Reviewed: May 3, 2005
Released: April 26, 2005
Let me start this review off with a little background information. The first game I ever beat was Dragon Warrior 1, for the NES. When Dragon Warrior VII came out (widely considered a boring flop by many gamers), I happily poured over 1,000 hours into it over the course of a year. After I'd beaten the Nippon Ichi tactical RPG Phantom Brave, I kept playing until I could wipe the floor with the final bonus boss, which also took a few hundred hours of patiently leveling my characters and weapons.
So what, you ask, is the point of my writing all this? The point is that I do not, I repeat do NOT get bored easily when it comes to RPG’s of any type. And Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity bores me. Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity is a new tactical role-playing game from Atlus, publishers of the well-received Nippon Ichi TRPG Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, and the cult-favorite RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. With such a pedigree behind it, there naturally has been some excitement over the game's imminent release in the States.
It's too bad that I have to start out writing about the game in such a negative light. This traditionalist tactical RPG has all the elements required for a good romp through hour-long battle land. The story, a generic RPG standard of a mysterious miasma that's killing off the entire planet, is decently paced and decently set up. The characters grew on me, and held my imagination enough that I wanted to know what was going to happen to them next.
There's an item fusion system to explore, a large database of random quests and assignments to pick up for extra money and experience, a specially designed series of dungeons made specifically for extra leveling, and a long list of static and dynamic abilities that can be learned by spending SP earned in battles (much like Star Ocean: The Second Story) and then equipped to an empty slot for the next fight. Atlus even threw in a much larger amount of spoken dialog than normally seen in a TRPG, a class leveling system and a world map, elements also more common to traditional RPG’s.
Stella Deus stars Spero, an idealistic, generally peaceful young man whose life is thrown into chaos when his long-time friend, an alchemist named Viser, is captured by a conquering army and enlisted to create powerful weapons to help them conquer what is left of a world succumbing quietly to an encroaching miasma of death. Nobody knows where the miasma came from, but Viser is confident that his alchemical skills can rectify the problem - someday.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as Spero joins up in the regular army to help further Viser's research. And there are plenty of people in the world who believe that alchemy is wrong, and that there are better ways to try saving the world than by killing Spirits for alchemical energy. The world, as Spero is about to discover, is a much more complicated place than anyone would have him believe....
So what was the problem? The battles themselves! The core of any TRPG is its battle system, and frankly, Stella Deus' stinks. It's not that there isn't potential, but poor execution of the ideas the game's developers had drags this game down into the pit of mediocrity.
Battles begin with character placement. A pre-set number of characters can be placed on any given map, and replacements can't be summoned if a comrade falls, so choosing carefully is an important step. Characters are placed within a small section of the overall field grid, highlighted in red. You can put whichever of your characters you like in any of the highlighted squares, until you're satisfied with the initial battle formation.
Then the dullness begins. Remember that long list of battle and support abilities I was writing about earlier? Well, 95% of them have to be unlocked... slowly. This means that for literally the first six hours, you'll have one of only three or four options: a regular attack, a special attack (as of six hours, I'd unlocked four of these out of eight total characters so far), a healing or simple ailment spell (such as darkness - ailments normally last 2-3 turns), or a combination attack.
The combo attacks are the best part of battles in Stella Deus, as different combinations of characters unlock different types of special attack, and it's fun to spend time discovering them all. However, each character has a set number of times he or she can participate in a combo attack per battle - and for a very long time, that number is one. This makes it difficult to enjoy the combo system as much as it should be. Granted, the combo attacks are generally several times more powerful than regular ones, but the sheer amount of setting up it takes to pull one off should balance that out.
Everything in Stella Deus' combat system is done with the expenditure of action points. Each grid a character moves consumes some AP (the number consumed is affected by the weight of a character's equipment), and increasingly powerful attacks and spells consume more and more AP. Each turn, a character has 100 AP to spend. At about 20 AP per step, and 60 AP needed to pull of a basic combination attack, it quickly becomes obvious that combo attacks are rare enough anyway, without such a stingy limit on them. This is doubly true because it's almost as valid a strategy to dart in, attack, and retreat as it is to just close in and bash away two or three times.
This is because many of the enemies in Stella Deus are very dangerous, even by TRPG standards. I found this aspect of the game enjoyable - you can't just bust out your amazingly fantabulous ultimate skill and steamroll what should have been an intimidating boss. Without very careful setup, it's quite easy for such a boss to eliminate your entire party. On the down side, the proper setup doesn't require a lot of strategy once it's been figured out - as many healers and ranged attackers as possible, with melee fighters used for combo skills and guarding the weaker party members.
Bosses are so insanely tough, almost right from the beginning, that it's suicide to actually engage them in a fair fight. One early boss that you get the pleasure of fighting multiple times has an area effect equipped that causes any friendly character who ends her turn in its radius to become unable to attack for several turns. Try running up with Spero and hacking away at that monstrosity - he'll end up dead in a heartbeat. While I did enjoy being humbled by bosses, I do wish that there was enough depth to the game that I could have found multiple ways to accomplish my objectives.
Because of the unforgiving difficulty curve of Stella Deus, I often found it prudent to stop for twenty minutes and run through a training dungeon in order to gain a level or two. However, this becomes almost unbearable due to the small amount of strategic options and skills available at any given time. In fact, when it comes right down to brass tacks, Stella Deus' battles are just too damned repetitive to be any fun. I know that late in the game, that might change, but I don't think it's too much to ask of a video game that it entertains me when I first put it in as well - not just after I've poured twenty excruciating hours into it.
I have come to accept that there are many games out there still using sprite graphics despite the advances in PS2 graphics technology. A few, such as the Guilty Gear series, actually look just as good as anything using the newer technology. The rest fall into the same category as Stella Deus. But that's all right. To the game's credit, it has some of the best-looking animated sprites I've seen, with a huge number of animations to each one - more than I've ever seen outside of 2D fighting games. They really let the character designs come to life, especially when combined with the hand-drawn character stills that accompany most of the dialog in the game.
The character design itself is well done, from a visual standpoint. There were a few times when I kind of balked at a particularly silly costume, but usually everything works. It's all stock anime style, though - don't expect anything out of the ordinary there.
By far the prettiest parts of the game are its cutscenes, done in a style almost identical to Square Enix's "sketch-motion" style seen in games like Unlimited SaGa. It's a highly stylized amalgamation of cel shading and hand-drawn animation. If Stella Deus were a AAA project, or perhaps even a PS3 project, I could see the entire game done in this style to breathtaking effect. It's almost even worth playing and re-playing the dull, repetitive battles just to see the next cutscene.
In the end, though, Stella Deus was not done in this style - it was done with sprites. Like I said, I accept that there are still sprite-based games out there. But where the game really starts to look rough is in the effects, which are also just sprites. It isn't hard in this day and age to dub in some real special effects. Even RPG Maker 2 allows for nicer special effects than the ones seen in this game.
When you combine this with the fact that sprites still don't exactly fire the imagination, and some battle stages and enemy designs that are so generic as to be not even worth mentioning, the end result is a game that doesn't look horrible, but isn't very much fun to look at, either.
There's a decent amount of good music in Stella Deus. Some of it grew on me quite a bit, especially the theme from the opening movie. Most of it was just sort of... there. None of it was painful to listen to.
The voice acting is pretty poor overall, though there are some bright spots. Spero is voiced by someone who is apparently incapable of expressing anything more than mild emotions, which gets annoying since he's supposed to be a passionate, idealistic youth who often becomes filled with righteous anger. His comrade in arms, Grey, does a nice job as Spero's sardonic, unintentionally brash foil. However, none of the voices are exactly good.
The matter is only compounded by extremely poor audio mixing during battles. In cutscenes, the voices are clear and ring out loudly over the music, which properly falls into the background. However, during battle, characters' voices are so muted as to be almost completely unintelligible. The music and sound effects drown them out, and there's no way to adjust the voice volume. I ended up spending a fair amount of time just trying to figure out what my characters were saying, which is disappointing.
Overall, nothing about Stella Deus' sound package inspires, though most of it does its job. It could have been much better, but, as is the case with the game in general, poor execution keeps it from rising above.
The real question here is whether or not you have the patience to deal with the spectacularly un-fun battles of the first eight hours or so. Once your characters have accumulated some interesting abilities, all of the game's systems have been unlocked, and the story as finally really rolling, Stella Deus becomes a decent experience with a high initial completion time - enough that I haven't yet beaten it.
However, I almost didn't have that patience. If it weren't for the fact that I had to review the game, my copy of Stella Deus would have sat gathering dust for several years after I played the first four or five hours. Like I said earlier, I don't bore easily. But if you think you're even less boredom-prone than me, you may find Stella Deus to be a spectacular value (though it still can't touch Phantom Brave). There is certainly enough to see and explore that a dedicated gamer could garner fifty-plus hours of playtime from it. I just honestly can't see most people having the patience to do so.
Lackluster, lackluster, lackluster - that's the word for this game. Nobody was more excited about it than I was, and maybe that's compounded my disappointment with it a bit. Stella Deus isn't exactly a bad game, and it has some redeeming qualities - characters that are easily connected with, plenty of abilities to unlock, tough bosses. However, personal feelings aside, I know a good game from a bad one. Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity falls somewhere in the middle.
If your entire gaming life is tactical RPG’s, then you probably already own this title and I don't need to tell you that it is worth picking up, if only to complete your collection. Otherwise, seriously consider finding some way to rent or borrow the game for a week first, or you may find that the money you spent on it will go to waste as your patience wears ever thinner. Stella Deus isn't a bad game by any means - just consider yourself warned.