Under Your Radar: Stella Glow

Before I begin, I would like to address the elephant in the room. Last time, I teased The Severing Crime Edge as the next work to be covered. Since then, it has come to my attention that not only did the manga conclude, it is available legally in English. I would be remiss to write about it before reading the manga since it’s available. Not only that, quite some time has passed, so I found myself unable to recall the details of the anime. As such, I substituted something I’d been exposed to somewhat more recently. So, without further ado…



Hikari no Metamorphosis (English ver.) by Konomi Suzuki

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It’s been a while, but it’s time for Under Your Radar! This time, we’ll be discussing Stella Glow, a 3DS game released in June 2015 in Japan by Sega, localized for North America in November by Atlus, and and finally released in PAL regions in March 2016 by NIS America. It is the swansong of imageepoch, a developer who honestly did not release a single game I enjoyed throughout their entire existence. After delivering the final build of the Japanese release of this game, the president of the company went missing, and it later came to light that the company was bankrupt. Will this final game of theirs be an exception, or more of the same?

Plot

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Well, why not start with the story? It takes place in a world where songs are restricted to magical use only (think Ar tonelico, Surge Concerto or imageepoch’s own Luminous Arc). The plot of this game concerns amnesiac hero Alto, who’s found in a lake near a small village.

One of the families there take him in, but it is eventually attacked by Time Witch Hilda, and her allies the Harbingers. Everyone but Alto and his “sister” Lisette are turned to crystal by Hilda’s Song of Destruction. The two eventually drive the Harbingers off in a process they don’t seem to understand themselves, but what is clear is that Lisette is now a witch and Alto appears to have some sort of ability relating to witches.

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It’s at this point that they’re picked up by the kingdom’s army and join a special regiment that seeks to sing the Anthem to decrystalize the population of the kingdom and stop the Harbingers. To do this, they need to find the four elemental witches, the first of which is Lisette. Lisette can’t sing just yet, which is concerning, but that is set aside for the present.

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The first act of the story effectively consists of locating the witches one at a time, each of which are in terrible situations (except arguably Fire Witch Sakuya), and resolving them. They then join, and this continues until you have all four. To give an example of how bad things are for them, Wind Witch Popo has basically been branded as evil for no real reason, being and banished to the outskirts of town. Not only that, she’s been tricked into using her magic to help spin windmills faster, which are secretly being used to create mopium (not!heroin). She was told that this was in order to gain forgiveness and to aid the people of the town… who have no idea that she’s the reason they’ve been prospering, treating her with scorn whenever she enters town.

After you have all four witches, Lisette still can’t sing, and is attacked. She’s basically in the hospital for the first half of the second act of the game, which is where things start falling apart. Lisette is both your healer in battle and your “sister”, so you definitely feel the pressure in both plot and gameplay. While Popo has some weak healing to try to stand in, she definitely pales in comparison to Lisette. A merchant party member named Ewan can also heal at the cost of money, but you likely didn’t level him, and his healing range is terrible, so he’s more a burden. That plus the strict item limits leave you barely surviving as you try to do what you must to save her.

When she finally returns, she can sing.

Let’s not mince words – the storytelling through gameplay here was phenomenal. Not only do you get the plot relief, she appears right in the nick of time and can suddenly heal all of your units at once. Double the load off. When all is said and done, the witches sing the Anthem and you’ve captured the Harbingers. But it turns out you’ve been had, several characters die (some of which were quite tragic – they did NOT seem like the sort of characters to die), the Harbingers were the good guys all along, the real enemy appears, and nobody trusts you anymore.

I’ll omit the description of the third act, but I will say there are endings with each character. The witch endings are romantic, of course.

Between missions, you have chances to hang out with each character. This actually increases their effectiveness in battle. If you max out your relationship with a certain character before all the deaths start happening and they leave the party, the true ending route opens up. Maxing out characters gives access to their endings, too, but there are various characters who’re mutually exclusive in that sense until a second run. More about that in the gameplay section, since that’s an annoyance.

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The plot is accompanied by a rather fitting, optimistic-sounding soundtrack and nice character design. I couldn’t find a good place to put this, but the game actually has a full dub, which is surprising. The songs aside from the opening aren’t dubbed, but aside from that everything is in English. This is good, because everyone starts the third act understandably depressed, and you would miss out on their rather saddening start-of-turn statements otherwise.

While I have some misgivings about the plot (Hilda could have resolved things a lot sooner by telling people what was going on, though she does later explain that this didn’t work in the past), it does its job well.

Gameplay

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If you’ve played the Luminous Arc series, this is basically a fourth entry. Each characters gets two items, a weapon, a piece of armor and an accessory. There are little slots on the equipment for further customization. The gameplay is a standard SRPG, up to and including how you take more damage if attacked from the sides or back.

The only real twist here comes from the witches. A meter fills up as you play through a map, and the various witches can use spells by spending this meter. But those aren’t the best part. Alto, if he can get next to the witches, can Conduct them, having the witch stay in place for three of their turns to sing. Their songs have effects on the entire field, and vary strongly in usefulness. Lisette’s To the Sea heals the party completely, Popo’s Rusty Key prevents enemy attacks, Sakuya’s Cherry Blossom increases the critical hit rate, and Mordimort’s Reddened Galaxy puts everyone to Sleep then heals SP for all allies. They receive an additional song each later in the game, with the same effects being given a buff in addition to a large attack.

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When characters join for the first time, you get a very brief introductory tutorial explaining what exactly makes them different from other characters. Not everyone is created equal, however. Not only do elemental weaknesses in each witch’s mission really hurt whatever witch is weak to the element, but I’m sure you noticed that Cherry Blossom sounds rather useless next to everyone else’s songs.

Still on the subject of the witches, nearly every enemy you face in the final act of the game is immune to Rusty Key. This ends up looking like rather jarring power creep because that’s the point Hilda joins the party, and her Ice World is only different due to semantics, working perfectly fine on these enemies. Ice World also power creeps Reddened Galaxy, since the Sleep status goes away when you hit the enemy while Hilda’s doesn’t have this restriction. Just to rub salt in the wound, Ice World also boosts attack power, even powercreeping Cherry Blossom.

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Poor Mordimort. She’s only really useful for the small portion of the game that comprises the second act. Her gimmick is that certain types of tiles have various different effects when she uses her ability on it, with several of them being decoys, others being useless pitfalls nobody ever steps on, and the rest being nothing. In the third act, you run into tiles that do nothing or the pitfalls quite a bit. She’s also a more defensive character, mostly being there to inflict ailments at a distance with her guns and distract the enemy with her decoys, so if you take away her decoys, she isn’t much use.

The other witches are still good as regular fighters after Hilda powercreeps their songs, but not Mordimort. All she has left is being a better gun-user than Ewan… which I guess is decently useful if you add status ailments to her normal attacks?

While some non-witches, like Nonoka, are rather strong and useful, others like Ewan, are just useless. Archibald in particular is interesting, but rather aggravating to use unless you spend time with him. But the problem with that is… why would you when you need to spend time with the witches?

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You don’t know how right you are, Alto.

This is where the downtime between missions comes in, and is rather limiting on a first run. Each time you get to do this, you are able to perform 3 actions per in-game day. These aren’t just for talking to party members – you could take a part time job for example. Some characters are only available to speak to at certain times of day, and once the day passes, you’re done and the plot proceeds. Needless to say, the witches overlap with other characters, and eventually each other. You cannot max out Mordimort and Lisette in the same run until new game plus, which is bad because advancing your relationship a rank is one of the ways you get stronger. The witches especially – they get their second song, remove their elemental weakness, a change of costume, and a massive stat buff in addition to being able to see their ending if you max them out.

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Yet the witches have an additional step each time they would advance a rank. You need to tune them. This the other part of Alto’s Conductor powers that awakened Lisette at the start of the game. After a certain point in the game, Alto can basically do a short therapy session known as Tuning, which takes the form of a special battle map with special conditions, in which you cannot use the witch in question. These take up one of the three free time actions, too. There isn’t much to say about these except that the tiles in these maps are all the type that give Mordimort’s special move no effect.

Mordimort is already quite weak in the final act. Yet she gets penalized further by having the player make the easy choice of the healer over her to max out.

It is also noteworthy that, while you have to use the witches as mandatory or strongly recommended party members for most of the game, there is one map near the end of the second act where you don’t have access to the witches or Alto. This means you can’t simply ignore them or you’re stuck. Thankfully, you are able to grind, and the game warns you to save before this point, so you won’t get stuck unless you ignored the warnings. I didn’t need to grind because I at least used the other characters enough to keep most of their levels competent.

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Each map, except the Tuning maps, have bonus objectives you can meet for items. Several of these items are otherwise unobtainable, as are some items you can only steal off of certain bosses. These are typically good pieces of equipment, being marginally more powerful than what you can buy. Yet you aren’t handicapped too much for not getting them, making them the best kind of optional challenge.

While not the most unique in the world, there is certainly some strategic gameplay to be had here. Just be forewarned that the maps will take a while, with few options to fast-forward the gameplay (though you can skip animations manually). You do have one quicksave slot, which you can use without restriction, however. This is nice when you get to a milestone on a map and don’t want to repeat the process if you fail the next part of the map. It’s especially helpful in maps where you have to guard a line or just survive, like the last map of the game before Lisette returns. You can also use the quicksave at the final boss to see all of the endings, since you can invoke the normal ending on the true ending path, and your character ending is determined after the finishing blow.

Verdict

While not the most unique game out there, the plot is quite interesting, there are rather interesting moments, well-developed characters, and they tie in quite well to the gameplay. There is little to complain about in regards to the game as a package.

Unjust

I find it somewhat amusing that imageepoch’s final game, which they didn’t even live to see the profits from, is among my top 3DS titles. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly worth playing if you can deal with the Atlus tax or find a normal-priced copy.

I have two lingering questions, though: Who’s Stella, and why do they glow?


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Hopefully it’ll take less time for the next one. Sorry for that.

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