"Stella Deus offers some of the better — but less daring — small-scale strategy RPG gaming to be found on any system. Stella Deus purposely avoids Final Fantasy Tactics' insane level of character customization and Shining Force 3's flashy audiovisual sense, instead choosing to settle into its own comfortably safe niche."
When Stella Deus begins, a deadly mist has already spread across most of the world. Rather than bring enormous insects or pokey birds, this mist brought a peaceful oblivion -- anything caught inside is simply erased from existence. Unlike Legend of Legaia's frightened villagers, the people of Solum didn't try to escape from or dispel the mist. They instead named it "The Miasma" and accepted their fate. The world would soon come to ruin -- but this was in accordance with their religion. God was destroying the world so that He may bring His children home. Quite simply, the people of Solum wished to die.
The Imperial Overlord "Dignus" granted their wish a bit early. With an army of thousands, he swept across the entire continent, murdering men and spirits alike. It was only a matter of time before people broke their vows of apathy and took up arms to defend their loved ones. The Overlord had won -- he had sparked a fire in the cold heart of fatalism.
You are Spero, a spirit hunter. That murderous Overlord is your boss.
This daring setup is unfortunately overshadowed by an environmentalist fable, the likes of which stopped being revolutionary years ago. Fortunately, tired though it may be, the story successfully juggles multiple issues without becoming a convoluted mess. Along the way, Stella Deus poses an interesting question:
"Is it worth saving humanity if salvation means the destruction of nature?"
Many environmentalist stories pretend to ask that same question, but they actually dodge it by assuming that if nature is destroyed, mankind will also die. Stella Deus is more interesting because it initially assumes that humanity can survive in a barren desert world, through the use of technology (alchemy). The man leading the charge to save life by destroying nature is your dear friend Viser, who is also in the employ of the murderous Overlord.
There's no question that Viser's intentions are good, but the arrival of a shamanic princess named Linea brings his methods into question. Linea suggests that the way to dispel the Miasma is by embracing nature. Heroic Spero of course goes along with this, because Linea is a pretty and charmingly idealistic little mynx. With long braided hair and a tight top that accentuates her perky chest, Linea's appealing portrait is hard to resist.
That's about as far as Stella Deus goes with its character development. We're told early on that Spero and Viser are good friends, but Atlus doesn't do much to convince us of their stronger-than-blood bond... especially after Spero betrays his lord, his friend, and his country by smashing all of Viser's golems to pieces. It's like the developers are saying, "Just trust us. Once upon a time, Spero and Viser were REALLY good friends."
I can forgive the lack of character development because Stella Deus offers some of the better -- but less daring -- small-scale strategy RPG gaming to be found on any system. Stella Deus purposely avoids Final Fantasy Tactics' insane level of character customization and Shining Force 3's flashy audiovisual sense, instead choosing to settle into its own comfortably safe niche.
Similar to its esteemed competitors, Stella Deus lets you maneuver a rag-tag squad of heroes (up to six) across elaborate grid-based environments. You'll attack adjacent enemies, heal yourself with items, and cast magical spells. All the usual stuff. Naturally, you learn more skills and spells and acquire more items as the game goes on. You can buy more armor and weapons during intermissions between battles. Additional characters can be earned by completing quests at the local Guild, but most of them are useless because the basic party works so well together. None of these things are particularly bad, but they're all quite ordinary.
Fortunately, Stella Deus does have several things working in its favor.
For one, the difficulty curve is very precisely measured. Players can try to skew this (especially by taking advantage of the optional and EXTREMELY BORING Catacombs levels), but it's not as degenerate as Final Fantasy Tactics. Even if you force your party members to attack each other for experience, the benefit is minimal. You'll earn a LOT more experience by attacking and killing the enemy archers and berserkers, but it'll never be easy because Stella Deus is a challenging game. Opponents are intelligent and will often try to flank or surround you.
Fortunately, it's not an unforgiving game. If a character other than Spero dies, they'll be back to full health in the next battle. Stone-faced axeman "Gallant" once said that he'd give his life for our cause. I held him to his word... seventeen times.
To help overcome the difficulty level, Stella Deus provides an enormous amount of easily accessible information, which transforms every turn into a thought-provoking tactical adventure for perfectionists like myself. At the touch of a button, you can not only view enemy statistics, but you can also see their movement and attack ranges, as well as the influence of any of their "zone" abilities (as some characters can cause effects such as overwhelming fear in anything that comes too close).
In addition to enemy statistics being readily available, the order of future turns is always visible at the top of the screen, letting you plan elaborate strategies based on "who moves next". This works especially well when planning a team attack. When two of your characters close in on an enemy, the additional option "TEAM ATTACK" appears. Your two (or more!) characters mercilessly gang up on a single opponent, inflicting a larger-than-normal amount of damage. Some characters perform extra-special team attacks with others, where you get to see cool cutscenes of their heroically-determined eyes before they impale demonic panda bears on spears.
The team attacks, like magical attacks, zoom in real close so that you can see exactly what's happening. My favorite is the one where Prier and Spero bounce the hapless enemy soldier back and forth across the screen like a ping-pong ball.
Managing turn order is a difficult process to learn, and it's not one that the instructions (or in-game tutorial) explain sufficiently. Basically, the less you move in one turn, the sooner your next turn will arrive. By advancing bit by bit, you can actually sneak in two or three movement phases before the enemy gets a chance to attack!
Although the tactical battles were stimulating, the thing that really kept me playing through to the end was the insightful writing. Even with blatantly two-dimensional personalities, the characters kept surprising me with their intelligence. When stereotypically idealistic Linea is grilled on how she can justify eating animals while claiming to believe in the sanctity of life... she quietly states that she "lives life to the fullest, to honor the things we've killed to survive".
When you encounter the wicked General Viper early in the game, he claims to follow his master's philosophy. "I only kill the apathetic! They don't care whether they live or die!" But Viper's victim was clearly begging for her life.
Spero nails Viper's attitude in one sentence: "Apathy has nothing to do with it." Viper was using his master's ideals as an excuse for his own selfish behavior, and Spero saw right through him.
Unfortunately, halfway through the game, Atlus starts the traditional wind-earth-water-fire story arc. I don't mind a good elemental quest, but when it's introduced twenty-five missions into the game (and lasts for fourteen more...) it seems like an artificial way to increase the game's length without advancing the story. Fortunately, the entire end-game is one massive boss-battle payoff. Stella Deus just takes a bit too long to get there.
And really, that's the biggest problem with the game -- it's long but lacks the epic pizazz of Final Fantasy Tactics or Shining Force 3. Even a Gackt-wannabe villain (stylishly covering his face with his hand at all times) can't sustain a 50-mission adventure all by himself. Although entertaining for the first 25 missions, getting to the AWESOME final five levels is a chore... especially since the same music and same enemy sprites are frequently recycled throughout the game's latter half. Stella Deus is fun, but I suggest playing it in short spurts, as it's both mentally taxing and moderately repetitive.
Staff review by Zigfried (July 13, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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