20th Oct 2019 | 1,681 views
Game: Stella Glow.
Music based games are a strange breed. Unless they are strictly rhythm based, music generally doesn’t play that big of a part in the general gameplay for most titles. Sure, it creates atmosphere and improves the storytelling, but in general a soundtrack is quite a separate entity from the actual game. For a while now it’s been frequent to find a decent amount of Japanese RPGs that feature music as an important piece of the game’s aesthetic or themes. Games like Eternal Sonata (2007), Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE (2015), Persona 4 Dancing All Night (2015), The Caligula Effect (2016)… use the theme of music as one of the main pillars for their plot in different ways. With a couple of exceptions that tend towards the more artistic side, it’s frequent to see them following a more idol-esque style, which is normal considering how big of an industry that is in Japan. So mixing this aesthetic with other settings became quite popular. This is where Stella Glow comes in.
Stella glow is a turn based Japanese RPG made by developer Imageepoch in 2015 for the 3DS. The game itself had quite a sad backstory, being the last game the developers made before going bankrupt. In theory, the game was supposed to be a celebration to commemorate a decade of the company's history, but due to their financial problems they had to partner with Sega to publish it, before finally going under after sales’ performance was not nearly enough what the studio needed.
The plot centers on a fantasy world where God took away Mankind’s ability to sing after humanity forgot about it. After God tried to destroy Mankind, a hero managed to defeat it in a battle on the Moon. After that bit of backstory, we go to Alto, the protagonist of the game. He’s your typical anime protagonist in many ways: he’s nice, always thinks of helping others, he has amnesia and can’t remember a good chunk of his life and, when the evil witch Hilda destroys his hometown, he bows to set things right. Seriously, the beginning of the game is quite a cliché-fest, but fortunately the game quickly moves on to do its own thing, though most of the characters still follow typical JRPG roles. The game then revolves around finding the witches, the only people left with the power of song, to counter the spell of Hilda, the witch of destruction. The plot is mostly quite predictable, with not that many plot twists, being rather linear and with few surprises if you have played many other similar games. The twists it has, however, are pretty good, and even those that are predictable are well done. The writing in this game is strong enough to carry the story quite well, and it’s one of this games’ biggest strengths. During your journey, you’ll be able to interact with a lot of people, who might join your party. The player has the chance to talk to them to increase their friendship bonds, which not only would deepen the knowledge you have about that character, but also give you special skills and effects during battle, but I’ll get on that later.
The gameplay itself is quite simple. As a turn based strategy, you play on a tile field, moving your units across the map, fighting enemy units and accomplishing other objectives. Think Final Fantasy Tactics and you’ll get a general idea of how it functions. You have different types of terrain that affect things such as movement and evasion, different heights that affect attack reach and movement… Each one of your characters has completely unique effects and abilities, which makes choosing your team a more important affair than in other JRPGS. The fact there are no two identical sets of characters helps the gameplay to stand out, and adds an extra degree of difficulty to the title, meaning each time you lose one of your units, you lose a completely irreplaceable set of tools for that mission. At least it’s not Fire Emblem levels of permadeath, once the level is done you get your character back, and plus most levels allow you to have between six and eight characters in your team, so they are still enough for the more grinding levels. While there are no two identical characters, we could classify them in two groups: melee specialists and witches. Melee specialists deal in close quarters combat and are more focused on aggressive attack, with better attack and defense to perform better in the frontlines. The witches are mostly focused as magic users, there to use their abilities to either strike from a far, to buff/debuff other units and to use their songs. The thing with the witches is, they are able to use their songs to generate special effects on the battlefield. These songs don’t use individual SP, instead they are all fueled by a general gauge that fills with the general flow of the battle. This moves are slightly overpowered, but are rather situational, so you will wait for the best moment to use them, and most of the time, you might just choose to just wait to fill the music gauge to unleash a full “conduct” move.
At some point in the game, Alto gains the ability to “tune” the witches, which not only serves as a way to increase their power at certain moments, but also allows him to “conduct” the witches. This uses quite a lot more points from the music gauge, but the effects of them are very overpowered, instead of just slightly overpowered. The Wind Witch’s move, for example, makes almost all enemies unable to do any move and boost your attack, which gives you three turns worth of free attacks. You can imagine what a player can do with that kind of boost. And that’s not even the best one, though I don’t want to go into spoilers. Still, this means that protecting the witches and boosting the rest of the team with them is pretty much the one and only strategy, especially since this game has too many “defeat all enemies” levels. The downside is that you have only one (two if you max out all of the friendship with said witch, but it’s rather difficult to do so), so it’s not like you will have a lot of variety to go on, but this point is usually moot, as the abilities are powerful enough by themselves.
In general, all of the characters in the game are quite good and useful, with some of them being almost mandatory due to how good they are. The only one I may say it’s a bad character is Sakuya the Fire Witch. Her gimmick is being a witch with a really high physical attack and two stances with different skills depending on her mode. The problem is, her defense is not that great even with counter, and her speed while boosted is rather slow, something that other characters simply do much better while not losing attack. And her song just augments critical chances of all units, which is… okay, but considering other characters can do pretty much the same by boosting regular attack or debuffing enemies’ defense, it’s not that unique. She does have a great attack that always does 500 HP damage, but it comes at a rather late level and it takes almost all of her SP, making her a glass cannon that is only occasionally useful compared to the other witches.
Also, can I just thank the developers for making status effects and debuffs against bosses actually useful? They have resistances, of course, but it’s either against debuffs or against status effects. This is really rare in regards to JRPGs, and makes most of this abilities quite pointless when you can only use against mooks.
When not in battle, you have the option of using some free time. Between missions, you get some free turns of time to relax and to do certain activities: talk to your party members to increase your friendship, tune witches to increase their power, work at part time jobs and explore the area. And because you have a limited number of free time uses for each chapter, you’ll end up focusing on the first two. Grinding is a better way to get money over jobs, and exploring will give you random items, which is not as good as boosting your party. Talking to your party is easy enough, though the witches will take more talks to fill up than the others. Plus, sometimes their hearts will become entangled and you have to tune them to continue with the conversations, hence the tuning option. This will introduce you to a special battle, where you usually have either a disadvantage or a difficult mission depending on the progress with the character. This will give them new skills, new abilities and even new songs. This also works as a dating simulator of sorts, though there is no options to choose from other than the choice of tuning them, so it’s pretty limited in that regard. This also work for the special endings you get if you max your friendship with one of your companions, but the way the game does it is… weird. You can choose which partner’s ending you want to see at the end of the game, and you’ll see that one, but only those that you’ve maxed out friendship, and only a single one of them. As such, watching all of the endings require many multiple playthroughs, which is usually normal, but it’s too much for what little extra story you get in the end. The game has two different endings, the normal one and the good one, and the requirement you need to accomplish to do to get to the good ending is actually quite clever, at least in my opinion. It fits very well with the characters and the story in general, so I didn’t mind it was quite counterintuitive at first. Though you really want to use your free time very carefully, so you’ll rarely reach max friendship with more than two or three people by the end of the game. The game really should have given more time to do this things, otherwise why add the jobs and the exploration options when they are so subpar and free time is so scarce? New Game + adds more free time, but by then you’ve obviously beaten the game, so not that many people might care about it.
Difficulty is ok. It’s not particularly hard to ever become frustrating, but it’s never easy enough to be boring, it reaches a decent balance. That is, until you realize how slowly the characters level up sometimes. Sometimes attacking or defeating enemies will give you just a couple of experience points, as in, two or three experience points. Considering every characters needs one hundred exp. to level up, this can quickly become a chore, especially if you want to follow up the recommended level for each battle, which will be told to you before starting a mission. You could always grind with the outside monsters, but it can become a chore. The game does give you the option to grind against tougher enemies, but you’ll need Street Pass coins, and quite a lot of them. This feature of the 3DS should’ve never been used in this fashion. I get they didn’t want to break the balance of the game with it, but why not just making the tougher enemies available without the need for Street Pass coins? The game has a feature that allows you to get bonus from other Stella Glow players already, so it’s not like they were leaving this unused…
Finally, the presentation. While the sprites and cutscenes follow an anime style, the actual 3D models are chibified quite a lot. Think something akin to Bravely Default and 7th gen Pokémon and you’ll get a basic idea. Still, the animation of each attack and action in the game is quite well animated, which is always a plus. The art design of everything is quite excellent, especially during tuning events and when they start adding more and more bizarre enemies into the mix later in the game. The music is excellent. The soundtrack of this game is one of its strongest features, which is the way it should be done in a music-themed game. While some of the tunes get repetitive (the normal battle theme and some of the witches’ songs are great, but they are especially used over and over) I’m still fond of the actual compositions.
Stella Glow is one of the most sadly overlooked 3DS games, which is sad, because this is one of the best RPGs of the console. Interesting story with charming characters, solid gameplay, great presentation and music, it’s sad this game never became a hit big enough to save Imageepoch, though it’s at least a great game to go out on.