Publisher: Atlus USA
Release Date: November 17, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
Seeing the developer name Imageepoch does not automatically inspire confidence within me. It could be because of the very unfortunate RPG mess that was Time & Eternity or my various loose recollections of the wholly forgettable Black Rock Shooter: The Game. Regardless, my recent memory of Imageepoch titles is not exactly glowing. However, rewinding my memories further back, I actually recall liking the strategy-RPG Luminous Arc 2 on the original Nintendo DS. It was hardly the first title you would recommend on the system but there was a certain charm to it that is difficult for me to articulate now.
That said, as of this year Imageepoch filed for bankruptcy. As a possible last hurrah, Imageepoch conducted a spiritual successor to their very first developed game, Luminous Arc, with new turn-based strategy-RPG Stella Glow on the 3DS. One can only hope that Stella Glow leaves their name on a good note.
Unfortunately, the early goings of Stella Glow do not make a strong first impression. The storytelling in particular is derivative to a noticeable fault. Lead character whom may-or-may-not be an amnesiac? Check. Romantic interests for the lead fulfilling pretty apparent anime archetypes? Check. A possibly misunderstood villain figure out to destroy the world? Check. Pretty much every aspect of it feels like a checklist of Japanese-RPG cliches. It also didn't help that the intentionally nostalgic character designs of the lead character Alto and the witch Hilda made them blur together with previous Luminous Arc leads for me longer than they should have.
That said, I warmed up to Stella Glow far quicker than I would have expected. For as stereotypical as the storytelling is, it somehow feels much more charming and cute than cringe-worthy. The cast of characters end up being generally likable (more so through the "free time" events) and Atlus USA“s clever localization knows when to sneak in plenty of tongue-in-cheek quips to give everything a more entertaining flair than it has any right being.
What caught me off-guard more than anything else is how surprisingly polished Stella Glow is as an actual game. Imageepoch has come a long way from the many clunky, mediocre-at-best RPGs that plagued of their entire existence, and it really shows in Stella Glow.
The basic turn-based strategy-RPG gameplay actually reminds me a fair bit level-5's PSP title Jeanne D'Arc, but as a game it is structured a lot better. It does nothing new for the subgenre with its grid-based gameplay at large but it borrows pretty much all of the right things.The main story regularly introduces new battle scenarios that play upon different terrain, varying objectives, orbs skills to personalize characters, and tossing new playable fresh faces in addition.
More distinctly, each character has at least a few unique mechanics to differentiate themselves: The witch Sakuya goes between different attack stances that change both her movement and attack skills, the ninja Nonoka can conceal herself from enemies, the merchant Ewan has an infinite supply of healing items (but... you'll have to pay him upfront mid-battle to use them), and so on. It's fun to go into battle to employ different strategies with the varied cast and the skill animations in particular have quite a lot of personality to complement them (though, the overhead visuals are admittedly far more basic).
Additionally, the witch characters can use song magic to quickly turn the tides of battle, adding an extra layer to the combat. After building up the song gauge by characters dealing and/or taking damage mid-battle, Alto can "conduct" the witch heroines (which... looks like him stabbing them in the heart with knife) to unleash powerful song magic to debilitate foes or buff allies as long as it is active, and varies from witch to witch. The songs themselves are usually of the J-pop variety but end up being catchy regardless.
Actually, the soundtrack in general is shockingly good, but maybe less so when legendary video game composer Yasunori Mitsuda is the one behind it (with RPG fame that extends to Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenosaga, and even Soul Sacrifice). It certainly is not Mitsuda's best work but there is quite a lot of variety in the score with battle themes in particular.
Going back to combat, though, there are a few issues. For one, it can be annoying to balance the levels of party members because inactive party members gain no experience whatsoever. This may not sound like a big deal at first until you realize how many scripted story battles there are that require certain characters to be in the group and how you generally can only sortie 6 characters per battle (when there are about 15 playable characters by the end of the game). Another qualm is that gameplay will be on the easier side for many strategy-RPG veterans without any option to change.
Outside of combat, Stella Glow also apologetically borrows a Persona 3/4's social link mechanic in the form of "Free time" between the main missions. Alto can take jobs from the Red Bear Tavern for easy cash, explore outside of town on his own to get free items, but the most substantial is without a doubt spending time with fellow party members. In addition to fleshing out most characters, even those not immediately likable in the main story, you get very tangible gameplay benefits in combat as you build up their friendship. Again, very much like Persona 3 and 4.
An extension to the Free Time concept for character relationships is "tuning", which is kind of reminiscent of Ar Tonelico/Ar NoSurge's diving mechanic. Basically, Alto can go into the psyche of the various witch heroines for both character development reasons and to enhance their song magic. It is not as in-depth as something like Ar NoSurge, with literal hours of exposition, but it's a cool addition regardless like most of Free Time events.
There are also a multitude of character endings caused by these character events so Stella Glow very much rewards picking favorites, from romances to bromances, the first time through in its lengthy 40+ hour adventure. Even if players happen to miss out on most of them the first time the New Game+ is fairly thoughtful in dramatically extending the amount of Free Time and combat experience rate for would-be thorough players to see all of the endings.
It is unlikely that Stella Glow will outshine the likes of Fire Emblem: Awakening or Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker in most 3DS owner's eyes. Just the same, however, Stella Glow unassumingly earns its place as one of the best RPGs on 3DS and is pretty much without a doubt the best title from Imageepoch outright. Stella Glow does not attempt to reinvent the wheel amongst strategy-RPGs but, narrative cliches aside, it will likely remind fans why they like the subgenre in the first place because of the deceptive amount of charm and great gameplay fundamentals it has hidden underneath.
+ Generally charming characters and writing
+ Combat animations have quite a bit of personality
+ Fun, if hardly original, turn-based SRPG gameplay with varied characters
+ "Free Time" events are a cool break from combat
+ Great soundtrack
- Main story is nothing to write home about and is incredibly predictable
- Balancing party levels can be needlessly annoying due to no shared EXP between inactive members
- Easier than many SRPGs
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
Stella Glow does not reinvent the wheel for turn-based strategy-RPGs, nor does it attempt to, but it can easily remind fans why they like it in the first place with its deceptive amount of charm and polish.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable 3DS code provided by the publisher.