile but is capable of healing allies, an utterly essential ability. This variety in characters allows you to really have fun with customizing and coordinating your perfect team. This is even truer when you consider the support abilities.
In a page lifted right out of Fire Emblem: Awakening – which years later is still one of the platform’s finest entries – units can grant special support bonuses to their allies by simply being positioned next to them. So when you move a unit, you want to consider which ally they’ll arrive beside and if they’ll take advantage of the best bonus for that specific character; such fun! Adding another layer of strategy is the significance in which angle you attack an enemy at (and vice versa).
Attacking an enemy from behind grants you the biggest damage and accuracy bonus, while attacking from either side grants a smaller bonus and finally attacking head on or face to face grants no bonus.
Another thing you’ll want to consider during the battles are the mission objectives. During most story related battles, there will be additional objectives that you can complete during the mission. These range in difficulty from easy (win without any character dying, kill a certain enemy with a certain character) to not so much (win with no damage to a certain character, keep all of these units alive).
The rewards for clearing these objectives are typically very much worth the extra trouble so you may even find yourself restarting the mission if you fail.
When outfitting your characters for battle, you’ll be able to equip the standard weapon and armor, an accessory and a couple of items, but you’ll also be able to equip orbs. These add significant bonuses, such as increased attack and experience gain, status ailments to basic attacks and even the ability to act again after defeating an enemy.
You can use these orbs to cover a character’s obvious weakness, such as making them more mobile or a harder hitter, or you can make a character’s best attribute even better. New weapons appear in the combat animations when you equip them, which is always an appreciated touch. There is no formal class system, but characters do continue to get better and better as you use them thanks to gaining new unique skills and some characters do finally change classes.
There are useful passive skills which improve as your affinity with different team members raises. One of these skills has a high chance to negate damage to any party member in a certain radius. The point is that they are very good. How do you increase your affinity with your party? For this the game whips out a system nearly identical to Persona’s social links. Between intense battles and discovering the game’s epic story, you’ll be awarded some free time that you can spend a variety of ways, but the best way is by far to hangout in the knight’s barracks and go on dates with members of your party.
On these dates you get to view scenes between Alto and the other characters and learn about their pasts, their motivations and much more. Even if this kind of character development doesn’t appeal to you, like with the social links, there is a more tangible reason one would engage in these dates and that is the skills you unlock for the characters.
You won’t be able to complete all of these bonds on your first time through the game due to significant time constraints, but that’s where the new game plus mode chimes in. Stella Glow, like many games from Atlus, has a sort of in-game time limit that requires you to play on a specific schedule if you hope to see everything. Even if you do this though, you will still miss out on quite a bit of character development and content on your first play through because of how severely limited your free time segments are.
In new game plus you get literally three times the allotment of free time, which will allow you to fully develop the affinity with each character and max out all the part time jobs, go exploring and whatever else. Also, you gain more experience points in new game plus mode, which means your characters level up even faster and this allows them to make quick work of bosses and enemies which may have caused you trouble the first time around or if not, to simply proceed through the game much faster.
Finally, the game also has at least two unique endings. While you could create a second save file near the last chapter and just load from that point to see the other ending, you also have the aforementioned benefits of fully replaying the title to consider. As polished as this title is, it’s not all roses and sunshine in Regnant Kingdom. The lack of dual audio is a big disappointment, but not too much of one as Atlus fans know we are usually fresh out of luck in that regard.
When you use the bigger songs during combat you have to watch the performance animation every single time. Not being able to skip this was a drag given you definitely needed the songs to get you out of a tight spot. The performances are cool of course the first few times you see them, but being doomed to witness them repeatedly with no option for skipping over them is just bad.
The game can be too easy and the lack of any additional difficulty option is puzzling. I earlier praised the difficulty scaling for never forcing the player to grind but not until the final bosses (which are arguably too unbalanced) do any of the story battles deliver a good strong challenge. Again, the difficulty is fine most of the time but you may go through the entire game wishing you were challenged just a bit more. While there is a lucrative new game plus option, the game poses very little late game content and no post-game whatsoever. It just feels wasteful to spend forty hours levelling these characters up and then at the end of the game have nothing to do with them except face the final boss and view the ending credits.
I know not every fan is crazy about post-game content but I am so not seeing a drop of it in this otherwise lovely title was a big disappointment.
Even with those complaints though, Stella Glow is an awesome game if you like JRPGs. It has almost everything one could ask for: a lovable cast of characters, solid voice acting and music, a moving story, sharp anime stylings and most importantly, deep, satisfying game-play. As a new IP, I honestly thought Stella Glow would leave me wanting and with a list of improvements to be made in the sequel. Instead it left me surprised with how good it was, elated, and very hopeful for a Stella Glow 2.