It’s not hard to find material online about the inevitable, impending death of the 3DS as a handheld console. After all, Nintendo’s got the Switch, their strange handheld/home console Frankenstein’s monster of a machine. The company has completely stopped producing New 3DS units in lieu of the somewhat cheaper 2DS, and the list of upcoming 2018 North American 3DS releases is woefully short. Myself, I hope it stubbornly clings to life for awhile longer, as the 3DS continues to be my favorite handheld console of all time, although the apparent abandonment of the 3-D part of the 3DS pains me greatly. While I understand that many eyeballs do not deal well with prolonged stereoscopic screen use, I have no issues with it, and I never play a 3DS game without the 3-D unless I’m running low on battery life.
Despite the fact that the 3DS appears to be nearing the end of its natural lifecycle, the sheer volume of amazing 3DS titles that exist means that I have a huge backlog of titles to work through, as does anyone else with the predilection to do so. Not even counting the games I keep meaning to buy (Boyfriend recently alerted me to the existence of Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure, which will be my next purchase), I have a cartridge case full of 3DS games that I’ve yet to beat.
But that one in the middle there? Stella Glow? (A game I have been in the process of playing for over a year?) I can knock that off the list, because I just beat the hell out of it, and I’m here to tell you that you should do the same. It’s got a compelling story, interesting, sympathetic characters, and a turn-based strategy battle system that is comfortably streamlined without losing any tactical depth. It’s one of most enjoyable strategy RPGs I’ve played in years, and it may be the best one I’ve played since Level-5‘s masterpiece Jeanne d’Arc.
Stella Glow’s existence as a game is a bit of a tragic story. The studio that developed it, Imageepoch, imploded and filed for bankruptcy right as the game was about to see release, and the only reason it was released at all is that Sega bought the game and Atlus published it. (Heidi Kemps, a games journalist who blogs at GamingMoe, posted this fascinating article back in 2015 about the history of Imageepoch releases; it’s definitely worth a read.) I’ve never played a single other game developed by the studio, as pretty much all of them have received mediocre to downright terrible reviews. I don’t know what they did differently with Stella Glow, but it’s too bad they didn’t do it earlier, because it might have saved the studio. As it stands, Stella Glow remains as an unexpectedly excellent swan song by an otherwise forgettable RPG developer.
What most influenced my purchase of this game was its demo, which you can still download from the Nintendo 3DS eShop, and which basically allows you to play through the first hour or so of the game. That hour really sold me on the game’s interesting premise, excellent music, and colorful graphics with beautifully layered 3D effects. I am pleased to report that the rest of the game carries through its promising start.
Any RPG is only as good as its story and characters, and Stella Glow succeeds admirably in crafting an interesting setting populated by a variety of characters who are by and large appealing and well-rounded. The story revolves around a young, amnesiac man named Alto whose village is destroyed by the cruel and mysterious Lunar Witch Hilda.
Despite the fact that Amnesic Hero + Tragedy Befalling His Small Village = The Opening Premise for at Least Half of the JRPGs in Existence, Stella Glow manages to expand on this well-worn formula in some meaningful ways. This is not apparent at first. Alto has an Important Destiny (surprise!), and it’s soon revealed that he is the “Conductor”, a hero with the power to “Tune” witches. Evidently, at some point in the past, god took song from humanity as a punishment. Witches are the only people in the world of Stella Glow who can sing, and their songs create magic. Alto’s quest is to collect the witches, tune them, and save the world. This predictable plot seemed poised to deliver a steaming heap of irritating harem anime tropes. I fully expected to have to deal with playing a male protagonist surrounded by a party of sexed-up ladies constantly throwing themselves at him and saying suggestive things. This is not to say that this doesn’t happen.
And this is not to say that many of the women in the game don’t appear in weird, impractical, and needlessly revealing costumes.
What keeps the game from descending into an uninteresting mire of regressive dating sim cliches is its surprising sense of self-awareness and the unexpected psychological depth of its characters. For instance, the game isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself.
And despite the fact that the characters are based on predictable stereotypes – the sweet girl next door, the sexy & sassy one, the womanizing rogue, the stodgy tank, etc – both the writing and the surprisingly excellent voice acting go a long way towards making these characters believable and sympathetic. Take, for instance, Popo.
Dear God, look at her. A green, frilly whirlwind of moe bullshit. She has a super kawaii animal mascot, a “migratory pig” (seriously) named BuBu. She talks with the peculiarly piercing tone of an obnoxious kid sister, and she speaks in the goddamn third person.
I was so prepared to hate Popo with a violent passion. But then, as the story advanced and I learned more about her, it turned out that she’d lived alone her entire life while being emotionally manipulated by a bully of a man who was taking advantage of her magic to further his illegal drug empire. Seriously. That’s some pretty heavy shit for what appeared at first glance to be a flirty and light-hearted MacGuffin hunt. In fact, all of Stella Glow’s witches and many of its other characters are made to endure and cope with a great deal of trauma during the course of the game’s 60+ hours of story, and the script treats this with a surprisingly earnest gravitas. People die. People grieve. It’s all very heartfelt.
Even Alto, who runs the clear and present danger of being the boring Everyman protagonist of many a waifu game, is unexpectedly endearing. He’s unceasingly and uncommonly kind to absolutely everyone, and it’s charming. He’s honest to a fault. He tries and largely succeeds at helping his friends through their various traumas with patient and supportive conversation. He attempts to talk opponents down before fighting, and he extends forgiveness unconditionally.
The larger story is interesting enough, and although the broad arcs of the plot are fairly predictable, the details are delightfully bizarre and I won’t spoil them here. But it’s the characters that really sell this game’s narrative, and it’s therefore appropriate that getting to know these characters is a key component of the gameplay.
The system borrows shamelessly from the Persona’s Social Links, albeit in a much simpler form of execution. You get a pre-determined number of blocks of Free Time in each chapter of the game, and you can use that Free Time to hang out with your party members. Each time you do so, you learn more about your companions, your relationships level up, and you unlock new bonus combat abilities for your team. For your knights like Rusty and Archibald, these affinity rank perks are things like movement and ability bonuses. Your relationships with your witches are a little more complicated. As you get to know them better and your affinity grows, you’ll have to help them address deep-seated insecurities and past trauma, and by entering the world of their souls and doing battle with their inner demons, you’ll help them learn more Song Magic. As you become closer to your party members, you unlock more possibilities in the game’s combat system. It’s a satisfying loop. Of course, in another Persona-esque twist, it’s impossible for you to max out the affinities of all your party members in a single playthrough. To unlock everything, you’ll have to start over in New Game+.
The battles themselves stand alone as an excellent centerpiece of this RPG experience. What starts out as very basic grid- and turn-based combat slowly morphs into a series of satisfying strategic encounters that never become overburdened by needless complexity. Strategy RPG mainstays like Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and Tactics Ogre are many wonderful things, but “approachable” is not one of them. I love RPG fiddly bits, but I also like to have fun, and in many strategy RPGs, combat can sometimes become an onerous chore. It’s not uncommon for SRPG battles to drag on for over an hour, and while there are some very long battles to be had in this game, Stella Glow’s combat system is refreshingly straightforward.
Each character learns a finite number of abilities over the course of the game, but each of those abilities have wildly different resource costs, areas of effect, damage outputs, and status ailment possibilities. Many area effects damage allies, so unit placement is key. MP is a finite resource and HP numbers stay relatively low (especially compared to those of your foes), but leveling up instantly restores a character to max HP/MP, so managing which characters deal killing blows when becomes a crucial part of your strategy.
The process of equipping your characters retains a similarly refreshing degree of simplicity. Buying each character the strongest weapon you can afford is pretty much the one and only consideration. I do enjoy the strategic wrinkle having to equip items for use in battle; each character can only take two items into each fight, and it will take some foresight to decide whether you want to have your tank carry two healing potions or one healing potion and a status ailment cure or one status ailment cure and one of your rare elixirs.
The one real option that you have to customize your characters is to equip Orbs on their weapons, jewels that do things like adding status effects to weapon damage or unlocking the ability to counterattack. Different weapons have different numbers of orb slots, and you can create and upgrade orbs in town. By the end of the game, I had tricked out my main tank with orbs that let him teleport around the battlefield, absorb some of the damage from his attacks as HP, and take another turn if he killed an enemy, making him into a nigh-unstoppable force of destruction.
By far the most unique thing about Stella Glow’s battle system is your ability to use Song Magic. Song Magic abilities are governed by the song gauge in the top right corner of the battle screen.
The gauge fills when you damage or defeat enemies, and your witches can spend the gauge to power their Song Magic abilities. Each witch learns several songs during the course of the game, and some of them are little songs that use one or two points of the gauge to do things like healing surrounding allies or damaging nearby enemies with fire. However, the real muscle of the song gauge comes in the form of the super moves that each witch can perform in conjunction with Alto in his function as the Conductor. This requires some strategy to pull off because the song gauge has to be nearly or completely full, Alto and the witch in question have to be positioned adjacent to one another on the battlefield, and Alto must take his entire turn to activate the ability, but the results are more than worth it.
In this trailer released by NIS America, Alto Conducts the Fire Witch Sakuya in a rendition of her song, “Cherry Blossom.” For her next three turns, Sakuya’s song grants all allies a significant boost in critical hits. Each witch’s songs do different things — one heals all allies for three turns, another cancels all enemy actions for one round — and each one is a game-changer that has the potential to turn the tide of a battle. From a mechanical perspective, it’s a really fun addition to the game, but more importantly, it means that Stella Glow’s soundtrack is fucking amazing.
Each witch has two song-based super moves, and instead of, I don’t know, just playing a clip of music over the animation of a singing witch and then returning to the regular battle theme, Imageepoch instead decided to record an entire J-pop song for each super attack. So presumably they either hired someone to write these or they licensed close to a dozen unique and enjoyable full-length songs that loop while the witches sing during battles. And because you have to max out a witch’s affinity in order to unlock her second song, unless you play this game through twice, you’re not even going to hear most of these songs. For instance, I never got to experience Popo’s second song “Volt Shower” during the course of my game, but now that I’ve been listening to the soundtrack, it’s one of my favorites.
The soundtrack of this game represents a staggering amount of effort that baffles me even as I enjoy it. This cannot have been a cheap design choice, and I wonder if the decision helped the developer towards bankruptcy. The rest of the game’s music outside of the song magic is also amazing, probably because the fabulous Yasunori Mitsuda served as head composer. Mitsuda is one of the JRPG music greats, right up there with Uematsu himself, and he’s most famous for his work on Chrono Trigger and the Xeno series. I absolutely love Mitsuda’s music, and while it’s not clear how many of the vocal tracks were his doing, his hand in some of the boss themes is characteristically unmistakable and awesome.
As a woman who is still playing the boringly easy Blue Dragon off and on solely because of the quality of Uematsu’s score, I’m definitely guilty of occasionally playing games just for the music. Stella Glow’s fantastic soundtrack is a thick layer of high-quality icing coating a rich cake of enjoyable game play and exciting story, an admittedly labored metaphor that is making me hungry. It’s an easily-missed gem of a game that I worry many people won’t even think to try playing. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss out.