In the long dark between Bravely Second and Fire Emblem: Fates, I will quite happily play any handheld JRPG that gets thrown my way. Whether I'll finish them is another matter - I made barely any progress on Legend of Legacy, just because it completely failed to catch my interest - but I'll definitely start them, and it's true to say I'm not exactly bothering to control for quality. So it was that I ended up playing Stella Glow, a tactical RPG by Imageepoch - a company whose CEO vanished under mysterious circumstances part way through Stella Glow's development, and who were subsequently bought out by Atlus - that tries to pitch itself both as a rollicking adventure and as creepy fanservice.
Like, you can tell this was meant to be Imageepoch's last please-don't-let-us-go-completely-bankrupt saving throw, let's put it that way, because the marketing for it focused partly on the game's epic adventure storyline and gameplay, and mostly on how sometimes some of the female characters will put on thin white dresses and strike uncomfortable poses.
Set in Regnant, a high fantasy kingdom where nobody can sing, with the exception of five Witches, Stella Glow follows Alto, an amnesiac young man, and his adoptive sister Lisette, whose lives are turned upside down when Hilda, the Witch of Destruction, crystallises their village. As Lisette is revealed to be the Water Witch, the two joining up with the Regnant Knights, a band of knights that are searching for the Wind Witch, Fire Witch, and Earth Witch, with one goal: If four Witches can be found, then the Anthem, a song that will undo Hilda's curse, can be sung. As the band sets out, though, it becomes obvious that Hilda and her Harbingers will stop at nothing - and that her plan may have something to do with the mysterious deity who lives on the Moon.
|Singing and stuff.|
I was relieved to find out that the marketing had rather exaggerated the creepy fanservice angle. While there are still moments of it scattered throughout the game, it's far from present throughout, and most of the fanservice moments are over and done with pretty quickly - which is fortunate, because every single jarring, ridiculous fanservice moment made my skin crawl.
In terms of gameplay, Stella Glow is a pretty well put together but mostly typical tactical RPG. Each turn, characters are each able to move a certain number of tiles, with terrain type and passive abilities affecting how many tiles that is; and they have both regular attacks and a set of special abilities that use up SP and attack a certain amount of tiles over a certain distance (sword attacks, for example, usually targeted a single square in any direction; spear attacks could hit two squares in any direction; while arrows were able to hit one square, but over a long distance, etc). Mixing it up slightly are the use of Songs, powerful abilities that your witches can utilise by draining the Song Stone gauge, which is in turn filled up by taking and dealing damage - with the most powerful Songs being used with the Conduct command, putting the witch in question out of action for three or four turns as they sing for a prolonged effect.
It's also fairly standard stuff, but the game devs have clearly spent a lot of time balancing and streamlining it for maximum fun, and it's genuinely enjoyable gameplay - much more enjoyable than most tactical RPGs, which can tend to grow old and stale after the first few missions, certainly.
In a slightly strange turn, Stella Glow also offers Persona series esque free time segments that you can use to bond with your teammates. While fun to watch, they can outstay their welcome a bit - such as in the two chapters where you basically have back-to-back free time segments, meaning that you're spending half an hour of your life watching cutscenes - and it grated on me that there was barely enough time to get even two characters to maximum Affinity.
(This, it turned out, was to increase replay value, as during a New Game+ your free time triples. This did not endear me to it any.)
Continuing on a technical vein, the game has some pretty beautiful graphics - colourful, detailed, sharp - and usually good voice acting. A few characters stand out as being horrendously badly acted, but a few, such as Matthew Mercer's Klaus, are joys to listen to, and most of the cast is just generally fine. Maybe not winning any awards, but certainly up to snuff.
|I did love how the 'walking back to Lambert' picture changed every time|
a new character joined.
The story, meanwhile, is predictable (very predictable) but fun and engaging. There are a few points where it starts going a bit stale - such as the string of chapters that saw you repeatedly getting into fights with Hilda and her Harbingers, only to be saved at the last minute by Giselle and her angels, just again and again and again - but for the most part I was actually pretty invested in seeing it through, even though I knew exactly how it was all going to turn out.
All in all, I enjoyed this game a lot more than I thought it would. It's a solid, fun game, a nice new addition to Atlus' growing library of games. I doubt we'll ever see a Stella Glow 2, because Imageepoch is basically gone now, but since the game didn't end on a cliffhanger or anything like that, I'm fine with that.