Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity - Reader Retroview  

The Yoke of Apathy
by Jeremy Michael Gallen

40-60 Hours
+ Great story.
+ Excellent music.
+ Gorgeous art direction.
- Can often feel drawn out.
- A bit high-maintenance.
- Amateurish voicework.
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   The world of Solum is being devoured by the Miasma, a mist that destroys all life it touches, with several factions responding differently. The Aeque Church believes the Miasma is God's will to bring about a peaceful end to the world; a warlord named Dignus has taken to killing those who don't fight for their lives; and an alchemist named Viser is hunting the world's spirits to fuel his alchemy, believing it can save Solum. However, Viser's friend and deputy Spero believes that opening the fabled Gate of Eternity can save Solum from the Miasma. Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, developed by Pinegrow (whose members also worked on Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth) and published by Atlus, saw its North American release in 2005, and is ultimately more playable than its spiritual predecessor Hoshigami, although it's not without its faults.

   As with most tactical RPGs, most time in Stella Deus is spent fighting, a necessary evil to advance the main storyline. Before a fight begins, the player places up to six characters on a grid-based field before they dish it out with the enemy. Characters and enemies take their turns depending upon speed, with everyone on the field having 100 Action Points (AP) that dictate just about every action they can take, from movement to attacks to special skills that also require a certain amount of MP. Characters need not use all their AP during their turn, and the less AP they use, the sooner their next turns will come, although largely exhausting AP will lengthen the wait for their next turns, with the same going for enemies.

   Attacking enemies or using special skills will net characters experience and Skill Points (SP), a hundred of the former being necessary for characters to level and increase stats. The latter are necessary for characters to learn MP-consuming special skills, innate abilities (like protection against various status ailments or being able to use combo attacks with allies), and zone-effect skills that take effect whenever allies and/or enemies are nearby, such as increasing the cost of enemy movement and attacks or recovering some HP/MP for nearby allies. Characters can equip three innate abilities, one zone-effect skill, and initially, two MP-consuming abilities.

A good mammary, er, memory Our busty, er, trusty, heroine

   Once a character's stats are at a certain level and the player has a special item, the player can upgrade his or her class, in which case all his/her stats increase, the number of MP-consuming skills they can equip increases by one (up to four with subsequent class upgrades), and more special abilities become available to learn with SP. Players can also use fifty SP to increase one of a character's many stats by one, although since special skills tend to be expensive, doing so usually isn't a good idea, unless increasing a character's rank requires certain stats to be at a particular level, or a character is at maximum rank (up to three for story characters).

   One thing that truly sets Stella Deus apart from most tactical RPGs is that, on the dot-connected overworld, there are no random encounters. Any supplementary leveling occurs in the Catacombs of Trial (in addition to guild missions requiring battles), which has a certain number of levels accessible at a time that gradually increases as the player advances the main storyline, and where all enemies on a certain floor will be at the same level as the floor number the player chooses. The Catacombs are handy when the player wants to get lower-level characters up to speed with more commonly-used characters, although since the player can potentially gain over a dozen generic characters, keeping them all leveled can become tedious.

   The biggest issue with combat in Stella Deus, however, is one that, in this reviewer's opinion, has made tactical RPGs largely inaccessible to mainstream gamers: the potential to waste a long time on losing battles, and the utter absence of room for error. Always annoying it is to spend over half an hour on a battle in vain, with several consecutive battles at certain points compounding this problem. Since RPG developers aren't profiting from player deaths (like arcade games do), would it kill for their titles to show some mercy to the player if they die, maybe let them continue for a penalty like, say, half the party's money? The general battle mechanics aren't that bad, but both those who think strategy RPGs have to be complex to be any good and those new to the genre might find combat to be a turnoff.

Unfortunately wasted on this game Gorgeous art direction

   Interaction could have been better, as well. While the menus are hardly intrusive, alongside the always-excellent direction on how to advance the main storyline, the lack of random encounters, and the easy guild system allowing players to perform various tasks for extra money and/or items, character management can be somewhat taxing, given the lack of an “Equip Best” option, and shopping for all characters can be burdensome, as well, given the need to "fit" individual pieces of equipment on each character to see if they increase or decrease stats before buying them. A pause button would have been nice, as well (though it is possible to skip cutscenes, always a must). All in all, the interface isn't bad, although it could have been better, as well.

   Stella Deus doesn't do much new as a tactical RPG, with its mechanisms reminiscent of those in Hoshigami, although the zone-effect skills, and maybe the fortunate absence of random encounters, are mildly inventive in the subgenre. The story does have some original ideas, as well, and overall, Stella Deus is middling in terms of creativity.

   Since Stella Deus is, in a manner of speaking, story-driven, given the reward of plot scenes after each battle, the plot is naturally a driving factor during the game, and is decently thought-out and paced, straying nicely from tired elements in RPGs. The story places a greater emphasis on the various conflicts within the game than the characters themselves, some of which admittedly would have benefited from a little more development, particularly a few of the villains. There are also some minor plot differences throughout the game depending upon how the player fulfills battle objectives. All in all, the plot may not rise to the level of classic novels, but is nonetheless a decent break from the typical trite plots many Japanese RPGs tend to have.

Weird generic alien robot armor character What gas masks were like in medieval times

   Partners in crime Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, renowned for their work in Final Fantasy Tactics provide Stella Deus's soundtrack, another of the game's high points, with a number of sweeping, epic tunes that convey the game's mood, along with the vocal track "Holy Spirit," also sort of the game's central theme. The only problems with the music are that it sometimes stops for a few seconds, with audible looping afterward, and that it can drown out the voice acting even if the volume of everything is turned up. Frankly, though, the music drowning out the voicework actually isn't that big of a problem since the voices are mostly an amateurish effort (although there are definitely other RPGs with much worse voicework), with the player able to fully turn down the volume of the voices, anyway. Overall, an excellent-sounding game.

   Aurals aside, Stella Deus is an absolute work of art. Battles rely on three-dimensional scenery with two-dimensional character and enemy sprites akin to Nippon Ichi's tactical RPGs, but surprisingly, Stella Deus's visuals show far more polish than any N1 title, with the sprites having decent anatomy and animation, and nice ability effects, as well. The bleached hues also nicely enhance the game's milieu. Some, however, have protested the "horrible" method of storytelling during many plot scenes, where, much akin to Hoshigami, one character portrait at a time occupies the screen during conversations, although since there isn't more than a second between portraits disappearing and appearing, it isn't a problem at all. The only real visual incongruity is the robotic, alien appearance of many enemies and "generic" characters, but otherwise, Stella Deus is a visual treat.

   Finally, the game is modestly lengthy, taking somewhere from forty to sixty hours to complete, depending largely upon how much leveling is needed, and how much time the player invests into guild missions and maxing out every character's levels, ranks, and skill sets.

   In the end, Stella Deus is definitely an admirable effort, what with its intriguing plot, excellent soundtrack, and beautiful art direction, although since the gameplay doesn't back them up, being top of the class in those areas, frankly, would be reason to buy a novel, soundtrack, or artbook instead, not the game itself. Seasoned tactical veterans who believe that strategy RPGs have to have changeable classes and/or be overly-complicated in order to be any good certainly won't appreciate the game, given its straightforward nature, and those who don't usually enjoy tactics games definitely won't be freed from the yoke of apathy.

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