Game Review: Stella Glow

Before Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance, I’d never played a grid-based strategy RPG, or really anything that wasn’t a regular JRPG. Since then, I’ve played a bunch of games in the same vein, but nothing quite measures up to the first time I started Fire Emblem and THAT OPENING MUSIC, although, Devil Survivor is a strong contender.

Stella Glow is, in a word, bittersweet, not because the game itself is awful, but that it was the last release from Imageepoch (known in the West for the Luminous Arc games) before they went out of business. It is fitting that a game with music as a central mechanic and theme should be the company’s swan song.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A boy with amnesia (our hero, Alto) grows up in a small village with his childhood friend (Lisette). When the village is attacked by monsters, the boy discovers he has a mysterious power that can defeat them, and, with his childhood friend in tow, he sets out on a quest to save the world from destruction.

That is the basic setup for Stella Glow and at first glance it’s nothing you haven’t seen before with a few tweaks, namely that Lisette awakens as the Water Witch and takes a much more active role in combat, and the destruction I alluded to is personified in the form of Hilda, the Witch of Destruction, whose Song of Ruin turns everything into crystal. Alto, it turns out, is a Conductor, a man with the unique ability to “tune” witches, making them stronger. When their village falls victim to the Song of Ruin, Lisette and Alto join the members of the 9th Regiment of the Regnant Knights on a quest to recruit the remaining witches and stop Hilda, once and for all. It’s not the most original story, but it is a comforting story, and the game does throw in a couple major twists that most people won’t see coming (even if they’re familiar with Imageepoch’s previous games).

For the most part, the gameplay is fairly typical for an SRPG: move characters in a grid, attack enemies in range, adjust your position, your turn ends when all your characters have moved, and so on and so forth. The big addition to this formula is Song Magic. Alto possesses a Song Stone that is filled whenever your characters successfully attack an enemy, filling it to a certain point allows him to use the “Conduct” command when he’s next to a witch, causing them to unleash powerful magic that can paralyze all enemies on the field, heal your allies, or unleash devastating magical attacks. A well executed Conduct command can turn the tide of battle, plus you get to listen to some very nice music using the original Japanese vocals. Most missions include bonus objectives that add a little more challenge to each fight  (check the “Mission” tab on the bottom screen) and include things like opening each chest in a level to defeating a boss with a certain character. Completing bonus objectives will net you powerful weapons, armor, and orbs (which you can slot into weapons and provide various effects). I was grateful for these bonus objectives because even without song magic, the battles are a little on the easy side. Also, if you lose a character in battle, don’t worry, there’s no permadeath and they’ll be available in the next fight. I only lost a character during one of the endgame fights due to carelessness, but it’s definitely possible to get through the entire game never having lost a character outside of plot-mandatory losses. There are a bunch of optional fights you can use to grind but the game doesn’t require very much grinding and I was usually well over the recommended level for most fights, but you’ll want to make sure to give attention to both witch and non-witch characters, as a couple fights mid-game will be much easier if you have one or two characters leveled up.

Speaking of characters, outside of battle you’ll have an opportunity to chat with the members of the 9th Regiment. During Free Time (marked with a green circle on your in-game clock) you can choose to speak with whoever is available during that time slot and raise your affinity with them, which unlocks new abilities. You’ll especially want to talk to the witches you’ve recruited, as raising their affinity unlocks new songs and maxing affinity gives you the option to see a short ending scenario specific to that character. Unfortunately, you won’t have time to max your affinity with every character, so it’s important to choose wisely. You can also use your free time to explore (and find random items) and take part time jobs to earn extra money. However, since you get plenty of money and great items from battles, there really isn’t any point to doing either of those things, instead, you’ll want to spend your time chatting up your teammates or tuning the witches.

See, being a Conductor is not only about being a leader, it’s also about being a therapist. Occasionally, a witch will have issues she needs to work out, and when that happens, you need to “tune” her at the Tuning Hall, where you enter a spirit world with representations of her negative emotions. Most of the time you deal with these negative emotions by punching them in the face, but a few tunings have you chasing after a witch’s shadow or avoiding enemies that aren’t the witch’s shadow personified. The characters (not just the witches) deal with a variety of issues, from parental abandonment to exploitation (of labour) to PTSD to repressed romantic feelings and more, and although at first glance they all fit typical JRPG roles and archetypes, they all have their moments where they get some character development and become a little more fleshed out. Stella Glow is probably the first game I’ve ever played where the tsundere is one of my favourite characters.

The graphics are very bright and colourful. The more stylized character design for the battle scenes won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I thought they were adorable. The real star of the show in terms of presentation is the music. The music is phenomenal, from the fiery “Cherry Blossoms” to the more dreamlike “To the Sea”. The non-witch focused tracks are great too. My favourites are the title theme, the peaceful theme that plays at night, and one track that features some ominous chanting that plays on a couple maps which I can’t discuss due to spoilers. This game is a treat for the ears.

Besides the game being a bit on the easy side, there is some sexism in the dialogue and some of the outfits are pretty revealing (Hilda and Nonoka being some of the  worst offenders) which is pretty tasteless but tolerable, and although the game isn’t as harem-y as something like Agarest: Generations of War, there’s still an element of “everyone loves Alto” and of course the obligatory onsen scene that involves peeping. Some people might be a little weirded out by the sexual connotations of conducting, particularly the way the witches (especially Popo) squirm and gasp as Alto thrusts his dagger-like Song Stone into their Qualia (a round orb), in addition to handling subjects like the violent death of close family members (and the trauma survivors experience), poverty, poor self-worth. Something worth mentioning is that although I love Sakuya as a character, her treatment of Nonoka is abysmal and pretty abusive, especially given the latter’s issues with self-worth.  There are other free time events that I’ve only heard about, such as a character drugging the other characters with an aphrodisiac, but unless you want their specific ending, that character is easy to avoid. In fact, you only need to get one specific non-witch character’s affinity to reach a certain point in order to unlock the option to get the true ending. If you end up missing maxing a character’s affinity, New Game+ gives you nine free time slots instead of three, allowing you to max all characters.

If you’re an SRPG newbie, Stella Glow is the perfect entry point to the genre. Although it can be a bit on the easy side, is a little skeevy at times and it starts out as cliche as it comes, the story has some unexpected twists, the music is top notch, and at around 50 hours of playtime for a single run through the story (completing all bonus mission objectives but not the optional side missions), it’s a robust experience. It’s easily worth your time even though Fire Emblem Fates will be out soon.

ETA: I forgot to mention that the first printing contains a soundtrack CD with a few song magic tracks, a large Bubu cellphone charm, and a cloth poster of Hilda. It’s almost a crime the full OST wasn’t included, but the charm and poster are nice.

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