"There's a very solid little strategy RPG lurking underneath Stella Glow's surface, with thoughtful and creative ideas that could have stood proudly on their own without the game's sleazy pandering."
ImageEpoch is a developer that has not had the easiest of years. The Western release of Criminal Girls
didn't set any hearts ablaze, their CEO went AWOL
, and finally they closed their doors for good
just four weeks short of their ten year anniversary. Their latest release, Stella Glow, was intended to mark this decennial celebration, but instead became a farewell swansong.
A spiritual successor to the Luminous Arc series, Stella Glow is a turn-based strategy RPG that tells the story of a world in which powerful magic is contained within music, but God has stripped humanity of the ability to sing due to past transgressions, leaving the art of song as the domain of heretical witches. Players join the amnesiac Alto and his love-interest Lisette as they take up arms against Witch Hilda and her Harbingers of Destruction after the latter raze the former's village, turning their loved ones to crystal in the process. To save her family, Lisette herself awakens as the Water Witch, while Alto serves as her conductor. After fighting the Harbingers off, Alto and Lisette are taken into custody by Commander Klaus of the Regnant Knights. They are given some some training, then join the knights on a quest to conscript the world's remaining witches to stop Hilda once and for all. What follows is a grand quest across the continent with a liberal peppering of harem hijinks as Alto endears himself to witches of various ages in various states of undress. Yes, it's one of those
Every anime girl archetype is here for you to pick your favorite from: There's bossy tsundere Sakuya, excessively young genki girl Popo, emotionless Rei Ayanami-clone Mordimort and good ol' trusty girl-next-door Lisette. During free time, Stella Glow adopts a dating system not unlike the social links found in Persona 3/4 in which building up trust with a girl rewards you with new abilities for them to use in battle. Unfortunately, the girls here have much less personality than those found in Atlus' flagship series, with almost no interests outside of romance with Alto. In fact, they're so single-minded that it's occasionally disturbing: When given the choice to calm a panicked witch by telling her to believe in herself or to believe in me, imagine my surprise when I found that the former was in fact the wrong answer! Have some self-respect, lady! Alternatively, in a nice move, you can elect to spend time with any of the game's male cast to gain their own bonuses. Hanging out with your bros may not lead to romance, but Stella Glow's fellas are an amusing bunch who are much more well-rounded than their female counterparts.
When you're not wooing your compatriots, you're fighting alongside them on the battlefield. Battles take place from a fixed isometric perspective as you choose six of your units, represented by super-deformed bobbleheads, to face off against an opposing force. Attacks transition into a zoomed-in view of the action, but these animations can be turned off if you feel they add unnecessary length. Each of your units functions similarly to a class: Alto the swordsman, Lisette doubling as both cleric and mage, Klaus a lancer and so forth. Turn order is decided not only by a character's speed stat but also by the intensity of the last move they used: If Alto lays into his foes with a powerful multi-target skill, his turn won't come around as quickly as it would if he'd simply attacked. However, some units become quickly outpaced; heavy knight Archibald may be lovable, but his limited movement and glacial speed make him effectively useless as the battlefields become wider and the foes more numerous.
Witches aren't just
run-of-the-mill mage units; they also have access to powerful song magic. If Alto moves adjacent to a witch and selects the "Conduct" command, they will spend the next three turns singing a character-specific song that affects the entire battlefield regardless of unit placement. Water Witch Lisette will heal all allies each turn, while Fire Witch Sakuya will ignite the party's passions, greatly increasing their chances to score critical hits. Some witches' song magic is slightly less elementally appropriate; Earth Witch Mordimort, for example, summons a giant sheep that puts all foes to sleep for some reason, but all song spells prove to be indispensable during the game's harder encounters, whether they make sense or not. Choosing to activate song magic leads to an unskippable cutscene in which Alto holds the struggling witch before tenderly plunging a dagger into her chest. The super-deformed characters makes it hard to get too het up over, but I found the implied sexual violence slightly uncomfortable to watch.
In an unorthodox move for the genre, Stella Glow treats levelling up as a tactical manoeuvre as well: A unit that lands the finishing blow on an enemy stronger than itself will see a huge boost in experience points, and a unit that gains a level will see its HP and MP fully restored, so choosing who to send out into potential danger in favor of free healing becomes a risky but rewarding tactic. Grinding is actively discouraged, as enemies on equal-or-lower footing to you will give far less experience points than stronger foes, but optional battles are available if you feel that any of your units need to play catch up. The toughest of these side battles require an entrance fee of a handful of Playcoins for seemingly arbitrary reasons, but they can be escaped from at any time if things start to go south, and you'll mercifully retain all experience and items gained.
Stella Glow is a game that makes a terrible first impression: The story is a hodgepodge of several other JRPGs that telegraphs its twists from a mile away, its villains' motivations fall apart under any scrutiny, and the game's attitude towards its female cast is abhorrent at the best of times. And yet, something happened as I spent time with it: I started having fun. Turning the tide of battle with effective use of song magic and strategic level-ups was always a satisfying feeling, and even when things didn't go my way, I was always keen to jump back into the fray to try a different approach, switching up my characters to see if different roles would better suit the situation at hand. There's a very solid little strategy RPG lurking underneath Stella Glow's surface, with thoughtful and creative ideas that could have stood proudly on their own without the game's sleazy pandering. Stella Glow feels like the result of ImageEpoch finally coming into their own, which makes their shuttering feel all the more unfortunate.