Review: Can't you hear me yella!
You're puttin' me through Hella!
Atlus has made something of a niche for themselves with all (or most) of their games in some way revolving around the RPG acronym. Role-playing Game is what that means, and as it stands, Atlus seems drawn to its potential in some form or another. Throughout the current gaming generation, that's where their name has taken them to the top anyhow, by adding RPG elements to releases like Dual Hearts, Choro Q, and of course the company's adored Shin Megami Tensei series. Probably playing an even larger note for Atlus as of late was that they were the one to revive the often ignored strategy-RPG. In the summer of 2003 they first unleashed Nippon Ichi's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness in a time of darkness for the then meager sampling of strategy-RPG titles on consoles. Few developers have ever actually tried combining the strategy/RPG mixture, as most seemed to have all found disappointment in some measurement if ever one was unveiled for American gamers. Except for Final Fantasy Tactics of course. That game's still soaring above the genre's standards into today. But in Disgea's case when Atlus did push the strategy-RPG genre back into the limelight, gamers went nuts for it as it was known to be called by the masses the "sleeper hit" of 2003. Not me, though. Disgaea's presentation was totally outdated. Good gameplay where everything else fell flat. Ushering in Pinegrow's Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity now, it looks as if the tactics aren't ever going to change over in Atlus' camp.
Misami, as it's known to be, is the name of an ominous form of mist that has taken shape over history around the land of Solum. Unwanted and feared, this death-bearing cloud has killed off massive populations in its wake, and only continues to do so. At one point, people were told that this Miasma was a sign of God, that he the lord himself wanted for a peaceful end to come to all. Uneasy, yet accepting of their fate, most took to the waiting game when the Miasma would reach them and ultimately be lead down the inevitable trail of nevermore. Uncaring of their lives was the reason for what positioned the tyrannical Dignus as the declared overlord of this fading population. With his Imperial army in full, Dignus brought a message to all that he would slay every last pathetic wretch who truly believed in this wasteful state of apathy many have dragged their dying hopes into. It is at this stage where Viser, a most skillful scientist in the trade of alchemy, will be forced to leave his pupil Spero behind as he joins the high ranks of Dignus' overpowering army. Spero from this moment on eventually becomes a minor soldier amongst Dignus' troops where with his friends in the legion do their part to save the world by gathering the souls of spirits. It is when the troupe bumps into a beautiful princess who warns them that what they are doing is wrong that their paths will cross and the course of their lives will be rewritten.
To get to the heart of the problem immediately, let's look at one of the main sources for Stella Deus's poor showmanship: its sound design. Now, Stella Deus actually has some decent spots where this aspect shines, specifically in the music department. But what is with those generic voice overs that embody a nearly drained pitch during the gameplay? When one character attacks or defeats another character, one of the two will usually iterate something along the lines of, "Who's next?" or, "Is that all you got?" And when they do speak, there's a lowered monotonic quality to the voice. Bad lines aside, why is it that the cast of enemies and allies you rub against or with all sound similar to the hero of the main protagonist of the story, Spero? Isn't there another way of creating vocal characterizations for diverse classes without reusing the same actor's one and only highly plain tone? Accompanying the ordinary and unextraordinary speaking cast of Stella Deus is its range of audio and musical numbers, of course. Different musical instruments playing to orchestrated tunes like an Irish melody in the game's shop menu or a bit of a heavier theme in the gameplay itself does a decent job of setting the game theme. The only problem with the music is that it's not remarkably fantastic, and during some story sequences these happy scores mix in with a coarse thematic -- which is awkward. Through its sound effects, the game is only so much effective in the sense where elements of combative swords slashing, rubberband arrows shooting, and magical balls of electricity and the like pound on your enemies or your team limits the audible areas to the game's playing field across its 3D gridded maps hovering in lone space.
Here is where like Disgaea before it, seeing Stella Deus in action gears players up for a trip down memory lane when everyone was still using their 32-bit PlayStation. For a PlayStation game...I mean a PlayStation 2 game, Stella Deus fails to meet the visual standards set by a rich history of superior titles. Still though, for the type of game Stella Deus is (and the method of its graphics in general), it's not all bad. Across its gameplay expanse, battlefields will take shape on top of the aforementioned square panels that have no life to them and is the only object existing in an otherwise barren screen. Modeled after outdoor and indoor placements like grassy plains with rocky outgrowths, tree and water surrounded lands, and spacious stone-stepped arenas, the environmental exterior and interiors seen here possess a water-colored embodiment, that while being made ancient, display washed out coloring that matches with the game's degraded anime overtone. Characters seen mostly in 2D drawn art throughout the text/voiced dialogue sequences and in 3Dish form moving across the checkerboard and fighting, are also diminished in quality. Anime-painted sprites in motion, the characters whose bodies you can get the gist of in seeing little swords and arrows hanging off their armored bodies aren't heavy in detail when minimized to micro size.
Aside from the main cast of characters, you won't be seeing much variety in enemies or allies outside the difference of classes. Along the way, your party can actually increase in number as quests are completed on the side with archer, alchemist, lance-wielding, swordsman and other types able to partner up alongside. The only problem is that these particular character models posing as selectable teammates are in fact the very reflection of the army of easily disposable common enemy figures that are confronted throughout the game's duration. This can lead to mix-ups when for example, you lose track of which one of your henchmen is the right duplicate of two or more copycats onscreen at the same time -- and your blade strikingly befalls the wrong one. This isn't a serious issue; but there was one time when I mistook an axe enemy as one of my own that had been surrounded by my party when my attention was focused on another. My initial move was to kill the axe guy and then move in on the archer positioned a few squares away. I forgot about the axe guy in the confusion, foolishly led my men adrift, and one of my men paid the price for it. Enhanced visuals that would've been able to differentiate the good and the evil counterparts from one another better would've helped in that situation. Well, anyway...there are other elements that aid in giving the game a little bit of polish. Like singular and team magical strikes. Going in alone or binding forces, members of the party are able to initiate particle-based attackers such as a burst of flame as one or sign up on the same roster (where and when permitted) to fly in through the air, dashing and colorfully slicing the enemy stooges into a singled multi-hit-kill defeat. Unfortunately, the display of magic used here is much tamer and lamer than the ones you would swear were the light of your life in any number of other gorgeous RPG games.
Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity isn't an RPG alone, though. This is where its most important element, the gameplay, takes its different approach toward the tactical end of this turn-based strategy-RPG hybrid. The only gripe some may have in playing Stella Deus is that in establishing itself in the strategy-RPG market, what the game does is actually not try to reinvent the wheel but instead to roll along with it. Like most other titles in the genre, Stella Deus sets up on top of the square block playing field where at the start of every combat mission (where the goal is always the same: to defeat everyone onscreen but your own team), you get a chance to place up to six characters on colored squares at a fixed point on the map. Moving characters around has to be done one by one, where each character is shown how far they can travel represented by the painted blocks. The same thing happens for attacks, displaying proprietary squares at each adjacent placement for directions the characters will have an opportunity to take aim. Also like other strategy-RPGs, Stella Deus uses an AP meter (Action Points) that restarts at 100 each turn and dictates an idea of how many actions characters are given to enable every chance they get. If multiple enemy threats stand at one reach of the environment, an obvious option would be to approach them as some enemies don't begin to engage in the onset until you've conquered the remainder of the board. That's good news since you don't want an infestation of danger surrounding your guys and clobbering them in one fell swoop. But the further the character distances themselves from their original position, the more AP is consumed. AP is spent each time a health item is taken, an attack is initiated, a partner combination is activated, and so on. Plotting behaviors through intelligent measurement of the AP meter will net you well-rounded defeats if the mechanic is used wisely enough.
About balancing the AP gauge, this actually means that if you're to tell even a single party member to engage one foe, this could spell trouble for them. Enemies do like to swarm in for the kill or support their allies when it's their time to shine. Precisely like your own team, enemies are able to heal themselves or others if they're a spell caster. You may be one more hit away from driving an opponent into the dirt, but all of the sudden a magic user can and will cure their continued livelihood with a substantial amount of HP if they're in range (which they typically are arranged to be). So instead of sending out one guy to his death, supplying backup and splitting up members into groups (or having them all travel together) can make a difference in the game. In fact, when backup is in hand, the team attacks I keep mentioning only happen when allies and enemies are in tight parameters to apply for this arrangement. The only thing that sucks about team attacks (which deal greater damage as more than one characters down a foe together) is that you're only allowed to deal the punishment only so many times per each battle stage (which seems to be just one time for each ally). It's okay, though -- this all works into the strategy of the game. It's kind of a drag to only have usage of six single characters at a time too, but only for the matter of probability to gain experience for the entire party all at once. Staged onsets aren't generally tough however, except when a boss is part of the schematic (which happens quite a bit). Simple controls make the game easy too (for configuration purposes), which consists of pressing X to activate and circle to cancel actions to the oh-so-uncomplicatedness of twisting the analog sticks to spin the camera angle around. Easy.
Growth for allies rises separately for each one, where in the instance of completing specific actions (ranging from hitting to killing a foe, or using health and other item types) grants characters both traces of experience and SP (Skill Points). SP is a compost of points used for picking up additional skills, weapons, and the like through the game's outer menus. This all-in-one directory is placed not in-game but outside of it where it can be used to dive into a number of useful utilities that will strengthen your party amongst other things (and unlike in Disgaea, it's a lot less complicated where the need to run around from one shop to the next and dip back and forth between dimensions has been eliminated). The game's tutorial can be opened here for one thing. For another, the shop to buy and sell weapons/armors/items and the guild to accept a host of sidequests (such as ones where you'll gain items by defeating enemies in play or hoping for luck as the game arbitrarily decides your 10% fate of ever finding a girl's cat for her without doing a thing), in addition to fusing items and upgrading your cast within the expansive catacombs. Simply, fusing is mixing and matching weapons, items, or anything else that can be bought or earned throughout the game. Trying out all variations on the possibilities available can make for higher ranked weapons, armors, and spells (and items too), which obviously brings out stronger versions out of teammates. Perfect if your baggage is overflowing with excess weaponry or armor you don't need. A series of battle scenarios, the catacombs on the other hand is like a trial separation from the main portion of the game that strengthens in difficulty each time one floor is beaten. There are 50 levels of catacombing to explore (meaning lots to do), where luckily you'll be able to assemble your characters in prior stages already completed and as many times as you wish to hone your party's stats until they're ready for the big time.