I first heard about Stella Glow from Anime News Network. It was just a brief article that the game would be localized and a small description of the game play: the player character would team up with a series of singing witches and use Song Magic to save a doomed world. The Song Magic could be made more powerful by getting closer and building a relationship with the witch characters and learning new songs. This definitely felt in the same vein as one of my other favorite RPG series, the Ar series, so I kept an eye on the game to see if I wanted it.
Since my love for moe waifu JRPGs seems to be a well known fact at this point, when the game came out I had many people recommend it for the same reasons I stated before, and some had even said it was the spiritual successor to the Ar Tonelico trilogy, more so than the recent Ar Nosurge game. I stalked it for a while, and though I wasn’t lucky enough to get one of the first print copies with all the goodies like the soundtrack and poster, I did snag a pretty reasonably priced game to see for myself what the game was like.
Stella Glow is a tactical, turn-based JRPG about a world that when it rebelled against the God of the Moon, humanity lost the ability to sing. Instead, the only beings who can still sing, and through song perform magic, are witches: chosen girls who inherit a magical gem called a Qualia that grants them their powers. A witch named Hilda is seemingly trying to destroy the world by singing the The Song of Ruin, a spell that turns everything within the range of the song into crystal. The player character, Alto and his best friend, a girl named Lisette, awaken respectively as the Conductor and the Water Witch when Hilda attacks their village and destroys it. They are rescued and taken to the capital, where they join the Royal Knights to find the other witches and sing an Ensemble that will reverse Hilda’s spell. Alto’s ability as a Conductor turns out to be incredibly important, as he is the first one born with the power since an ancient hero sacrificed himself in the war between humanity and God a thousand years ago. His powers allow him to ‘tune’ or go into the hearts of witches, solve their psychic injuries and increase their powers.
Stella Glow definitely hits a lot of JRPG Bingo points when the game first starts out as Alto is a teenage (ding) swordsman (ding) amnesiac (ding) who even though comes from a small rinkadink town turns out the be The Chosen Hero. He also has a pretty bland personality since he’s such a goody-goody, but it’s more than made up by the characters who surround him since they all have distinct, interesting personalities and rational, logical reasons for their actions. Even stuffy characters like the Queen’s assistant and the Queen herself open up and become quite fascinating. And notice I keep mentioning ‘Queen’ rather than ‘princess’. It’s a nice change of pace that rather a doe-eyed princess in need of rescuing, Queen Anastasia is the sole ruler of her country and a competent one at that, even though she’s only 25. And as the game progresses and more is revealed about her beyond her royal facade you can understand why her retainers are so loyal to her. Even the designated childhood friend/sweetheart Lisette has more to her than standard sideline romantic interest. When her home is destroyed and she manifests as the Water Witch her response to her new powers and loss of her family is to fight alongside Alto and join the Royal Knights to take her shot at saving the people she lost. Usually in these kinds of games the female character is reluctant to join the cause after a loss, bemoan her new powers for making her unusual or not normal, or only do it for the sake of the male lead. It’s unusual bit of agency that I find genuinely refreshing.
The game still follows a few tropes pretty on the line and the writing isn’t always that stellar. There’s a tendency towards redundancy in the dialog (‘Welcome to the Capital’ ‘Oh, so this is the Capital?’) but there’s enough unique about it that it held my attention as Hilda and the Harbingers (her retainers, but would also make a bitchin’ 80s cover band name) motivations and backgrounds are revealed, and the story isn’t as cut and dry as gather good witches to defeat bad witch. There’s actually a pretty solid plot twist during chapter eight of the game, and even if you see what the general gist of what’s about to happen, the who will still be a major surprise.
As I’ve mentioned before, this is a tactical JRPG and a lot of the gameplay mechanics steer more Fire Emblem than Ar Tonelico. You build up your affinity with your team in between mission time and as you grow closer, they gain new abilities and increase abilities that affect adjacent characters such as critical hit odds and evasion rates. While people have been comparing ‘tuning’ to the ‘diving’ mechanic that is a staple of the Ar series, since during these sessions you go into the witches’ hearts and deal with some psychological trauma, they are actually very different animals. The Ar series is more like a hybrid between a JRPG and a dating sim/visual novel. Tuning is honestly nothing like a visual novel since aside from the initial confrontations with the witches (and getting perfect answers results with you gaining items, not improved relationships) there aren’t any questions or much story. Instead, trauma or doubts are represented as the same kind of tactical battles you confront in the field during mission time. The novel thing, however, is that victory is usually set by a specific objective rather just wiping whatever is on the field off the map. Instead it may be a matter of defeating a specific kind of enemy, doing it in a set amount of turns or something similarly specific.
Battle is far less punishing than any Fire Emblem game: there’s no permadeath, no weapon degradation and most battles don’t border on cheap. Since this makes combat easier than many other tactical games, it adds a few interesting mechanics to stand out. First off, hitting enemies from specific sides makes a difference in combat. Hitting from the sides, or better yet, the back, increases damage, aim and often nullifies counter moves. But you have a weak side as well. Leave your back open and your character might knock out what’s in front of him, but leaves him open and you’ll get surrounded. Characters are also severely limited with items, only able to carry two. You also won’t always know what’s next for combat, and so while you’ll be able to pick what characters you want to use, you can’t change weapons or armor once you enter the field, and you don’t always know what’s waiting for you. You can adjust combat conditions using witches since their songs can do anything from debuffing enemies to complete healing every time their turn comes up. The best songs are the ‘conducted’ songs, which can only be obtained when the ‘song gauge’ is full. The maps are pretty good too since there’s a lot of variety, with some maps having traps and obstacles to make moving across the board challenging. It probably won’t be as challenging to people as most tactical RPGs out on the market, but it’s nice to not have to restart the same mission seventeen times because some hawk-eyed archer with a 1% critical hit rate manages to one-turn KO your healer every. Damn. Time.
As for characters the standout is Rusty. Not only is he a charming ladies’ man (with the benefit of not being a too big a perv. He won’t hit on underage girls and the child character that shows up he tells to treat him like her big brother) that ginger fox is also a beast in battle. With a huge movement range, the ability to hit from a distance or up close and an almost guaranteed counter attack, he proves to be the world’s greatest wingman in and out of the bars. Aside from Alto being Wonder Bread Boy the only other character that probably isn’t that stellar is the witch Sakuya, though my perception of her is strongly colored. Sakuya is a pretty decent fighter, but the sadists that developed this game had a mission where you had to protect her, and the suicidal bitch keeps going after the strongest things on the board! I had to do that mission at least six times before I got lucky and was able to segregate her from her demise and keep a medic on her butt until the mission ended. After that she turned out to be a pretty solid swordswoman, but it’s hard to like a character that wasted so much of your time. Funnily enough all the witches are actually decent fighters. Only Lisette is closest to a traditional mage character with not particularly high attack or defense, but even without their magic the other witches can do a lot of damage in combat. It’s still smartest to stick to using their magic whenever it becomes available, but you don’t have to protect them as much as you would in your average tactics game.
As I mentioned before, there is a major plot twist in Chapter 8 that effects the rest of the game. I won’t spoil the plot points, but I will offer this piece of advice: for Chapter 8, grind yo’ witches. The combat takes place in three battles where you don’t get to restock items or change weapons, and in the third battle there is a boss monster on the field that almost always gets aggroed. And it can do close to 200 points of damage. Considering that fight ends if ANY of your allies gets knocked out, you will be redoing that fight a lot if that monster gets to any of the witches, and their HPs tend to be the lowest. I got stuck in this fight for MONTHS because I didn’t grind and was too stubborn to start the whole chapter over again. I got lucky and managed to avoid the monster on my last attempt, but it’s simply easier if the witches, particularly Popo’s HP is at least 190.
It was definitely worth checking out, and was worth the recommendations that I got.