The Idolmaster titles are ones that might seem difficult to understand if someone is outside looking in. After all, past games have all been management simulations on strict schedules with a few minigames that may have to do with evoking emotions or picking out proper lyrics. With The Idolmaster: Platinum Stars, Bandai Namco brought in rhythm game elements for the songs and offered a more freeform experience. Now that The Idolmaster: Stella Stage is here, we have access to one of the most robust and forgiving entries in the series.
The Idolmaster: Stella Stage begins like so many The Idolmaster games before it. You are a producer working at 765 Productions and just starting out. Your task is to help its roster of idols become A-ranked idols and put on the legendary Stella Stage concert. Of course, this can’t happen immediately. It takes place gradually over time. You begin by picking one idol to directly work with, adding more as your Producer Rank goes up. The day-to-day experience involves sending a specific idol out on an activity that may involve promotions, taking part in a class (minigame) to improve her skills, performing a show, or even taking a day off if her morale is slipping. As she gains experience and her level increases, she becomes a more competent performer. This translates to more points in the rhythm game as you successfully hit the right notes.
Coming into The Idolmaster: Stella Stage for the first time, there are a lot of things that make this entry easy to adapt to and rather great. The first is the way the game grants you access to idols. You start out with one. (I picked Azusa first.) Every Producer Rank gives you a new song to use with characters and occasionally a new idol. So right now I’m in my second year, at Producer Rank 4, and now can set Azusa, Takane, or Miki as my leader character. However, you still have access to all 13 singers! If you only have Azusa at the start, as I did, but decide you want to produce her in a Duo Unit, you could go ahead and use idols that you can’t set as a leader. Right now, I have Miki set as a Quintet Unit leader, with Azusa, Takane, Chihaya, and Hibiki as her backup.
The Idolmaster: Stella Stage is all about finding a routine and sticking with it to maximize your potential. The first thing you should do when looking at the leader of a Unit is determine how you want her to perform. You have multiple options in this installment, with the performance page grouping gigs into Solo, Duo, Trio, Quintet, Medley, and All Stars acts. The game’s Coaching Board allows you to spend Coaching Points you earn via successful performances and regular production to improve the singers’ performances when they are in certain roles. So initially, I had Azusa set as a Duo Leader, Takane as a Trio Leader, and Miki has both Quintet Leader and Solo spaces filled on the board. You then plan accordingly when having them perform. Most of your time should be spent sending your current leader to the gigs she is majoring in on the board. However, when you get enough money to spend on classes, it is wise to go ahead and invest in classes that will improve her stats. Especially right before she has to deal with a rank up challenge.
It is incredibly easy to play through The Idolmaster: Stella Stage’s songs. They aren’t all that dissimilar from the Hatsune Miku: Project Diva series’ tracks. You start with Debut (easy), Regular (normal), and Pro (hard) difficulty levels for each one, and can earn Master difficulty by passing a performance on Pro. The circle, triangle, and square buttons are used for normal inputs, though Pro and Master also have buttons that require you to press the action button and corresponding directional button at the same time. Rubbing the touch pad is used for extended star buttons, and you press the touch pad and X buttons for bursts. If you aren’t doing a TV performance, a gauge on the lower right corner of the screen shows the crowd reaction (based on your points). This lets you know if you’re going to actually pass the level. Getting a Chain Complete combo, where you don’t miss a single note, gives you an additional point bonus that can sometimes be the make or break moment in passing a song.
So, how import friendly is The Idolmaster: Stella Stage? Well, it is probably one of the easiest games to play. Yes, there is a lot of text. And after singers rank up as an idol, there will be a conversation event where you have five seconds to pick a response to a question or situation. But aside from that text, it is very easy to pick up a routine and succeed. You first need to pick an activity, which is the first icon with a heroine posing. (The first option lets you choose a live, while the second takes you to the activities page.) The second icon is the coaching board, where you can select slots of you have CP. The one after that is about preparing for an event. (The first option lets you choose a leader, the second lets you pick an outfit, the third a song, the fifth arrange group distribution for duos, trios and so on.) You can visit the in game shop if you choose the shopping bag. The 765 cart is for accessing DLC. The envelope is to check in-game mail. S4U brings up Stage 4 U for performing for fun. The checklist is the options page. The coffee cup lets you take a week off, so heroines can relax and restore morale if the icon next to their name is anything less than pink. And finally, pressing the Options button lets you go ahead and save outside of the auto-save opportunities. As long as you know the menu options, much of the game is basically preparing and setting up music game segments, making sure you choose outfits that have a pink circle next to the so you know they fit that performance’s theme, and trying to pick the trending outfit, accessory, or song Kotori tells you about when appropriate.
The Idolmaster: Stella Stage is a big game. There are plenty of different performances, unit types, characters, songs, outfits, and options for getting characters to the big time. And you have a comfortable amount of time to get your singers to a position where they will be ready for the big time and to put on that legendary concert. Perhaps best of all, it is not a difficult game to play. Even if someone has trouble reading and speaking the language, it is possible to fall into a routine and enjoy the rhythm game elements. It feels like a big step up from The Idolmaster: Platinum Stars and step forward in the series as a whole.
The Idolmaster: Stella Stage is available for the PlayStation 4.