Stella Deus (Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity)

The best of the business come together to make this definitive strategy RPG.


The Lowdown

Pros: Atlus puts together a great story with excellent visuals, engaging music direction and solid gameplay.

Cons: The game itself can be really unforgiving because of the strong emphasis on character placement and forced leveling.

Purchase at Play-Asia

Purchase at Lik-Sang

Atlus has been on a winning streak with successful US releases like Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. Stelladeus is Atlus' next big hit is kind of like Disgaea's cousin, except Nippon Ichi Software wasn't around to help. Not really a problem because Atlus was able to recruit the biggest names in the business: Naruki Fukushima who did the character design for Persona 2, Kusangai the art director for Final Fantasy 7, and Hitoshi Sakimoto who wrote the music for Final Fantasy Tactics.

Ryou Mizuno best known for Record of Lodoss War fame designed the background story, with a depressed world. People under the control of a religious group known as the Aeque have lost their will to live. The vial King Dingis has gathered together a band of people to erase the influence of the Aeque. Although, its not that simple because the Aeque's teachings actually saved this depressed world many years ago. As the King's troops crush village after village a boy named Spero emerges to strike back and the story begins. Part of the mystery of the story comes from Spero's dilemma. Should he trust his old friend Vizer, who has aligned with Dignis. Or should he follow a mysterious shaman that claims the Gate of Eternity is the only way to save the world from a deadly miasma.

The story unfolds bit by bit in between fighting in two ways. First there are cutscenes that appear after a decisive win. Some of them are animated, but more of them are told with a Game Boy Advance story telling technique. You'll have a static, hand drawn character, show emotion over text. The story also unfolds right before and after battles using the isomeric battlefield and in game sprites. These scenes have full voiceovers and are well placed to drive players to complete battle after battle. One smart move Atlus put in was the ability to skip over any scene by pressing Start. You'll be thankful this is in the game after your fifth or sixth attempt at the same encounter.

The battles in Stelladeus are hard, especially at the beginning while you're still figuring the games mechanics out. Once you start the game you'll have three characters and you'll have to face seven or eight enemies. Occasionally, there will be an additional boss that has four times the HP as one of your characters. It may sound like you are hopelessly out numbered and you are. That's why Atlus added in a Cave of Trials for you to take on. The Cave of Trials is essentially the replacement for random battles. If you want a level advantage over the enemies, you'll fight through floor after floor. This is essential for you to tackle even the early story battles. Some gamers will really hate the fact that you're "forced" to level up, while fans of the genre wont mind fighting a few extra battles. The only problem with this system is eventually your characters will become way more powerful than the enemies in the story battles. It just feels like there isn't any middle ground you're either going to be too weak or ridiculously powerful. A better system would be to normalize the levels of the enemies with the levels of your player characters. Of course this is seen in many other strategy RPGs, but was left out of Stelladeus.

Stelladeus has a fair share of characters that can join your team. There are story characters like Spero's buddies Grey and Adara. Story characters have unique abilities and are substantially more versitle than your basic mercanary. The other way of getting new recruits is to go on quests offered by the guild in each town. Completing quests like helping a lone thief in battle will give you the chance to invite them to your party. There are some instanteanous quests early on like an arm wrestling scene that gets you an Iron Fist. This way new players can build up their ranks quickly. Stelladeus has a variety of classes that include alchemists, preists, axemen, and archers to name a few. The variety of classes is nice, but it's also deceptive. You can sort them into three basic categories: front line fighter, ranged attacker and mage. Even though you can have a fully loaded party of twenty different characters, you're better off playing with a strong six. Why? Because of the leveling system. Unless you really want to spend hours levelling up your weak new recruits, just stick to using the same guys over and over again.

The battle system is the bulk of the game and thankfully its extremely clever. Each turn you're given 100 action points (AP) to spend. You'll use AP to move around and attack. However, you can't move around all the way up to an enemy and hope to attack. You have to have action points left over to strike a blow. In fact moving less may give you more of an advantage because you could strike two, even three blows in one turn. Or if you're playing defensively run up, hit and then run back away. Or you can inflict a hit and wait around for a partner to come so you can do a combo attack. To do a combo you need to have your characters in the right position to reach an enemy. So you'll need careful planning to trap enemies into your combo reach. Also since doing a combo requires a lot of AP you can't afford to move around a lot to start one up. Doing a combo can deal out three or four times as much damage as an individual attack, which makes it the equalizing factor when you're facing super powerful enemies.

As you fight in battle you'll get experience and skill points by successfully attacking an enemy or healing your party. One hundred XP scores you a new level, which means increased power, HP and so forth. Although it's skill points that you really need to be concerned with. Skill points allow you to customize your characters. You can use them to unlock new action abilities, like weapon skills or spells. Spells typically are long range attacks like lightning or fireball. There are also spells like "Pure Miracle" that recover HP and "Recover" that cure status conditions. Of course spells take MP, so you'll have a limit to how much you can use them. Weapon skills also use MP up, but many times they consume enough MP that you can only use them once or twice a battle. You'll also have to think about which abilities you want to equip because you can only have a limited number of action abilities. Skill points can also purchase static abilities like power up 10% or increased MP. You're also limited to the amount of static abilities you can equip, so you'll have to balance out what's more important for each character. The more interesting abilities are the EX skills. These skills are automatically used when you finish your turn and hit all characters in a three square radius. Some of these skills can automatically blind approaching enemies or cause them to quell in fear. If you have all the abilities you want you can opt to spend your skill points to purchase improve your stats like intelligence or defense.

Eventually, you'll be able to score a class change for your characters. You don't have the ability to freely choose a class for each character like in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Instead  you'll get a class upgrade where Alchemist become Master Alchemists and Swordsmen become Swordmasters. The class change system does need some work because the classes are so rigid that even the class upgrade doesn't seem like much. Would the game be much better if you could rotate through different classes, probably. To counter this problem Atlus gives you the opportunity to recruit lots of different characters. So it's sort of like having a huge amount of classes, but its still short of the class diversity found in Tactics Ogre.

Another interesting mechanic in the game is in the way you purchase items. Every item from the heaviest chain mail to the seemingly light potions have weight. As you characters weight increases it costs more AP to attack and move around. You'll have to think twice about how you shop because that gauntlet that increases your attack may take away your chance to hit an enemy three times in one move. You're also limited to how many extra items you can carry to four. Once again you'll have to make a choice between carrying that healing potion and a pair of boots that can increase your defense. Although, by the end of the game you really won't be carrying healing items at all.

Stelladeus also has a crafting system, which allows players to make unique and more powerful equipment. You can also make scrolls to teach new skills, which is a huge benefit for those that spend time with crafting. However, the whole system is convoluted menu, instead of a game. Players will have to select two items to craft, blindly to see the result. Early on in the game this isn't a problem because the amount of equipment you have is minimal. Later on when you're filled with bounty, crafting becomes tedious since you don't know which items to mix. You'll end up cycling through menus over and over just to see what options you have.

The graphics in the game are really amazing. The character models and the 3D battlefields do scream Final Fantasy Tactics in high res. In some ways it is kind of like that, but the watercolor feel of the game gives it a style of its own. The enemy models have an interesting design to them. For the most part they average enemy is faceless and they have a cultish look to them. Even some of the monsters have an eerie feel to them like the amorphous blue blobs, but they're a fresh change from fighting dragons game after game. The music in the game is phenomenal and probably Hitoshi Sakimoto's best work. If you heard the soundtrack from Final Fantasy Tactics you know what to expect, it sounds like an extension of it. The background music is atmospheric, but at the same time it is dramatic. It sounds like an oxymoron, but in the heat of an outdoor battle it makes sense.

Stelladeus shapes up to be an awesome strategy RPG designed for lovers of the genre. The battle system has enough tweaks in it to distinguish it from other similar games. It features the best of the best in art design and musical talent with a story line that can keep gamers on their toes. However, the class system does need some work and the game can be a bit taxing for those entering the genre.

- US update -

I've had some hands on time with the US version of Stelladeus: The Gate of Eternity. The game is essentially the same as the Japanese counterpart, with the addition of English. Atlus USA has done great jobs localizing games in the past and Stelladeus lives up to their quality. The voice acting is the only part that is questionable. Spero and Adara have too many emotionless dry reads. Grey sounds like a whiny brat and Dignis has a rough voice that sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon villain. It's not abysmal, but not up to the quality seen in Digital Devil Saga. Should it stop you from getting the game? No. If you're a fan of strategy games it's still the same great Stella Deus.

Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 5

The main menu has some English in it and the main battle menu also has some English text. However all of the skills, all of the in game story text and voiceovers are in Japanese. Even the helpful tutorial is entirely in Japanese, which can make this game really taxing for importers.

US Bound?

Atlus hasn't announced a release date, but they've been giving many of their games like Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga a chance outside of Japan. It seems likely they'll bring this over to the States because they've been growing and fans need something to play with after Disgaea.

Update: As we predicted Atlus will release Stelladeus in the US under the name Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity. The game is expected to be released in May of 2005.

Overall

All of the talent that went into making Stelladeus paid off and it is a solid entry in the strategy RPG genre.