For those not aware, Stella Glow was the swan song of developer Imageepoch. Best known for their work on the Luminous Arc and Fate/EXTRA series, among others, Stella Glow was a new IP based on a return to their first work, Luminous Arc. Both games revolve around an ordinary teenager turning into a warrior who fights with and against witches, with some additional twists and turns added in alongside the way.
Due to the company's bankruptcy, however, it was uncertain if the game would have ever have made release in Japan, let alone North America or Europe. Publisher SEGA jumped in and decided to publish and take reigns for the final steps of development, and thanks to publisher Atlus USA fans in North America will get to experience a localized version of the title on western shores. So how does Imageepoch's swan song fair?
Stella Glow takes place in a world where God took away the power of song from humans thousands of years ago. The only people who can sing and use that power of song is five chosen girls, known as Witches. One of those Witches, Hilda, the Witch of Time, known as the "Witch of Disaster", has been going from town to town and crystalizing everyone and everything in her wake as she passes through. In a non-descript town, the player is introduced to an amnesiac teenage boy named Alto, a teenage girl named Lisette, and her mother who make up his adoptive family.
One thing leads to another and Hilda ends up crystalizing the town they live in. Lisette ends up releasing a power from a jewel she was holding onto that Alto had been carrying with him when Lisette had originally found him three years ago and loses control of her emotions. Alto jumps in to save her. By helping her to confront her fears, he helps her awaken as the Water Witch. After leaving the destroyed village, they end up at the capital where they meet the queen and find out that they need to find the other three Witches (Wind, Fire, and Earth) to form a quartet which can reverse Hilda's crystallization effects and save everyone in the process.
It all sounds like what one would expect from a classic Japanese RPG, and to a certain extent that is the case. There's the amnesiac mysterious boy, the childhood female friend, the seemingly but not quite evil villain, the loyal knight, as just a few examples, but each character has their own growth throughout the game that makes them feel like more than just the archetype they're built upon. One example in particular I felt best exemplified this was early on in the game during the Wind Witch Popo's chapter, where she's essentially used as child labor for the town's economy. She's tricked into using her magic to keep the town's nearby windmill spinning which helps the locally economy, but the townspeople fear her irrationally due to rumors circulating throughout the town. Of course there's a bigger conspiracy at play here, which makes the player feel sorry for the character and deals with the issues well in an adult manner not usually seen in most Japanese RPGs as of late.
Another aspect to the narrative I appreciated while playing through the game was that it did a good job of utilizing minor plot points or small details touched upon earlier in the narrative at key points when required, while also making sure to craft said events so the player didn't feel like the character were unnaturally forced into their actions. However, what the developer did fault in was the character endings, as each character has their own unique ending with Alto if you max out their affinity with him. Some of them are quite affectionate, but others are downright weird and will likely annoy someone who preferred that particular paring. It feels disjointed compared to the in-game narrative that preceded it, almost as if a different writer had written it entirely.
The gameplay in Stella Glow takes place in two distinct segments: Free Time and Mission Time. Free Time takes place at your home base of Regnant in between missions. There's side quests you can take up for extra money and explorations you can get some special items from, but the main goal of this segment is talking to your comrades in arms to boost your affection points with them. As you increase your affection level with them, they'll obtain new unique skills and you'll be able to learn more about them in the process.
Like the Luminous Arc games, Stella Glow involves Witches. Alto's has the unique power as the Conductor to tune the Witches, both in battle to bring out their song magic to activate map-wide effects and outside of battle to help them work out their own inner problems and help further their internal growth. Like with the other characters, you can increase the affection of the Witches the same way, but just before reaching that next level you'll need to perform a dive into their inner spirit world.
One qualm some might have about this segment of the game is that the developers put the girls into nightgowns. Granted it's done in the tasteful, not sexual sense, and the game briefly lampoons this and doesn't bring it up ever again after the fact, but considering the game does so well to not cater to the otaku demographic otherwise throughout the game, having this segment in the game is somewhat of a disappointment.
Once you're actually in their respective Witch's spirit world, however, things become much more tasteful. If you've played Atlus's Persona 3 or 4, or NIS America's Ar Tonelico games, you'll have a pretty good idea of how these segments will play out from a thematic standpoint. Inside their inner mind world, you'll face off against their fears and insecurities represented by a shadow version of themselves. The battles here are quite varied, as they'll range from a simple "beat X enemies" to "defeating X enemies before the shadow" or "catching up with the shadow".
The catch is that during your first play through, you have a limited amount of free time slots available to utilize for character growth and other actions, so you'll need to decide who you want to prioritize your resources to. Thankfully during your second play through on, you'll have more than enough to spend on everyone, so you can relax on your second time through the game in that regard.
As this is a Strategy RPG, battles in Stella Glow's Mission Time segments take place in a grid-based banner. You have your typical character positioning and movement, terrain obstacles that block their progress, physical and magical attacks, weaknesses and resistances --- everything one would expect from the genre. The major addition in Stella Glow is the Witch's song magic. After obtaining the first type of song magic, you'll obtain access to a song gauge that slowly fills up on the screen throughout the course of the battle as your units act.
There's minor song spells that can either provide buffs or minor attacks using up part of the gauge, but its real benefit is to wait until four-fifths of the gauge is filled. That's when you move Alto next to one of the Witches and choose the "Conduct" option from the menu, which unleashes powerful map-wide song magic. The effect ranges from Witch to Witch, as Popo inflicts attack disabling and Def-, while the Fire Witch Sakuya increases the critical rate of your unit's attacks.
There's no difficulty settings for battles, but the battles themselves are tuned against this mechanic once it's made available, so it becomes a satisfying race to plan ahead to best utilize the Witches in the best manner to clear the map successfully. Listening to their songs while they're singing, which is left in the original Japanese tracks from the original release, is quite soothing as well.
Also, each map has two bonus objectives that net some nice equipment or items that while aren't necessary, do provide some nice bonuses that you wouldn't necessarily get until the chapter after next generally. There's also treasure chests on certain maps that you can break open if you wish, but generally their contents aren't worth it unless they're in your path along the way.
Graphically, if you've played any of the Final Fantasy Tactics games, the general map and character proportions follow a similar scheme in Stella Glow. Stella Glow utilizes an isometric viewpoint, although the camera viewpoint is fixed and you can't rotate the camera, but I personally never encountered a situation where I felt I needed to rotate it to move around properly. One minor issue I had on certain maps, namely ones that had some sort of a fog or shimmer effect applied to them, is that it would throw off the Nintendo 3DS's 3D effect off when combined with my glasses. Granted everywhere else in the game this effect worked wonderfully as intended, so for most players this likely won't be an issue.
As far as character designs go, there's quite a variety at play. You have your generic knights (done intendedly for story/character reasons) mixed up against the colorful designs of the Witches, along with a couple off-kilter designs perfect for the "evil" Harbinger group led by Hilda. One plus is that the game does immediately bring up when it introduces a "sexy" character and doesn't keep bringing it up, or in the case of the busty shinobi Nonoka with Sakuya's insults, they're kept to a minimum in the main storyline and only briefly mentioned when necessary in the free time segments.
As for the musical score, considering it was composed by famed composer Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger fame, it should be expected that the bar was to be set highly for this title from the outset. When paired with headphones, the orchestral sounding instruments blend well with the overall setting of the game.
One major point about the localization that should be mentioned is the dub, which is easily one of the best dubs Atlus has produced this year. There's no dual voice option in Stella Glow, but all of the important scenes and the key free time scenes (generally the start and end points to the "levels" for the hearts for each character) are voiced. The voice actors feel like they're in character and the voices generally match up well with the character in question, so for most people you won't come across the issue where there's a mismatch between the situation on-screen and the voices you're hearing from the speakers.
Stella Glow had a turbulent development, but the final outcome is a game that strategy RPG fans and Japanese RPG fans alike will enjoy. It has its minor issues and there's some generic RPG clichÃ©s at work here, but the overall package and how the developers utilized everything together makes for a cohesive package. The end of this year may be packaged with a ton of high-profile triple-AAA releases, but if you're a fan of Japanese-style RPGs, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't give this stellar title a look.
|Easily one of the best JRPG and Atlus-localized dubs this year by far.|
|Story does a nice job of taking stereotypical character archetypes and playing with them in ways you wouldn't expect.|
|Does a nice job of bringing up the JRPG fan service issue but not relying on it.|
|Some of the character affinity reward endings will disappoint fans of specific pairings.|
|Some of the maps mesh badly with the Nintendo 3DS's 3D capabilities in my experience.|
|Some people may not like the inability to rotate the camera.|