Review: Stella Glow’s the end of a voluminous arc

It’s understandable if you find Stella Glow eerily familiar. It’s the last project from developer Imageepoch, which found much of its success with the Luminous Arc series, and there’s so much — from the battle systems and interfaces to the plot and character designs — that makes this game undeniably a spiritual successor. Two of the three games of that series were released in the West by Atlus, so even after the shift in Japanese publishers from Marvelous to Sega, Stella remains right at home in the hands of its old localization pal.

While it may not be a reinvention, Stella Glow is welcome nonetheless, a swan song for a developer with a lot of heart and a comfortable return to a formula that hasn’t been seen outside Japan for a while now.

stella glow

Stella GlowStella Glow is a game about saving the world through music, which is the magic of the realm and only performed by a handful of witches. The story goes in some interesting directions, but I won’t spoil them here. The gameplay should be familiar enough for fans of strategy-RPGs in general, and especially so for Luminous Arc players. It’s priority-based rather than structured in team turns, and finding the high ground and getting behind an enemy results in a tactical advantage. Stella Glow fights back against the waves-of-damage trend in modern games of its type, scaling back power levels to make taking down a single foe a multi-stage affair. The resulting game rewards smart, conservative positioning, without bunching up too closely and becoming vulnerable to area attacks.

Stella Glow is a swan song for a developer with a lot of heart and a comfortable return to a formula that hasn’t been seen outside Japan for a while now.

Stella GlowYou’ll only bring a handful of units into each map, so who you choose to bring — and level up — is important. Inactive fighters don’t gain experience, so benching someone you want to use will lead to lots of grinding later. Of course, Stella Glow wants you to do at least a bit of this, as certain maps require certain characters and others are made much more reasonable by exploiting elemental weaknesses. It’s also important to pair this with support conversations in “free time” segments, as these add abilities and passive boosts to those characters and generally make them more formidable. In that area, grinding isn’t possible; you’ll have limited time, so choose who you befriend wisely. (If you want to be more prepared, you should check out our starter tips.)

stella glow

Still, this balance between battle and story works well to keep the tedium at bay. Since battles tend to be longer, it could certainly have suffered in extended sessions. Instead, Stella Glow lets you head off and take a break for a bit between fights, and gives less-interested players a reason to look forward to these segments by tying ability unlocks to them. Even part-time jobs, which you can take if you need the money, have little side stories to tell.

Stella GlowStella Glow is aesthetically splendid. It doesn’t limit itself to one look, creating disparate environmental themes for the regions of Regnant and letting each shine through its own chapter. It’s weird that this variety is so refreshing, but it is on a platform that has lately seen titles like Bravely Default that, while pulling together stellar looks, did so by limiting the scope of its palette.

That said, its visual pleasures are hamstrung by its technical deficiencies. The frame rate is often inconsistent and rough, and this issue gets worse when you turn on the 3D but is quite noticeable even if you don’t. It doesn’t feel like the game’s really pushing the system’s capabilities, and instead some rough coding work. It’s unfortunate, but the game doesn’t rely on action for any of its mechanics, so it’s something you can tolerate.

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Stella GlowThis review would be incomplete without addressing some of Stella Glow‘s more problematic elements. Many of the character designs go over-the-top in the name of fanservice, most notably Nonoka, who traipses around in a skimpy bikini and mesh while covering her head with a cardboard box so you can’t possibly think of her as anything other than a walking object of lust. Alto must “tune” the witches to increase their abilities, which requires them to strip down and cover themselves with only a towel and… it’s vague after that point, but the implications are concerning. To top it all off, when Alto “conducts” witches in song, that means he grabs them and stabs them with a dagger.

If you want to spend more time in Regnant, you certainly have some options.

Stella GlowThe worst thing about all this is how inconsequential it seems. This isn’t Monster Monpiece or Senran Kagura, or one of the myriad other Japanese games in recent years that banked on sex appeal for success. Stella Glow stands on its own for its story and gameplay, and has more than enough other reasons to play that these small issues could have been easily avoided.

About all that content: if you want to spend more time in Regnant, you certainly have some options. Maxing out all your characters’ levels can certainly provide motivation for more battles, and you can spend Play Coins to take on some particularly effective ones if you’d like. In a New Game+, you can use free time to explore and find unique character items, as well as head toward maxing out everyone’s affinity. The good thing, though, is that this is all optional, and the game feels just as complete and fulfilling for those who want to spend around 40 hours as it does for those who head toward 100.

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If Stella Glow is to be Imageepoch’s farewell concert, at least it’s a successful one. It has its share of rough spots — the developer’s games always have — but it feels like the fourth time’s the charm in nailing the combat balance, difficulty curve and cohesive world-building that had always been its aim. It’s worth your time because it respects it, delivering a coherent adventure in which everything seems to matter.

Score: 8/10
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: November 17, 2015
Developer: Imageepoch
Platform(s): 3DS
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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