Stella Deus Review (PS2, 2004)
Although you can call me a fan of Atlus games, having played a good number of their games, this one went right past my radar. I only learned of this games' existance through accident while browsing an online import game store in 2016. The title and cover immediately appealed to me, and realizing it was a game produced by Atlus I bought it without thinking twice (the condition was great and it was only 20 bucks). When I got the game I shelved it, expecting it to be extraordinarily text heavy - and at the time I felt I should come back to this when I had improved my japanese - in the end it took me until 2019 to find the time to actually play it because I kept prioritizing fresh releases over my backlog. It turned out there was no reason to worry about the amount of text in Stella Deus, the game has comparatively few lines of text for an RPG.
The World of Stella Deus
Like many other strategy RPGs the gameplay is mission based and the story is told through dialogue at the beginning and end of each mission. The cutscenes are surprisingly short, usually lasting only a couple of minutes. And yet the characters are very well fleshed out - a stark contrast to Persona 5, where characters feel underdeveloped even with dozens of hours in narrative. With Record of Lodoss War creator Ryo Mizuno at the helm the narrative of Stella Deus tells the story revolving around the young soldier Sfida, living in a world nearing it's demise, finding himself in the conflict of various factions that each have their own way of dealing with the end of times. It's quite tropy, but that aside the writing is excellent. Despite relatively little text the characters are alive of personality, making the fantasy world setting feel very real. The game features a unique atmosphere with its white and blue color scheme. In contrast to its dark theme the visuals are very bright, emphasizing hope for a better future.
The combat uses a system the developers coined RAP (Replacable Action Position). As the name suggests positioning is often the key to victory. At the start of a mission you can choose to send up to 6 out of up to 21 playable characters into battle. The characters are based on the usual fantasy classes - warrior, mage (called alchemist in this case), archer, lancer, priest and so on. Each character (and enemy) has three sets of skills: Action skills, support skills and Ez-skills. Action skills are actions a character can perform during their turn, boiling down to attacks, healing skills and various magic skills. Support skills have passive effects for the character that has them equipped, and Ez-skills ("Effective Zone") are passive skills that affect all allies or foes in a determined zone around the character. It's up to the player what skills each character carries into battle. The cast comes with their own sets of learnable skills. Beyond that there are skill tomes and skill scrolls that can be used to teach additional skills that a character can't learn on their own. Combat is turn based. Each combatant on the field has a pool of 100 AP that refreshes at the end of a turn and is required to perform actions including movement. How many AP a character requires to move a field ahead depends on the weight of their equipment and various skills, so each character feels completely unique in their role in battle. For players having trouble with the story missions there is an optional cave of trials that can be visited anytime to level the party by fighting against enemies.
Personally I had a mixed experience with the combat. Animations aren't skippable, so waiting for the enemy camp to complete their turn often challenged my patience. However whenever I fought a tough battle against enemies more powerful than my party I didn't mind that as the thrill kept me on my toes. Unlike other games of the genre (e.g. Fire Emblem) characters only attack on their own turns, contributing to the combat's slow pacing. Even if a character is equipped with the counter strike support skill and kills an enemy during their turn they won't get any experience points. In a sense the system feels a bit rough around the edges. However I had a great deal of fun challenging myself against missions with enemies of levels higher than my own.
The game sports a world map with locations that are visited to trigger quests and to progress the story. There are no town maps. Instead a town menu is accessible from the overworld that enables the player to go shopping, accept quests and craft items. Quests sometimes require you to visit locations and engage in combat, while other times you need to go somewhere only to trigger a scene or deliver an item (or a set of items). Another category of quests only supplies you with information. A strong point of Stella Deus is that its quests barely distract from the main game - unlike in modern games you're not spending hours wasting time on grind quests wondering what you're doing with your time. Personally I enjoyed challenging myself with combat quests against tough enemies that wouldn't cause a game over even on loss. Characters gain more experience points the bigger the difference in level to tougher enemies so you can gain a lot of levels in comparatively little time with nothing lost even if you fail.
Another strong point next to the writing is the atmosphere. Stella Deus incorporates a unique art style that allows the graphics to look good even today. Not gonna lie - I enjoyed the visuals more than those of most contemporary titles. Combat graphics use crisp and clear 2D sprites displayed on 3D backgrounds. The soundtrack is not super memorable and there are not many tracks in the game, but it fits very well and I never got tired of it. That has to count something considering it's only a handful of tracks playing all the time.
Highly recommended. The combat can feel slow and tedious at times if you're not up for a challenge, but when you play the game properly and don't grind against weak enemies to level up it's really enjoyable. The writing is top. Great characters and world feel in spite of a comparatively small script. Many other games could learn from this. Got to be honest and say this game was a better time investment for me than every RPG I have so far played on contemporary consoles. For those wondering: yes, the game came out in the west, both europe and the united states.