I’m screaming for an encore that I know will never come.
There’s some games that come out of nowhere and surprise you. I knew the basics of Stella Glow going in: a strategy role-playing game that focused on witches and music. What I got was a game that absolutely flew by even at 35 hours on the clock, and it’s a shame that the developer Imageepoch met its end before they could reap the rewards of what they’ve made.
The story is simple – a young man and woman attempt to save their friends and family from being crystallized by a Witch of Destruction, and gather other elemental witches to sing an Anthem that frees them. It’s an effective story, and you’ll begin to see some of its twists coming pretty quickly if you’ve played these games before, but there are a couple of legitimately shocking moments near the end of the game. The in-between free time allows you to build rapport with your teammates to enhance their combat abilities, but it’s not a “pick the right text option” as was the case in Atlus’s Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker earlier this year. You’ll see brief vignettes with the characters, but occasionally you’ll have to clear a dungeon to enhance the character – which provides extra chances to raise your other party members as well. There are some elements that are clearly in the game for checking boxes, however – there’s a land based on Japan, and you have a character based on a shrine maiden who hails from there. That’s fine, but it really wasn’t necessary to bring the party back there a few chapters later for a hot spring scene (which goes exactly how you might expect).
In the preview, I mentioned that I was concerned about the number of escort missions I had played to that point. At that point, I had just wrapped chapter 4, so there was only one more chapter of it, then future missions of that kind were with people quite capable of taking care of themselves. You get a good variety of skills to play with, and taking full advantage of their range and added effects is key in the late game. You’ll still be using the skills you started with at the end, which is a sign of good character balance. Despite some moments of temporary insanity by the AI, the system works and you shouldn’t need to restart more than once if you make an error or get wrecked by the random number deity. The endgame battles ramp up the difficulty nicely, but the turning point of the game does have an extended sequence where there’s upwards of an hour and a half of separate battles with a split team and no save options. Optional battles are available on the map in the mission time if you need experience or cash, but the trickier ones require Play Coins to attempt. In another world these might have been downloadable content, but they’re nice to have and it’s a good way to burn through your Play Coin supply.
Stella Glow’s art is functional, and the larger character art is well designed; the map sprites can be a little difficult to spot in some maps but not annoyingly so. The 3DS doesn’t handle closeups well, however; the limit break-style songs have rough looking art. The key is in the sound though, and the Yasunori Mitsuda-helmed soundtrack delivers. The battle songs and especially the songs the witches can sing when you power up sufficiently will be stuck in your head for days, while sad or triumphant moments get great songs as well. Perhaps the best thing to say about the soundtrack is that in work situations in which I was trying to multitask and had the volume down, it was actually making the game worse. The game isn’t fully voice acted, but the voice work that is there does a good job of pointing out that what you’re about to witness is pretty darn important so listen, will ya?
The little things can make or break the experience of a game, and Stella Glow nails them all. The clock that signals “free time” or “mission time” is a great way to warn you what’s coming: a chapter with just free time signals a chance to relax, while a chapter with two red mission blocks means several dozen things are about to hit the fan. There’s a crafting system that you can lose yourself in for a few hours, and the New Game + mode will give you a fair shot at getting the relationships for all of your party members to maximum (you won’t be able to do it on one playthrough, guaranteed).
As we come to the end of the year, I figured there’d be an Atlus-published strategy RPG on my game of the year list; I just never imagined there’d be two. But Stella Glow made beautiful music with my heart, and you definitely need to pick it up and get that soundtrack CD. Good night, Imageepoch – sadly, there will be no encores.