Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity

Stella Deus - The Gate of Eternity Coverart.png

All Aeque Dogs Go to Heaven

Towards the end of the original PlayStation’s lifespan, Atlus published the MaxFive-developed tactical RPG Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth, with aficionados of the strategy roleplaying subgenre hotly anticipating it as a rival to the allegedly-infallible Final Fantasy Tactics. However, the game didn’t receive the best of reception, given its steep learning curve and imposing difficulty, and largely fell forgotten among the roleplaying game community. During the following console generation, MaxFive’s successor, Pinegrow, developed Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, which bequeaths elements from its spiritual predecessor into a more playable, moderately-enjoyable package.

Stella Deus focuses on protagonist Spero (rhymes with “hero”), who goes on a quest with his companions to revive the dying world of Solum by opening the subtitular Gate of Eternity whilst battling the overlord Dignus and his subordinates. The narrative is enjoyable for the most part, with the story characters containing decent development and relevance towards the plot, with a bit of a focus on environmental themes and good sociopolitical commentary. The (mostly) positive portrayal of religion is also a nice break from JRPG storylines that tend to depict theology negatively. There are some occasional clichés such as the dying world and rebellion against the Imperial Legion, but otherwise, the plotline is a good driving factor throughout the game.

Atlus, as usual, did a nice job with the localization, with the storyline being coherent for the most part, and the dialogue during cutscenes largely sounding natural, and even the battle quotes actually sounding realistic and believable for the most part, with lines such as Grey’s “Lucky shot!” when dying. Some of the quotations such as Avis’s “But a flesh wound!” bring to mind Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there are some occasional odd names such as Dignus (which sounds dangerously close to “dingus”), but otherwise, the translation is pretty much on par with Atlus’s other efforts.

One of the best features of the gameplay of Stella Deus is that, unlike some of its other tactical brethren such as Final Fantasy Tactics, there are NO RANDOM ENCOUNTERS. Rather, players accomplish all supplementary leveling through occasional guild missions and the Catacombs, which has up to sixty floors (ten additional ones unlocked through a sidequest), where the number of each level corresponds to the levels of all the enemies in their respective battlegrounds. The levels of enemies in the storyline battles, mercifully, don’t scale with those of the player’s characters throughout the game.

At the outset of each battle, the player deploys a party of up to six characters onto the battlefield (their positions viewable unlike in the almighty Final Fantasy Tactics), and begins the fight, characters and enemies (which tend to outnumber PCs) taking turns depending upon their speed, Action Points (AP) dictating how many and what commands they can use when they reach their turn, and a turn order meter mercifully showing who goes when. When they draw near to one another, the player’s characters and the enemy can execute a number of different commands, again depending upon their remaining AP.

Commands include attacking normally, using Magic Point (MP)-consuming abilities, using equipped consumable items (with Stella Deus imposing a Suikoden-esque choice between equipping up to four accessories or consumables, mixable or matchable), or spending remaining AP to delay their next turns, useful in giving low-level characters more of a chance to grind. Speaking of which, characters acquire experience from successful performance of most actions, with a hundred points necessary to level up, consequentially increasing stats all-around. Special items can increase ranks for characters, letting them learn and equip more skills (the number they can take into battle being finite).

Characters learn abilities through Skill Points acquired alongside performing actions in battle, initially able to equip up to two that consume MP, although this increases to three and four depending upon their rank. The story characters can rank up three times with their highest ranks acquired through sidequests, and in Spero’s case advancing the central narrative far enough. They can also equip three passive skills dictating things such as resistance to status ailments and increased defense, resistance to magic, and the like. Finally, each can have one “zone” ability performing things such as giving the equipper and those nearby increased evasion, increasing attack costs for foes, and so forth.

Winning battles nets the player money alongside occasional items, and depending upon the situation, the story advances, they may return to the map screen, or they may have to fight another battle immediately afterward, depending on the narrative structure, with some points having up to three consecutive conflicts. However, what makes Stella Deus, like many other strategy RPGs including the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics, somewhat inaccessible to mainstream gamers is the all-or-nothing reward mechanics, where death results in a Game Over and no experience retained, which can really sting in the case of longer battles.

There’s also a bit of fatigue regarding the sheer number of recruitable characters, and it would have been nice to be able to use more of them, given that enemies can mostly outnumber the player’s characters, instead of having to bench most of them. Regardless, the gameplay does have its share of redeeming aspects, including the mentioned absence of random encounters, the meaningfulness of grinding (although players may need to do this fairly often), the forecast of attack effectiveness, the general straightforwardness of the mechanics, and a mid-battle suspend save that’s handy whenever players experience real-life interruptions.

The total lack of random encounters makes travel across the dot-connected overworld stress-free, and there’s clear indication on where to go next to advance the main storyline that a glowing red dot signifies. The menus are generally easy to work with, although an equipment wizard to auto-equip the best gear on all characters a la the first two Star Ocean games would have been welcome, given the size of the cast. Shopping allows players to “fit” equipment onto characters before purchasing it, and the guild missions have decent direction, although in-game tracking of fusion recipes would have been nice. Despite the niggling issues, the Stella Deus interfaces decently with players.

Partners in crime Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, renowned for their work on the Ivalice Alliance Final Fantasies, scored the game, and sounds superb for the most part, notable tracks including the Indiana Jones-esque main battle theme, the other sweeping epic combat tracks, the accordion-laden shopping theme, the booming overworld theme, and so forth. Granted, there are some occasional technical issues with how the music plays, with many tracks having audible pauses and looping, and the score can sometimes drown out battle voices, although this actually isn’t that big an issue since the English voicework isn’t all that great.

However, Stella Deus is, to date, one of the best-looking strategy RPGs I’ve had the pleasure of playing, with the visuals having aged well, given the emphasis of bleached hues to signify a world being devoured by the Miasma, and the art direction is both unique and superb, with all character sprites resembling their respective portraits more or less. The rare cel-shaded CG cutscenes also look nice, and I would definitely see an animated film with such a style. The animation of sprites in battle is fluid as well, with some nice ability effects, although there are cases of them being mirror images depending on the camera, with Adara’s amputation, for instance, changing sides. Still, the game looks amazing even today.

Finally, total playtime is fairly lengthy, about two to three days’ worth, and while there is significant side content such as the guild missions and potential variations on the plotline, the game is a bit long to warrant another playthrough.

Overall, Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity is for the most part a half-decent entry-level strategy RPG, given the straightforwardness of its mechanisms, the most significant redeeming aspect of combat being the total absence of random encounter, the general tight control, the intriguing story with polished translation, the excellent soundtrack, and superb art direction. Granted, it does suffer from many of the negative gameplay tropes of Japanese tactical RPGs such as the all-or-nothing reward mechanics, there are technical issues with how the music plays, the English voicework won’t win awards, and it’s a bit too long, but it’s far from the rape case certain other reviewers at a site whose name rhymes with “Cosmo Kramer” have made it out to be, and warrants a look, if nothing more.

The Good:
+No. Random. Encounters.
+Tight control.
+Intriguing story and polished localization.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Looks good even today.
+Significant side content.

The Bad:
-Some marathon battles.
-All-or-nothing battle reward mechanisms.
-A bit of playable character fatigue.
-Some technical issues with music.
-Weak English voicework.
-A bit too long.

The Bottom Line:
An okay entry-level tactical RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 6.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 2-3 Days

Overall: 7.0/10

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