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Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Pinegrow
Genre: Strategy RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 04/26/05
Japan 10/24/04
Official Site: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 78%
Sound: 80%
Gameplay: 91%
Control: 95%
Story: 85%
Overall: 83%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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The Nox don't like it! Rock the Kasbah, rock the Kasbah!
 
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Character-specific combos: it's business time.
 
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The still character portraits show up all over the place.
 
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Like Final Fantasy Tactics, just a little more blue.
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Patrick Gann
Stella Dues: The Gate of Eternity
01/21/06
Patrick Gann

A spiritual successor to the PlayStation One letdown Hoshigami, Stella Deus brings to the table the traditional isometric strategy RPG (a la Final Fantasy Tactics, the gold standard of the genre). However, Stella Deus has more than decent battles on a turn-based grid; it has an opening that sets up one of the more exciting and riveting plots in years.

Unfortunately, what beautiful potential we find displayed in the beginning diminishes as the game continues, and by the point of its anti-climactic ending, it seems that the result is somewhat mediocre. Since this is the case, I have found that the best way to appreciate Stella Deus is to enjoy the journey to the end, rather than the ending itself. And the journey is nothing to scoff about; indeed, it is one of the best in the genre, surpassed by only the best strategy RPGs of the last decade.

Let us consider the high and low points of Atlus's title by the five categories on which we grade the games, beginning with graphics.

Graphics

Stella Deus's in-game graphics may well be the game's low point. The sprites and environments are not noticeably better than some of the more impressive Gameboy Advance titles of the same genre. Also, some of the enemy designs are confusing; I often wonder whether I'm fighting a heavily-armored soldier or some sort of strange robotic humanoid. When one compares these graphics to those of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance for the GameCube, it is clear which development staff put more time and effort into the in-game graphics.

Though not visually impressive during battles, the hand-drawn backgrounds and character designs are a horse of a different color; a more refined and elegant color. Everyone looks and feels drab and pale, but this works nicely with the game's setting (which will be discussed in the "story" section). The contrasting colors, specifically hair color, also add a nice touch. Grey's blue hair complements Adara's cinnamon red hair in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. Though these full-screen designs are impressive, I would have preferred to have seen more variation in character designs. I would estimate that each of the central characters has no more than five expressions, and many have only two or three. This is a problem when the dialogue calls for a more diverse palette of facial expressions.

This same complaint can be leveled against the third type of graphical interface, the FMV sequences. It must be said that the animated sequences (opening, ending, and a few throughout the game) are unique and breathtaking. I fell in love with the game simply by watching the introductory animation. Even if this strange style of animation doesn't suit your taste, no one can disagree that much time and effort was put into these sequences. However, the plot calls for more of these, especially at certain dramatic points in the game; yet they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps with a slightly higher budget this could have been done. As it stands, I found myself wanting more of these strange and new animation sequences.

To summarize on the visual department, more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff is what this game needed to get an "A" out of me. As it is, the graphics are below average in-game and only slightly above average for dialogues and the all-too-sparse cutscenes. 78% it is!

Sound

Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, the classic team that has produced the unique scores for Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics, and other decent strategy RPGs, return to score the music for Stella Deus. My complaint against the still character portraits and cutscenes comes out again- forty tracks isn't enough for this game. Having clocked fifty hours of gameplay, this title needed a soundtrack with at least sixty tracks to help mitigate the game's aural monotony. And, grand as the score is, this music sounds like the same songs you've heard over and over in Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and other Sakimoto-composed soundtracks. Sweeping harps, exhilarating brass and wind sections, and some flute and piano pieces that always manage to take your breath away: it's all here.

Particularly enjoyable are the opening and ending theme songs: Alchemy (Theme of Man) and Holy Spirit (Theme of Spirit). However, as one who has heard both the Japanese and English versions of the ending vocal song, I have to say that I am terribly displeased with Atlus USA's decision to record an English version of the ending song. The vocalist's original Japanese performance was top-notch and second to none. Her voice had all the right qualities to make the song a masterpiece, even if US gamers wouldn't understand the words being said. By contrast, the same vocalist's English performance sounds muffled and meek, such that one can hardly hear the words being sung in the first place! This new performance is lackluster and ludicrously poor compared to the original, and I'm not sure I can forgive Atlus for what I consider to be a very poor decision. If they felt pressured to have the song in English, they at least could have done a decent job with the recording and the selection of the female vocalist (such as in Final Fantasy X-2, where Kumi Koda was replaced for the English version).

As far as voice acting goes, I will continue to urge all localizers of RPGs to please allow the gamer to choose either Japanese or English audio tracks throughout the game. NIS America does this with their games, and though it is prone to sometimes causing glitches, I still feel it is worth it. That said, I must say that the voice acting was definitely above average. The least convincing character, in my opinion, was Lumena. However, her priestly side-kick Prier was cast perfectly to fit the character. Spero was a strong and lovable protagonist, and his friends Grey, Adara, and Linea all sounded good. However, many of the villains (especially Viper for some reason) had some volume problems. This was likely the fault of the recording studio. In the options menu, one can turn the music and sound effect tracks down and turn the voice volume up. I did this to experiment when I found that I could not hear General Viper speak. This barely helped the problem: sometimes the audio tracks sounded like a whisper, and no amount of volume increase would fix the problem. That is simply shoddy localizing, my friends.

I should also mention that I encountered a few glitches with the audio, specifically in lining up the recorded dialogue with the written dialogue. I can recall at least two dialogues in the second half of the game where the audio tracks went out-of-sync with the text, and the result was rather confusing (I eventually muted the television so that I could make sense of what was being said). Again, this sort of shoddy localization should not be tolerated by gamers. I for one would rather have a game delayed than run into these problems.

Though the voice acting and music were both decent, the various flaws and other bits of poor execution leave a sour taste in my mouth. It is with much generosity that I award Stella Deus's sound department an 80%.

Gameplay

This game's crowning achievement is without question its gameplay. In the past, we've seen a number of quirky strategy RPGs from NIS, and while these titles are certainly lots of fun, the "traditional" strategy RPG (such as Final Fantasy Tactics) had not had a decent competitor in nearly a decade. Stella Deus, from the gameplay perspective, is certainly a contender for dethroning FF Tactics and all other titles, because it is simply one of the most fun and rewarding strategy RPGs on the market.

Unlike FF Tactics and many other Strategy RPGs, characters in Stella Deus begin as a certain class and continue leveling and ranking up within that same class. There are a few different types of swordsmen, as well as alchemists (magicians), priests (healing magicians), and those who wield bows, spears, axes, and even fists. These varying classes, based on their use of weapon, also have their own sets of skills to learn, though the advanced player can choose to have abilities natural to certain classes taught to other party members by using the item fusion system.

In Stella Deus, there are two types of characters: those related to the story, and those you pick up on the side (mainly in the first of the five chapters). Though you are not given this information in advance, the story-related characters are able to become ridiculously stronger than the generic characters, so players who put a lot of effort into leveling the generic characters may be doing so in vain. However, until the game's final chapter, both types of characters are very useful. The generic characters come in handy when the player wants to have two of the same class of character in battle (as there are few story-related characters that share classes with one another). I personally found myself wanting to have two archers in battle, as ranged attacks are very useful for defeating enemy archers and spellcasters; so, my usual team consisted of both Linea (who is integral to the story) and Orius (an archer I acquired early in the game).

Two types of "points" are awarded during battles: experience points (EXP) and skill points (SP). These points are determined based on a curved scale by comparing the level of your character to the level of the target (be it a friend you are healing or an enemy you are attacking). The scale works much like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance; levels are gained after reaching 100 EXP, and one may gain much experience by attacking higher-leveled enemies but will find themselves earning a mere 1 or 2 EXP for lower-leveled enemies. As for SP, the same scale seems to apply, but more points are awarded for using skills instead of regular attacks.

Leveling a character raises all of the character's statistics, and once they are raised to a high enough level, the character can "rank up." Doing this also requires the use of a special item (occasionally dropped in battles, or created through the complex item fusion system). When a character ranks up, his or her class name is changed, statistics are dramatically increased, new skills are available for him or her to learn, and the number of slots for "action" skills is usually increased as well.

The game offers three different types of skills; two are familiar to all RPG fans, but the third is an especially unique feature. The first is an "action" skill: be it a spell or some sort of specialized physical attack, these skills are used within a turn and cost MP to use. The second type is the "support" skill. These skills are constants that remain with the character throughout the battle, and include such important abilities as "jump +1" (allowing the character to scale larger heights), "power +20%" (increasing the character's strength), or "anti-stone" (making the character immune to this or that status effect).

The third type of skill is known as a "zone skill." A character may only have one zone skill equipped at a time. Zone skills are similar to support skills in that they are always active in present, but their usefulness spreads from the character using them to allies or enemies based on a predetermined grid pattern. To give you a few examples, one might equip an "evasion +20%" zone skill that increases evasion not just for the character using it but for all allies standing near the character as well. Other useful ally-related zone skills include HP and MP recovery, status recovery, or a decreased AP cost for movement or attack usage. Enemy-related zone skills include increased AP cost for movement or attack, other AP-related sufferings (such as "end turn early"), infliction of various status effects, HP or MP damage/absorb, or the decreasing of various statistics (such as evasion). To make things even more interesting, enemies also have these zone skills from time to time, and "boss" enemies always have very frustrating zone skills that usually have a decent range to them (two squares out in every direction is a common one).

Characters acquire these various skills by spending SP outside of battle. However, it is also possible to learn skills outside of one's class by either creating or finding special items that teach the character a skill (these also cost SP). Customization of skills is an important step in succeeding in any battle during Stella Deus, and later in the game, it is almost essential to change support and zone skills to best fit every individual battle.

With all of the battle preparation taking place, one can expect a heaping bowl of strategic fun in battle. In this regard, Stella Deus delivers, and my near-addiction to the game is proof that this may be the remedy to your strategy RPG withdrawal. Turns take place from character to character, not "player side" vs. "enemy side." Turns are made once a character has 100 AP, and those 100 AP are used to move, attack, cast spells, or use items. There is no such thing as fleeing from battle in this game, even for optional fights, so save often and play cautiously!

Along with standard physical attacks, characters may use "combos" once, twice, or even three or four times (depending upon one's rank). Along with the standard combos of slash, flame, flash, and the late-game rush, there are specialized combos that happen with the correct combination of characters. For example, one of my favorite combos was "skewer," where Spero holds an enemy in position from behind and Grey stabs through the enemy and also punctures Spero (though Spero takes no damage). These specialized combo animations make the game even more fun. Again, for those ready to take on the game, remember that enemies have all the same abilities you do, so if you move a character near two enemies, they will likely use a combo attack on you.

A final interesting point: when a character "dies," he or she simply disappears from the map. There is no corpse to resurrect, and dying significantly decreases the character's luck (an important stat to keep high). Not until the fourth chapter (of five) do you gain the ability to bring people back from the dead mid-battle, so keeping your characters alive during battle is of the utmost importance.

Exploration is simple, and is again quite similar to Final Fantasy Tactics. There is a world map, and there are towns, and each town has the exact same stuff: a shop, a guild, and the catacombs. Shops are used to buy and sell equipment (weapon, armor, helmet, accessories, and items). Guilds offer quests that lead to rewards such as money, helpful items, and even new characters for the party. Sometimes quests involve a battle, and sometimes they merely send you through a quick dialogue and the success of the project depends upon your character's skills and statistics. Guilds are also the place where the player can attempt to fuse new items out of two other items. Though the system is essentially trial and error, you are told what the "expected result" is before making the new item, so if you're in need of one particular item, it can usually be done without wasting your items by turning them into useless junk. Then there are the catacombs...

For those who find the boss battles difficult (and believe me, they are no cakewalk), the catacombs are a wonderful place to level up your characters. At the beginning of the game, you are able to reach basement 20 of the catacombs, and more floors open as time passes. After you beat the first level of the catacombs, you may enter the second, or you may do any floor you have previously conquered again. Unlike the story-centered battles, which have interesting landscapes with varying heights and points of advantage, the catacombs have very symmetric and almost chess-board-like maps. These battles were often quite challenging, especially floors 40 through 50. However, for those who attempt the last ten floors of the catacombs, the last few story battles are simply too easy.

Stella Deus also contains quite a few secrets for those who wish to master the game. For example, the catacombs actually stretch the whole way to floor 100, but the player must complete special quests to unlock floors 51 to 100. And though it may take the use of a walkthrough, expert players who make wise and efficient decisions to best complete the story and all side-quests will have the opportunity to allow certain characters from the villain's side to join Spero's party. I myself missed out on this opportunity, but this secret makes the game all the more deep, unique, and perhaps worth a replay.

Though some may complain that Stella Deus doesn't have the diversity of a jobs/abilities system (like Final Fantasy Tactics, the game Stella Deus is destined to be compared to in every review written about it), I found that the gameplay in Stella Deus was perfect. It was balanced, though it threw a few surprises and major challenges at me. My only complaint is that there was never a battle that allowed for more than six characters at a time. Had I made the game, I would have included some sort of optional super-hard enemy that allowed for your whole party (about 20 characters if you're vigilant) to tackle the beast. Otherwise, the battles are beautifully intelligent and always enjoyable, even after multiple defeats bring despair and frustration. Easily the most fiercely competitive aspect of Stella Deus, the gameplay earns itself a respectable 91%.

Control

In my many years of playing videogames, I have played one too many games that were developed by people who have no sense of decent control. However, Pinegrow and Atlus had their act together for this title, and I couldn't be more pleased. The best feature in Stella Deus's control scheme is the camera control. In battle, the right analog stick can rotate the camera all 360 degrees and zoom in and out, whereas the left analog stick can change the screen's center by selecting different squares within the grid. Any time during battle (unless it's the enemy's turn), the player may choose to hit the circle button and look around the map, scanning the enemy's statistics and zone skills at no cost to the character's turn. The game also has a decent tutorial system to quickly teach the player all of the controls with minimal confusion.

Are you the kind of RPG fan who finds yourself in the same battle over and over, having to listen/read through that ten minute dialogue every time? No worries, the start button will have you skip through the scene and straight to the battle (though unfortunately it doesn't "pause" the scene...but since you control the changing of dialogue, simply hitting nothing is the equivalent of pausing). This feature is also much appreciated.

The only "problem" I found with control is that, when one changes the camera angle to an angle somewhere between 45 and 90 degrees, what would seem to be "up" turns out to be left or right, and so the camera needs to be fixed to help with sensible grid selection. With this minor problem being the only thing I could find wrong with the otherwise excellent control setting, I give control a 95%. It is a valuable grade, even if it is overlooked by many other reviewers. Kudos to the makers of Stella Deus for making it a game that's easy to keep in the player's control.

Story

All this time, you've been reading about how this game plays, but by now you must be wondering, "what is this game all about?" Simply put, it's about God and the end of the world. Yes, that's right. The game is overtly religious and philosophical: or rather, the characters speak in such a way. You live on Solum, a continent surrounded by the Miasma (it spreads like the Neverending Story's "The Nothing," though it does leave some desert in its wake). The Miasma kills all life, and after some decades of its spreading, a new religion formed known as the Aeque religion. This fictional (yet semi-Buddhist) religion taught that one must let go of desire and personal success and accept that God is bringing the world to an end. The doctrine of a "peaceful end" is important for the followers of Aeque, of which there are many.

After some time, however, a man named Dignus (that's Dig-nus, not Dingus!) brought together a ruthless army to conquer the various towns of Solum and bring not a peaceful end but rather a chaotic end. This second faction, an imperial and militaristic power, felt no remorse in slaughtering followers of the Aeque and anyone else who would oppose them.

A third faction, the followers of Alchemia (essentially science rather than religion), sought to use technology to better the world, perhaps even save it. The game opens when Spero's best friend and mentor, Viser, agrees to join the Overlord Dignus so he can experiment with stronger Alchemy to make a barrier against the Miasma.

A fourth group, the shamans, find the work of the alchemists despicable, because their work requires the killing of spirits, which are essentially the creatures that uphold a healthy terrestrial environment. You (Spero, Grey, and Adara) begin hunting spirits to help Viser complete his project when you meet a shaman named Linea, who tells you that killing spirits will not save the world, and that the only way to truly save the world is by opening the "Gate of Eternity," which will release thousands of spirits and stop the Miasma.

After two chapters of exploring the differing factions, Spero chooses to follow Linea on her quest to open the Gate of Eternity. Along the way, you befriend Avis, the Prince of Fortuna (a neighboring kingdom that has recently been conquered by Dignus) and a devout follower of the Aeque religion. He seems to have a deep relationship with the head priestess of Aeque, whose name is Lumena. As you continue your quest to save the world and its inhabitants, you also encounter the enigmatic "Nox," a group who seems bent on bringing "God's will" (that is, destruction) to the earth.

Within this sort of scenario, it is clear that there is plenty of dialogue and debate required for any character interaction. In this time of crisis, many people have a number of strong and conflicting religious and ideological convictions. However, though I do not know whether this is the fault of Pinegrow's original script of Atlus's English translation, I felt that the dialogue was oftentimes shallow considering the nature of the debates taking place. It usually went something like this:

"What you're doing is wrong!"
"What do you know about God's will? I am doing what is right!"
"No you're not!"
(repeat ad nauseum)
"It looks like we can't work out our problems: let's fight instead!"

Though your party laments having to slaughter all of the people who are doing wrong and allowing the spread of the Miasma, I suppose these sorts of intractable verbal conflicts were required for a game that primarily involves two parties battling to the death. Nonetheless, the dialogue did become repetitive for me, and I feel like somewhere along the line, some of the writers and/or translators could have used some time at a grad school for philosophy or perhaps a seminary for theology.

Regardless of my complaint, the game's resolution is one that nearly all people can embrace. Though it is never determined whether or not God is real, it is determined that if He is real, He does not wish for the destruction of humanity, but rather respects humanity's choices. This open humanist resolution is one that may very well be suggestive of Pinegrow's answer for real world conflicts, and I for one was pleased to see this message preached after the hours of self-righteous and presumptuous dialogue espoused by many of the game's most flawed characters.

Speaking of characters, the men and women of Stella Deus are deep, multifaceted people with hidden motives, strong beliefs, and plenty of personal turmoil. Many of the villains have redeeming characteristics, and some members of your own party have personality flaws that are noticed from time to time in the dialogue. For example, Adara has an arm crafted through alchemy, and when alchemy becomes a controversial subject, Grey manages to defend alchemy by referencing Adara's arm, which is a sensitive topic for the young lady. This sort of strong and memorable dialogue is what makes the characters of Stella Deus come alive. In other words, character development is another of Stella Deus's high points.

Had the dialogue been written slightly better, and had the ending been more climactic than it was, I would award the story in Stella Deus an even higher grade. However, an 85% is still well above average, and I feel no regret in giving such a score to this game's story.

Overall

If you took the time to read this entire review, then you know why it is that I give this game an 83%. Though its aesthetic qualities are somewhere between poor and average, the game has excellent gameplay and control, and the game's plot and characters are decent enough to get excited about.

I for one would love to see another game like Stella Deus; one with better graphics and sound, and one that is advertised well within the RPG-adoring community. Until then, allow me recommend this game to you without reservation. If you have the chance to rent it or buy it, do it before it becomes too hard to find. If you like strategy RPGs, you will more than likely love Stella Deus.



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© 2004-2005 Atlus, All Rights Reserved.


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