Though they've had a hand in games as diverse as Yoshi's New Island and Time and Eternity, the name 'imageepoch' will forever be linked with Luminous Arc, the studio's successful strategy RPG series that debuted on the DS back in 2007. As a spiritual successor to those titles, as well as imageepoch's last release following their bankruptcy in 2015, Stella Glow has quite a legacy to live up to. Luckily, there's always something special about a final performance, and as imageepoch's encore, Stella Glow is a hit; this is a stylish SRPG that delights with fun, strategic gameplay, world-spanning adventure, and a unique musical motif that hits all the right notes.
Stella Glow starts off in the sleepy village of Mithra, where main character Alto has come to live with young Lisette and her mother. Mirthra and its Kingdom of Regnant are a world without song, and have been ever since the gods took it away as punishment for human arrogance. One day, however, Alto hears a melody coming from the woods. On investigating, he comes across a powerful witch — the only beings still able to sing — named Hilda, hellbent on destroying his village and the wider world. Deciding to fight forte with forte, Alto and Lisette head off to the royal capital of Lambert to join the 9th Regiment of the Regnant Knights, search for the other four remaining witches, and use the power of their Song Magic to drown out Hilda's tune of destruction.
While it starts off slow and predictable, and anime tropes abound — amnesia, childhood friends, cute girls who can't cook, duty-bound knights, and magical girl transformations all feature within the first hour — the story ends up being one of Stella Glow's best features. It's fast-paced and snappy (once it gets going), never lingers in one place for too long, and features plenty of memorable characters to get to know. Best of all, the magical music conceit is genuinely intriguing, and used very well; it gives Regnant's world a unique feel that sets it apart from most fantasy RPGs.
Musical leanings aside, at its heart, Stella Glow is a strategy RPG, like Fire Emblem: Awakening, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. You'll lead Alto, Lisette, and their ever-growing party of adventurers over gridded, isometric battlefields in an overhead view, taking it in turns to move your troops and launch attacks which play out automatically in beautifully-choreographed, zoomed-in cutscenes. As in Fire Emblem, there's a huge emphasis on thoughtful play; you'll be able to see how much damage your attacks will do (barring any unforeseen critical hits or whiffs) before you commit, and you can re-think your movements as many times as you like before you hit 'go'.
So far, these are fairly standard SRPG staples, but Stella Glow stands out thanks to a simple mechanic borrowed from imageepoch's Luminous Arc days: which way your units are facing makes a difference. If you attack an enemy from the side, for instance, you're more likely to land the hit compared to gunning for them head-on, and if you can manage to sneak around and jump them from the back, you'll be rewarded with both fish-in-a-barrel accuracy and a significant damage boost. It works the same way for your enemies, of course, so you'll need to predict their movements and stay on your toes to avoid being caught off-guard, by choosing which way your character's facing at the end of each turn.
Each character you'll control carries a different type of weapon, and has access to their own set of Skills — powerful attacks and techniques that consume SP, ranging from healing spells and buffs to multi-hit combos and long-range offensive maneuvers. These interact with the importance of positioning as well, with skills having different ranges (both horizontally and vertically) and areas of effect, piercing and splash effects, and more; one of your fellow Regnant Knights starts with a skill that sends throwing knives raining down indiscriminately in a wide arc in front of him, for instance, while another's early repertoire includes a knockback attack that scoots enemies over a space as it deals damage.
Along with skills, each character can sport any of several passive Abilities. Alto, for instance, starts the game with an automatic Counter attack, striking back anytime you take a hit from an enemy, while team tank Archibald's Defender ability lets him swoop in to block damage for allies standing nearby. Characters will learn new skills and abilities as you go, and the combinations really make each unit feel unique; strategizing in Stella Glow is largely about figuring out the best way to use your units in concert, and finding the right combination of abilities and attacks for a given situation is deeply satisfying.
In fact, combat in Stella Glow is both deep and satisfying in general. It's not an especially punishing game — characters fully regain HP and SP when they level up mid-battle, there's no permadeath, and you can grind for experience in Free Missions if you need — but it absolutely requires careful thinking to make it through. Learning to take advantage of different terrain types — which affect defense, evasion, and movement speed — and the variable turn order, which rewards units for taking fewer actions per turn by allowing them to act again sooner, can make all the difference, and savvy players will be able to take advantage of strategies unique to each map. One relatively early battle sent us straight to the Game Over screen after we charged in over-confidently with a newly-leveled-up squad, for instance; but after rethinking how to work around the map in in another attempt, we sailed right through, making it out alive and feeling rather accomplished.
Even expert strategists can be sure they'll have something to scratch their heads over, since each battle comes with two optional 'Special Conditions'. These grant worthwhile rewards if you manage to pull them off, and can also make missions significantly tricker to clear. They involve everything from taking out a certain number of enemies with a specific party member — usually one much less at home on the front lines — to winning without a certain character taking any damage, and are a great way to up the ante for experienced players.
Of course, it's not all fighting for Alto & company. Using a clock-mechanic very similar to Devil Survivor, Stella Glow splits its time between Mission and Free Time, with the latter providing plenty of enjoyable extracurricular activities. The highlight of Free Time is heading to the Barracks to bond with your allies. Here you'll be able to choose different party members to spend time with, through cutscenes that play out like a cross between Persona's Social Links and Fire Emblem: Awakening's Barracks chats. There's not much in the way of dialogue choice, but deciding which characters to spend your limited time with is a choice in itself, and your picks affect both the story — in determining which of several endings you'll see — and the gameplay, by unlocking new skills and abilities for characters as you 'level up' your bonds. It's a fun way to see side stories and watch relationships unfold, and helps flesh out your fellow fighters as characters, rather than just overgrown chess pieces.
Beyond bonds, you can also head out exploring or take up part-time jobs at the tavern to earn useful items and extra cash while you're off the clock. Though both of these options are glorified cutscenes, rather than interactive affairs, they're still fun to watch, and the job scenes in particular are well-written and pleasantly tongue-in-cheek.
By far the most interesting use of Free Time besides bonding events, however, is Witch Tuning. By heading to the Tuning Hall, you'll be able to enter each enchantress' heart to clear out the monsters lurking within. It's more than just a metaphor, too; ridding the witches of their inner demons will unlock powerful new Song Magic skills for use in battle, and can make a huge difference in your team's abilities. Best of all, Tuning takes place within Escher-inspired dream worlds that are absolutely dripping with style, calling to mind Persona 4 in both idea and execution.
In fact, Tuning is an excellent example of the colourful, infectiously upbeat style that runs throughout Stella Glow, and the punchy presentation is a big part of what makes it so fun to play. It takes the anime stylings of Fire Emblem: Awakening, dials everything to eleven, and hits the "moe" switch for good measure, building a colourful, inviting world that's a blast to explore. Character designs are gloriously over the top — with crisp portraits to admire in cutscenes and adorable chibi 3D models in events and battle sequences — the environments run a classic video-game gamut of variety through brightly-colored deserts, forests, and seaside towns, and the overhead world map adds a nicely immersive touch. It's impressive on a technical level too, with clean anime cutscenes cutting in for key moments, and stunning lighting effects and subtle animations bringing the battlefield dioramas to life.
Appropriately for a game where music is magic, Stella Glow's score is a standout as well. Battle and background tracks feature upbeat orchestral motifs — composed by Chrono Trigger's Yasunori Mitsuda —while the witches' Song Magic is accompanied by beautifully haunting melodies sung in the original Japanese, with a unique song for each witch. The voice acting is also of a very high standard, as you'd expect, with ATLUS' usual crew of top-notch talent giving plenty of personality to the proceedings.
Even with the overall excellent presentation, Stella Glow still has a few small interface quirks worth noting. There's no way to speed up enemy turns, for one, and these add up; it's nice in that you'll always be privy to what your foes are up to, but it definitely slows things down, and the second-or-so in which enemy troops decide their actions (or decide to do nothing) can really start to grate in longer battles.
There's also no way to switch the D-Pad orientation with regards to the isometric movement. Within the game's diagonal grids, 'up' moves your cursor up and to the right, 'down' moves it it down and to the left, and rotating these inputs 90° clockwise — possible in plenty of isometric games, from Harvest Moon to Devil Survivor — simply isn't an option here. It's workable, and comes relatively quickly with practice, but expect to stumble around quite a bit if you're used to the other approach in different games.
Happily, even these missteps are balanced out by some thoughtful touches, like extensive touchscreen tooltips, easy suspend save functionality, and an immensely helpful story recap which catches you up and reminds you where you were headed each time you load up a save file — all of which help make Stella Glow a truly portable RPG.
A fitting swan song for imageepoch and another gem in the 3DS' legendary RPG lineup, Stella Glow is smart, stylish, and seriously satisfying. Fans of SRPGs will get a kick out of the combat, characters, and strategy, the fun, fast-paced story will keep you entertained to the end, and the musical motif works wonderfully, winding its way through the gameplay and presentation with ease. A few interface wobbles keep it from being a totally perfect show, but they're minor concerns in an otherwise spellbinding performance. Stella Glow is absolutely worth singing about.