It’s not often these days that a game surprises and delights me as completely as Stella Glow has done. With that super-positive, highly marketable back-of-box copy taken care of, let’s shift gears for a minute and get something important out of the way: I had absolutely no idea Stella Glow even existed before a review code showed up in my email a few weeks ago. That’s bad for a number of reasons, but primarily so because if I didn’t know about it (how embarrassing!), you definitely didn’t know about it (how sad!) But pay attention, dear reader, because Stella Glow is no mere curio from the bankrupt developer behind the Luminous Arc games on DS: it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve played on 3DS, and the best Final Fantasy Tactics clone since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
You’ll notice I said Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, not Final Fantasy Tactics, and there’s a reason for that: I’ve just never been able to get very far in Final Fantasy Tactics. For as much as I love almost everything about that game, I’ve always found it to be punishingly difficult. Tactics Advance took everything that was great at the core of its predecessor and wrapped it in a new, more lighthearted adventure you didn’t have to be a masochist to finish, and Stella Glow follows that tradition of accessibility with likeable characters, a fantastic tale with just enough twists to keep you guessing up until the end, and a gorgeous, dynamic soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda, whose name should be familiar if you’ve ever played an RPG with “Chrono” or “Xeno” in the title. Seriously, the soundtrack alone is worth the cost of admission.
At its core, Stella Glow is split into two gameplay modes. The first is Mission Time, during which you’ll engage in turn-based battles on an isometric grid or watch the game’s story play out. Each mission takes place on a unique map with its own terrain types, hazards, and other navigational challenges, but battles are rarely overwhelming as long as you stay focused on the main goal. Missions can be complicated with secondary tasks (collect x number of treasure chests, use character y to defeat boss z, etc), but the weapons and other rewards they yield are rarely worth the effort because you’re usually able to purchase something better in the aftermath of the battle.
Much more interesting is the concept of Affinity, which is based on the bonds you build between player character Alto and the rest of the party members you’ll meet along the road to the game’s conclusion. That’s where Stella Glow’s other main gameplay mode—called Free Time—comes into play. During Free Time, Alto is given a chance to wander the capital city of Lambert, hang out with friends, or take on part time jobs which net shopping discounts and other commercial benefits. Of all of these tasks, spending time with friends is far and away the most useful, as raising Affinity between your characters unlocks powerful new abilities that can turn the tide of even the most difficult battles. For instance, many reviewers will tell you that Archibald is useless, but hooboy, give that man the proper care and attention off the field, and he’ll never let you down when you need him.
Beyond the aforementioned tactical benefits, strengthening relationships between your characters is also just good fun, as it gives you the opportunity to get to know each of your party members better, unlock extra character epilogues and optional endings, and even start romantic relationships. The voice cast really helps sells Stella Glow’s ragtag band of misfits, and though they’re all based on the usual RPG archetypes—the villager-cum-soldier with hidden powers, the bad boy with a troubled past and a problem with authority, the grieving witch whose inability to let go of the past threatens not only her well-being but that of everyone around her—I just really enjoyed getting to know them all. I haven’t liked a video game cast this much since Persona 4 Golden, and just like with that game, I truly regretted leaving them behind when our adventures together finally came to an end.
Stella Glow isn’t a particularly difficult game. Even with all the options you’re presented with—from customizable characters to which witches to bring onto the battlefield—most missions can be brute forced with a little bit of grinding and a whole lot of “hit ‘em from behind!” But you know what? Sometimes I like to actually finish the epic video game adventures I start, and Imageepoch’s final project hits a perfect balance for me between challenge and comfort. I want to spend more time with these characters, and I’m bummed that I’m never going to see them again beyond those opportunities afforded by a New Game+ mode. It’s a shame that Imageepoch disappeared just as it was finally starting to hit its stride, but man… what a game to go out on.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Stella Glow is based on final review code provided to us by Atlus. The game launches on Tuesday, November 17th, 2015.