Alright, so I technically have already talked about this game in my end of year article, but I figured that I might as well expand my discussion out to a full review of the game, since I did basically give it my game of the year award.
So, let’s get started with the history behind this game. To make a long story short, Stella Glow is the final game that was made by Japanese developers Imageepoch, who sadly closed down in the middle of last year due to bankruptcy and their CEO disappearing completely. Imageepoch as a company weren’t exactly well known to a general gaming audience outside of Japan, as their products have suffered from issues with translation for pretty much their entire lifetime, but they do have a couple of franchises to their names which hardcore gamers might faintly recognise, with the big ones being Luminous Arc (the first two games of which were localised in Europe onto the DS in October 2007 and October 2009) and 7th Dragon (which never left Japan until the final game in the franchise, originally released in Japan in 2014, was localised earlier this year).
Stella Glow happened to be released at a rather awkward time, as, even on its original Japanese release, it had outlived its developers, who had gone bankrupt almost a month prior to its release. It also is noteworthy for having completely different publishers in each of the regions it was released in, being released by Sega in Japan, Atlus in North America and NIS America in Europe and Australia (if you aren’t sure why this is noteworthy, most games only have one publisher for all regions and having a Japanese game released with a different publisher outside of Japan usually means they take responsibility for ALL non-Japanese releases of the game), which probably explains why the game saw its North American release in November 2015 while Europe and Australia would not see the game until March of this year. It essentially serves as a spiritual successor towards the company’s Luminous Arc franchise, as it shares many of the same themes that the franchise did and even the character designs have similarities (look carefully at the artwork for Luminous Arc 2, you’ll spot what I’m on about very quickly!). Since Luminous Arc was the very first game that Imageepoch had released, it’s actually somewhat fitting that their swansong was somewhat of a return to their roots, even if it is likely that this was not what the actual developers had intended at the time.
So, with all of this in mind, one has to ask how good the game is? Well, considering it’s basically won my game of the year award, I would say it’s really good! Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this is a flawless release: it definitely has problems, as I laid out in my end of year article, and I would definitely say that this isn’t going to be a game for everyone. However, there are lots of reasons to enjoy it and I would say that, of all the games that I played that were released this year, this game simply held my interest the most, despite all its flaws. Certainly, I would say that, to my knowledge this is the best swansong that has come out of the games company and it is a genuine shame that their developer is no longer around, because this game proves that their problem wasn’t the quality of their games.
Let me start with the obvious criticism of the game’s story: if you like your stories to be innovative, then this game will horribly disappoint you. It’s your usual “main character is called to adventure, discovers he is more important than he thought and saves the world” kind of story and one could probably predict the entire story of the game literally from that. The characters also fall under several typical cliches that one might expect of the classes of tactical role-playing games, including the white mage character (although, in this case, the white mage is also your water spellcaster, so they are more useful on the offensive side of things than the usual cliches would have you believe), the slow moving powerhouse with ridiculous defence, the fast attack unit with low defence and all that kind of stuff. Combine this with the usual personalities of Japanese anime characters (the lovable lecherous rogue, the dutiful soldier, the lovestruck childhood friend and stuff like that) and one would be forgiven for thinking that the game doesn’t have an original thought in its head.
Which, truthfully, it doesn’t. Yet, bizarrely, that’s why I like the game so much, because it has a charmingly old school sensibility to it which makes those cliches feel not like laziness, but like a throwback to old school RPG games. It’s kind of like the most recent Fire Emblem games in that regard: it isn’t really doing anything new in the grand scheme of things, but it still takes those old cliches and runs with them in a way that still makes those cliches enjoyable to those who haven’t had enough of them yet. It’s not original, but the execution is still strong, which is really the important thing when you think about it hard enough: a badly executed original idea might be more imaginative than a well executed idea everyone has seen multiple times before, but the latter is still better executed overall and will be more enjoyable to experience for most people as a result.
The graphics are a mix between two different styles, as the non-combat side of the game is handled via visual novel style artwork (which always look beautiful, so credit to the artists on this side of things) and the combat side of the game is handled via Bravely Default-style chibi 3D models (which might grate on some people, but which I find looks like a neat throwback to old PS1/PS2 RPGs). While I don’t think either style mixes well on the presentation front with the other and it results in an inconsistent artstyle across the whole game (protip to people: if you want to make a game, have one artstyle from the start, it makes the whole thing look better!), both are still well done. I would particularly rate the spirit world parts of the game for their excellent design work overall, as my jaw dropped when I saw it for the first time!
The combat side of the game is somewhat like Fire Emblem with a bit of Space Hulk and Final Fantasy mixed into it, as you select a limited number of your characters for battles and they move along a 2D grid (that’s the Fire Emblem nod), have skills which they can activate that do different things based on their SP (Final Fantasy nod) and they take different amounts of damage depending on their facing when attacked and may or may not be able to counterattack based on that (Space Hulk nod). It’s essentially a very tactical game which encourages you to think about where you place your characters so that they can take the least amount of damage possible while you deal the most damage in response. It’s not really an original system in the grand scheme of things, but it does a lot to encourage careful tactical thought throughout the game.
The game itself, sadly, is rather easy. The AI is pretty predictable, as it generally won’t do anything unless your units are in range, you attack them first or their target is on the map, and, with the possible exception of some of the later spirit world stages, most missions can feasibly be won without having to take part in bonus battles between main stages. Trying to attain some of the more difficult optional objectives CAN knock the difficulty up a decent amount, but, if you’re just wanting to play the main missions and ignore those side objectives, you could potentially breeze through the game fairly quickly. Because there’s also no time limit for completing most missions, it’s very easy, as a result, to simply sit back with your healer unit healing your entire force if you find yourself running low on health, which turns the potentially difficult sides of the game into a joke. None of this is necessarily a bad thing if you’re not that familiar with this sort of game, as it serves as a fun introduction point to it, but those expecting a challenge will be horribly disappointed.
A hard to ignore element of the game is the fanservice with the characters. To say that the game has a lot of casual fanservice is a bit of an understatement, as a good amount of the female characters have sexualised designs. Not all of them, it must be stressed, but one need only look at characters like Nonoko (who is a VERY busty ninja whose attire is basically a red bikini and a cardboard box on her head) and Veronica (who is a very busty doctor who seems to be wearing a dress that should not be keeping her breasts concealed at all by any reasonable standards) to start raising an eyebrow at some of the character designs. This is KIND OF in keeping with the game itself, in fairness (despite the lack of nudity and graphic violence, it IS a more adult game than it might look on first glance), but the fanservice will be off putting for some people and I will acknowledge that I did find some of it to be rather unnecessary (Veronica definitely stood out in that regard!).
The sound design is really good, for the most part. I normally don’t focus so much on the soundtrack of video games because, well, it’s the sort of thing that is doing its job properly if it is enhancing the game without drawing too much attention to itself, but the game truly has some great music, with easily the best being the songs that the witches sing when you’re conducting them in battle (to the extent that I was occasionally tuning witches just to hear the songs again!). It’s a soundtrack that captures pretty much everything perfectly, so huge praise is deserved there. The voice acting is by some fairly well known names in the voice acting scene, so it’s unsurprisingly of good quality, but I do think that a few performances could have been a little bit better, with the standout in this regard being Mordimort’s voice acting (which I do get is trying to basically recreate someone who has been badly traumatised to the extent that they might well have PTSD, but it still feels like a vocal performance which is a bit one note, which isn’t very interesting to listen to). Some of the other general sounds do occasionally feel a bit like they were done on the cheap side of things, but they get the job done well enough that it’s not really a major criticism.
The control side of the game does have a minor annoyance in that, in combat, the grid is on diagonals on screen, so you will sometimes find yourself starting to move units or determine their facing only to realise that you are going in the wrong direction, but it is otherwise pretty intuitive, as you can play the whole game relying only on the directional pad and the A and B buttons if you want to. It’s a pretty simple system that even people who haven’t played a video game before would easily be able to understand and follow, so there’s no real complaints here!
I will say that there is one relatively minor issue with the game that bugs me: during the spirit world stages, it isn’t unusual for the game to suffer from small dips in the frame rate, resulting in slowdowns to the gameplay (and I was playing this game on the more powerful New Nintendo 3DS, so I suspect the issue might well be more noticeable on a standard system). They aren’t to a drastic level, admittedly, and the rest of the game plays fine, but it is certainly noticeable. I doubt that this means that the game wasn’t quite finished when it was released, but, considering the timing of its original release and how close it was to the developer’s closing, it is possible that the game might well have needed a little bit more time to rectify this issue which, unfortunately, it didn’t have.
Ultimately, I do have issues with Stella Glow as a game: it isn’t original in the slightest, it has minor frame rate dips (granted, during intense moments in the game, but still…), the fanservice can be off putting, it has no multiplayer of any sort and it isn’t a particularly difficult game. However, underneath all of that is a game which is incredibly well executed and will make any old school RPG fan smile. It’s kind of like that guy you know who has a bunch of issues, but you can’t help enjoying talking to him whenever you can because he’s always got his heart in the right place: you know he isn’t perfect, but his flaws don’t bother you because underneath them is a really nice guy who doesn’t pretend to be anything that he’s not. That’s Stella Glow to me: a game with flaws, but a clear love of everything it does and it is still a really great game underneath it all.
That, to me, is why this game deserves to be my game of the year. Because that love bleeds through in every element of this game and it shows that Imageepoch, even to the last, wanted to just make great games. This might be their swansong, but they left on a brilliant note and I can only hope that history comes to look on this game as a lost treasure that, while flawed, exemplified everything that made tactical-RPG games fun even if they did not push any boundaries.