Leave it to Atlus to keep releasing gems we’d probably never see otherwise here in the states. In a year that’s brought RPG fans games like Digital Devil Saga and the upcoming Magna Carta: Tears of Blood, we also get Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, a supremely solid bit of programming with fantastic visuals and strategic battles that should work the brain of any SRPG fanatic. Unlike the more humorous games coming from Nippon Ichi, Stella Deus plays it straight and true as a new sword, with nary a chuckle to in its 50 or so hours of play. This more arid treatment is often the death knell for lesser games trying too hard to be pompous and “innovative”, but Stella Deus has a well-written plot and impressive visuals to keep things interesting even when the presentation sometimes stumbles.
The plot works over a few RPG staples but does it well enough so that what’s here goes down smoothly. A deadly mist spreads across the land of Solum, killing everything it touches. The survivors give up hope and simply await their deaths at the hands of the “Miasma“, as the mist is labeled. The Overlord of Fortuna, Lord Dignus, sends his Imperial Legion out to raise the sprits and crush the apathy among the people while finding a way to destroy the Miasma. Spero, a member of the Legion is charged with hunting down spirits for his friend Viser, a great alchemist. Spero’s dream is that his success in spirit hunting will, along with Viser’s talents, drive off the Miasma for good. Spero and company eventually meet up with Linea, a young and beautiful mage who wishes to use the legendary Gate of Eternity as a means to end the plague.
As the lead character, Spero, isn’t as strong or angst-filled as any number of RPG leads, but he also manages to come off as clueless and a wee bit too optimistic at times. But as he’s your go-to guy for this particular bit of world saving, you’ll have to get used to him eventually. He’s far from the most annoying lead character in a game (hell, remember Orphen on the PS2?), but you do wish someone would pass him a Red Bull or put fire ants in his boots every now and then. As stiff as Spero is personality-wise, he and everyone else in the game is animated so fluidly that you’ll forgive the game’s issues every time you go into battle. You’d best get your fill from each map, however. Stella Deus’ main storyline is quite linear, meaning once you clear a map you’re done with it. However, there are a number of optional side missions to tackle as well as the 50-level Catacombs of Trial to give you more than enough things to do and new characters to discover.
As for the combat system, many familiar SRPG mechanics such as grid-based movement and movement canceling are onboard, and the game does a neat thing with AP (Action Points) that Front Mission fans will appreciate. You’re allowed 100 AP at the start of a turn, and expend it when you move or attack. It’s a clever strategist that has enough AP for multiple or team combo attacks to wipe out some stronger foes and enough to move away at the end of a turn. Naturally, the enemy will do the same thing to you, forcing you to head back to a previous save or suspended game if you get wiped out. Party management is deep enough for expert players, but not too complex to get a grip on for novices. Like most SRPGs, you’ll need to use those members you want to grow and change class in battle, but unlike most SRPGs, the game decides which new classes your guys and gals are promoted to when the time comes. It’s not too big an issue, but it did make me wish for something like the simple class-up system found way back in the Shining Force games on the Sega Genesis. At least there’s the fantastic Item Fusion here to keep you occupied, should you wish to dive into its depths.
Every time I get a look at another 2D/3D blend in this day and age, I get a wide-ass grin on my face, and Stella Deus almost made my head fall off above the ears. It’s a truly wonderful-looking game throughout with ethereal watercolor-like backgrounds throughout and those remarkable expressive characters, fluidly animated as mentioned above. You can zoom and rotate the camera to get the best viewpoint during battles and there are some very cool spell effects that you’ll never tire of seeing ranging from subtle to explosive. I also loved the little portrait darts that show whose turn is next during battles, the clean menus and most of the in-game typefaces. Overall, you get a well-designed visual feast your eyes will thank you for each time you switch on your PlayStation 2.
I liked the music in Stella Deus a lot more than the voice acting, but perfectionist that I am, I’ve never been 100 percent happy with the voice acting in any game. While the voices here aren’t terrible at all, some could just be a bit more enthusiastic about saving the virtual world they’re emoting in. I’m sure a few of you out there do game voices in your heads as you play, but maybe I’m just admitting to a particular psychosis you shouldn’t hear about here. The sound effects here are adequate at best, but I’ve played so many RPGs in my time that nothing really jumped out as remarkable or annoying. Generic is too unkind a term for the sounds here, so let’s say they’re functional in that they get the job done and leave it at that.
If I really had to get picky, one thing I’d have liked to see was more than six party members onscreen during battles. Stella Deus sucks you into its world quite well and well enough that you probably wouldn’t mind something like one of those massive battles from Disgaea: Hour of Darkness or if you’ve ever played it, Front Mission 2’s bigger city maps. But this is a minor gripe, as are my complaints about the general delivery of the story and voice acting. It’s more important to enjoy every RPG for what it does right more than any bumps it has in the road it takes to completion, and Stella Deus is a solid and welcome addition to any SRPG fan’s library.
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