"The mature plot of Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond features extensive worldbuilding and politics."
Sometimes we judge books based on their covers, however unfairly that may be. Often this practice can be a double-edged sword, as the story that awaits within the pages of the book might not be what we expected at a precursory glance. I found myself in a very similar situation with my first exposure to the video game Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond, as its colorful graphics and gorgeous artwork were what initially inspired my curiosity. What I found within was a well-rounded RPG experience equal to the graphic presentation with a surprisingly immersive and detailed story for a shorter venture.
Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond follows six knights sworn to protect Alana, a young girl who is destined to one day take the reins of the noble Levant house. Alana and the six Companions of Levant soon find their world turned upside down as certain truths come to light and even their closest allies turn their backs on them. Throughout this turmoil, there are political and religious machinations at play as various factions vie for power. The group must band together in order to survive the tense situation they find themselves thrown into, all the while as events threaten to tear their now tentative alliances apart.
The story and characters are the real highlights of Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond. I found myself instantly immersed in a highly detailed and realized fantasy world from the beginning prologue, where players get to choose two of the six Companions to follow so they can see an aspect of the game's world further fleshed out. In the case of my playthrough, I witnessed how the area's main religion attempts to maintain power through the dubious means of an Inquisition. The mature plot of Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond features extensive worldbuilding and politics. The characters are complex individuals with quite a bit of subtle character growth and development as the story progresses, especially the main six and Alana, who I couldn't help but feel for as the tale progressed.
The game's biggest story weakness is perhaps the large amount of narrative to digest in a very short amount of time. My playthrough lasted roughly sixteen hours. I was impressed by how much lore and plot development was packed into Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond, as I tend not to associate shorter RPGs with heavier plots though, for as impressive as the story is, one can almost get the gamer's equivalent of whiplash with all of the names and terminology dropped into your lap while playing. This title does not escape this convention. An in-game glossary or appendix of some kind would have been a great boon to help avoid player confusion. The plot itself is also more focused on politics and gradual character development than on a truly epic "save the world" quest, which I imagine could be off-putting for some gamers. Personally, I rather enjoyed how all the different political machinations of the game's world progressed in the story, but I could just as easily see others wanting more heft or hurry in their RPG narrative.
The element of moral choice is touted as an integral part of Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond, and it does indeed have an impact on the way certain story scenes ultimately play out. Vouching for a former bandit wanting to turn their life around could have a surprising impact later on down the road, and choosing to allow a certain pagan tradition to continue could very well bring the Inquisition to your door. These choices range from mild story alterations to larger plot threads that come up time and again in surprising ways; there really are no "right" or "wrong" ways to approach issues in the game. There are also instances, similar to the beginning prologue, where you can choose to see specific story scenes from the perspective of different characters, ensuring a bit of replayabilty in the mix too.
Gameplay-wise, Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond is rather well-rounded for those familiar with JRPG-style mechanics. The battles are classic turn-based affairs with the six party members all pooling experience. You have your standard attack, defend, and item usage commands, and you can equip learned skills to individual characters to tailor their role in battle. Unless you're at a part of the story where the group is split up, you can also seamlessly switch in reserve party members to the forefront of a fight as needed.
Crafting recipes and forging stronger weapons also factors in sometimes during Realms Beyond, and both systems are pretty straightforward and easy to get the hang of. I found crafting to be particularly fun and useful as I progressed through the game. Gamers can also buy crystals for healing or to provide other beneficial statuses to characters, and healing of negative status effects can be utilized at churches in towns. Villages, towns, and dungeons in Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond are showcased on a colorful world map that also helpfully points out where players need to go next to advance the story with flagged objective markers. The towns are of good size, though I did notice that NPCs do not often change what they say after initial conversations, save for rare instances of major plot changes.
Dungeons are exploratory segments that never seem to overstay their welcome, with enemy encounters visible as shadowy figures on the field that zero in on you as you approach. Unfortunately, the option to save anywhere is not present in the game, though save points are (thankfully) abundant for the most part to help make up for that. While exploring dungeon areas, there were times when the game would automatically send me back out of them. It was an aggravating experience when it happened, though I only recall having to load a save once to actually get out of a spot. Still, I definitely think exploring could have been more seamless.
Visually, I loved the hand drawn look and aesthetic of the game's graphics, as I think they help the title stand out in a lot of respects. The visual novel style illustrations and character portraits that accompany many story scenes and character interactions are lovely to behold as well. I spent a lot of my time while exploring the title simply enamored with just how pretty Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond was. The weirdest thing about the game's visuals was the odd and uneven transitions that occurred when entering an area and triggering a story scene, as characters would suddenly pop up on the opposite side of the screen at times with no rhyme or reason. These transitions just disconnected me from the game for a moment whenever they occurred.
Musically, the OST tracks do their job well enough to set the stage, though I wouldn't say there were many standout pieces. Sound effects in Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond could also be a bit odd. For example, there was a peculiar bleating goat or sheep sound that was often used for monster sound effects that were needed, even if it didn't really fit with what was going on in the actual scene. For the most part, the script is excellently localized with only a few easily overlooked typos and grammatical mistakes.
Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond is set-up to be very controller-friendly, to the point where using the keyboard and mouse can make for a more frustrating gaming experience. As a result, I pretty much never stopped using my controller the whole time I played, and I'd probably recommend others do the same if possible. There is also carryover data from the previously released Celestian Tales: Old North, though I can't comment much on it because I personally didn't have access to saves from that title.
As mentioned previously, the game itself is on the shorter side — roughly fifteen or sixteen hours to complete a playthrough. I found that Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond's story was pretty self-contained for the most part despite its brevity. It has a sense of conclusion while still offering a few lingering plot threads that seem to set the stage for potential story DLC or another game, which I for one wouldn't necessarily mind because I quite enjoyed my time playing Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond and became rather invested in seeing what happens to the Companions of Levant, and Alana in particular, over the short course of our journey together.
Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond probably isn't a game for everyone. However, for those who enjoy shorter RPGs with more mature, personal, and slower-moving narratives that focus on world-building and politics, they might do well to give the title a look. Celestian Tales: Realms Beyond is a game with not only a gorgeous cover, but surprising depth within its plot as well.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.