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