Quirky indie games are a dime-a-dozen these days, spearheaded by nostalgia for Earthbound and the dominant success of Undertale. At first glance, In Stars and Time might seem like just another — albeit adorable — entry in this prevalent new genre, but solo developer Adrienne Bazir’s ambitious tale of found family and time loops is well worth a play and differentiates itself more than enough. I would say its story purposefully contradicts the themes of Undertale at times in a way I find refreshing.
In Star and Times begins at the end. After a world-trotting journey, five adventurers arrive at the House of Change, a monastery dedicated to the God of Change that has become the castle of the villain, King. King uses the speculated-to-exist but long-considered-impossible art of Time Craft to slowly freeze the country of Vaugarde and its inhabitants in time, forever. Mirabelle is a Housemaiden of the House of Change, blessed by Change, and was the only person to escape when King took over. She returns with her four companions, Siffrin, Isabeau, Odile, and Bonnie, to defeat King and save her country.
While Mirabelle is the chosen one, it is the rogue, Siffrin, the player takes control of. The party begins the game as experienced adventurers (level 45!), but that’s not enough to survive the House of Change and defeat King. Despite their best efforts, Siffrin dies, only to wake up on the previous morning, once again outside Dormant, the village preceding the House of Change. In Dormant, Siffrin meets Loop, a mysterious star-being who explains the concept of the time loop in which Siffrin finds themself trapped. Deciding the only way to escape their fate is to defeat King, Siffrin sets out again to conquer the House.
Audio-visually, In Stars and Time is reminiscent of classic Game Boy games like Pokémon Red & Blue or The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The game is black and white and viewed from the top-down perspective with occasional, beautifully drawn sketchbook-like stills and animations for emphasis. Battles take place in the first person, and portraits of your party line the bottom of the screen. The soundtrack follows suit, with hummable music that would be right at home on the Game Boy. There are occasional performance hitches or visual glitches, likely because the game was developed in RPG Maker MV, but its vibes are unarguably appealing.
The main gameplay loop (heh) of In Stars and Time involves venturing into the House and making it as far as possible before an inevitable death and restart. Wandering the halls of the House are Sadnesses, spooky creatures that initiate a battle when contacted. Combat uses the active-time battle system, popularized by Final Fantasy, where a gauge builds for each character and enemy, and they can act when it fills. The main quirk to the combat here is that every party member, attack, Craft (magic spell), and Sadness is associated with rock, paper, or scissors. They are strong and weak against what you would expect. Rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper. And paper beats rock.
For a fun twist, most enemies have a visual association with their type. So, they may make the corresponding shape with their hands or maybe even be a rock. While your party members have a type they can often still use Crafts of other types. For example, Odile is a mage and can use paper, scissors, and rock crafts despite being paper-type. When you use a Craft, it goes on cooldown for a specified number of turns and adds one symbol to your Jackpot dial. If you get five of the same symbols in a row, your party does a powerful cooperative attack of the corresponding type that heals your party, revives KO’d characters, hits all enemies, and deals massive damage. So, there is a surprising amount of strategy in choosing which Crafts to use when. The combat stays fresh for a good chunk of the game thanks to the situations thrown at you, but eventually going through the same floors and facing the same enemies makes guaranteed escape attempts a godsend.
However, Siffrin’s main obstacles aren’t combative. The House is full of locked doors barring your progress, and unraveling the mysteries surrounding the loops, King, and Siffrin is paramount to proceeding. In Stars and Time can be exceedingly clever in utilizing time loops. Often, Siffrin doesn’t know the questions to ask or the places to search until you’ve died in a certain way or found a book or item to clue you in. On the negative side, this can lead to events requiring a specific order and regularly incites a feeling of being stuck. This linearity is exacerbated when you realize you cannot return to the previous floors of the House or the village without dying. Further, the story of the game goes far past the point of new gameplay content to explore, so get used to seeing the same rooms of the House repeatedly and having the same conversations but just slightly changed just to find a book or a key required to progress. Thematically, this repetitive nature works well: as Siffrin is getting frustrated with the loops, so too is the player.
There are tools at your disposal to make things easier. Simple ways to die involve tripping on banana peels or touching King’s tears and making it easy to loop when required. Spending memories you gain from battles to jump ahead to higher floors of the House lets you skip much of the doldrums. Siffrin and his party also gain equippable Memories, which have various effects ranging from making Sadnesses avoid you to granting party members Crafts they won’t receive until a higher level. The latter is vital because Siffrin retains their level from looping, but your party members do not.
For how much In Stars and Time can be frustrating to play at times, the true heart of the game is its relentlessly charming cast and their banter. Siffrin is a master of puns but uses humour to mask their anxiety. Mirabelle is always upbeat and cheerful, but as the chosen one is under overwhelming pressure. Isabeau seems like a hunky ditz at first, but he hides hidden depths. Odile is cranky and unsociable but is the oldest of the group and acts as a mother figure. Bonnie is just a kid and an absolute gremlin. They don’t fight in combat like the rest of your party do, but they lend their aid randomly. They are also at the heart of the found family forming around the party. Everyone unites in their love and desire to protect Bonnie. I believe it would be hard, perhaps even impossible, not to fall in love with the five adventurers during the events of In Stars and Time.
In Stars and Time is exceptionally and proudly queer. Siffrin uses he/they pronouns, while Bonnie uses they/them. The faith at the centre of their world, devotion to the God of Change, allows and expects people to make changes to themselves throughout their lives, whether that be gender, name, or anything else. Through the application of Craft, people can even alter their bodies as they see fit. There are numerous and touching discussions of gender, sexuality, and societal norms throughout the game. The game and its narrative explore the ideas of change and freedom to change (or not should one so desire) at every level, and it is immensely satisfying to consider how well this motif flows through the game before being tied with a neat bow at the end.
In Stars and Time might drag on a little longer and get repetitive more often than I would like, but its ambition and adherence to its themes are commendable, and are made even more impressive by the fact that the game was developed in RPG Maker. This game is a must-play for fans of quirky indie games, but even if you are tired of that style, there is loads here to love.