If we had to choose two words to describe In Stars and Time, we’d pick 'beautiful' and 'strange'. This story-driven RPG is ideal for fans of titles like Undertale and EarthBound. Don’t take that comparison to mean that it is identical to these games, though — it’s still its own experience.
Right off the bat, In Stars and Time looks great, with 4:3 aspect ratio that makes it feel more retro than it actually is. The music is gentle and soothing, and it pairs perfectly with the monochrome art style. The menu and settings are easy to navigate from the off, and the story starts with a detailed trigger warning; the game does have some text-based depictions of topics like suicide, which is worth being mindful of. Nothing is shown, but the dialogue is intense in places.
In Stars and Time has some lovely characters. The cast is diverse, with people all using different sets of pronouns and plenty of representation for different identities, types of love, and feelings on topics like romance. The story starts off with the player character, Siffrin, having a strange dream where they eat a giant star. They wake up in a field, staring at the sky and being nudged by their friend Mirabelle. Mirabelle comments on how strange it is that Siffrin is napping the day before they take on the King in battle and attempt to save the country. The ruler is evil and fearsome, and he has control over a group of ominous enemies called Sadness. He poses a huge threat to the country of Vaugarde and needs to be taken out immediately.
To start, Siffrin is tasked with finding all of the main characters (Odile, Bonnie, and Isabeau) and instructing them to meet up for a sleepover with Mirabelle the night before they take on the King. Mirabelle is the Chosen One and she has been blessed by the Change God with the ability to supposedly counter the King’s attacks.
The introduction to the game mechanics and overall setting feel nice and natural. You gain control of your character almost immediately (which operates smoothly on a grid system) and get to explore the various parts of the village before getting on with the main game. Interacting with the world is pleasant and the controls are intuitive for the most part. It’s pretty easy to skip over dialogue by mistake if you hit a button too quickly, but you can alter text speed and other game elements in the settings.
Once you get going with the main game, you gain control of your party and get to start exploring the foreboding House of Change. Battles with enemies are fun and frequent, and can present more of a challenge in the late game than you might expect at first. There is a magic system in the game called Craft. It’s separated into different types, with the main types being Rock, Paper, and Scissors. Rock Craft is super-effective against Scissors Craft, and so on.
Combat is turn-based, with a big focus on combos and timing. There’s a bar beneath each character’s portrait which fills up progressively — once it’s full, that character can take their turn. During a turn, items can be used, buffs/debuffs can be applied, enemies can be examined, and ‘Jackpot Points’ can be accrued for combos.
A Scissors attack will generally award one Scissors Jackpot Point. Once there are five Jackpot Points of the same type, a mega Jackpot attack will happen automatically which restores your party’s health and stats. As you'd expect, while fighting you need to be mindful of enemy types and resistances — some bosses are completely invulnerable to Rock attacks, for example.
One small complaint that we had during our run is that it’s a little hard to see which enemy you’ve selected during a multi-battle. It’s not a game-breaking issue, but the visual cues could have been bolder as everything is in black and white. There are also some minor frame drops when you get very close to enemies in the overworld, making it hard to avoid some fights. This doesn’t happen every time, but frame drops when you’re running down a narrow corridor with two enemies can be frustrating.
There’s a simple leveling system and stat system in this game. As you progress throughout the House of Change (and beyond), you’ll gain experience points and find items that can help to boost the stats of your party. As we alluded to in our tagline, there’s a time loop system here which you’ll need to get to the bottom of without losing your mind. We won’t spell it out completely as it’d give the game away, but it’s fantastically written and ties into the roguelite RPG style perfectly.
The roguelite elements here aren’t particularly cruel to start with, but they may, naturally, feel frustrating to folk who don’t enjoy roguelike or roguelite titles. The game gets steadily more difficult over time, too. Siffrin keeps their experience points and weapons no matter what happens, but practically everything else — like keys, party experience, or potions — can be lost. You’ll also end up back-tracking quite often, as there are some dead ends and deliberate tricks.
In Stars and Time can be unforgiving, but if you’re a sucker for story-driven RPGs with roguelite mechanics and tricky puzzles, you won’t find many better options out there. It’s a difficult game to beat quickly, with our initial run taking us just over the 45-hour mark. Aside from the small problems like some unclear visual cues and minor lag issues, the game plays brilliantly. The characters are loveable and feel incredibly authentic, and the story is deeply engaging. Just be warned — almost every item becomes important at some stage. There are heaps of rooms, hidden passages, and corridors, and you’ll need to remember where everything is if you want to progress. Keep a pen and paper handy.