Review: Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity (PS2)

Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity
Developer: Pinegrow (Previously called MaxFive)
Publisher: Atlus USA
Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: 04/26/05

Well, what do you know? The makers of Hoshigami: Running Blue Earth are back with a new tactical RPG. For those of you that don’t remember Hoshigami, it was a decent, but critically panned RPG for the PSX that was best known for instituting a “Dead Means Dead” policy. Well, until revive coins show up in the last half of the game, but most people didn’t seem to play it that far.

Interestingly enough, both Hoshigami and Stella Deus mean “Star God” in the respective languages of Japanese and Latin. I didn’t seem to notice any connection between the two games other than the name and the developer, but it has been years since I’ve played Running Blue Earth, and if anyone knows of any official plot connection, please let me know.

As for Atlus, they’ve got a good reputation here in the States of publishing some excellent Strategy Games. Ogre Tactics: Knight of Lodis, Disgaea, and the GBA remake of Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention (Hey, the original name sounds SO MUCH BETTER than Resurrection of the Dark Dragon). So those of us who play every SRPG they can get their grubby little hands on they put out, from Brigandine to Kartia, were quite happy that we were getting another Atlus branded SRPG, but there seemed to be some pessimism due to the developer and bad memories of Hoshigami.

With a lot of focus this of console generation on Action RPGs (like Jade Empire) or Turn based RPGs (Like Digital Devil Saga), SRPG’s feel like they have been regulated to the GBA or to Nippon Ichi’s PS2 games, so it’s nice to have something else out there to fill the void. Now the only question left is whether or not the void is filled by quality, or by crap.

Let’s Review

1. Story.

The tale of Stella Deus is that of a dying world being slowly consumed by a poisonous mist. No, it’s not Legend of Legaia! Your main character is Spero who is a young knight, who follows the RPG cliche of being fatherless/orphaned and wields a sword bequeathed to him by his late parental figure. Spero’s world is dominated by two forces. The first is the army and Imperial Legion of Lord Dingus, the first of many character with poorly chosen names. Lord Dingus believed the world is dying due to the Apathy of the Religion/Cult that sprung up when the Miasma began choking the life out of the world. The Religion and Second Force in the game believes that the Miasma is a punishment from God and that to panic and reduce themselves to chaotic barbarism would inflict suffering and pain. Instead this religion preaches apathy and existing to die. Dingus’ Imperial Legion preaches passion and emotion and that the only way to save the world is by cleansing it of sin and thus sinners themselves.

Neither side is really all that noble or what we would consider good, now is it? And that’s the big thing about Stella Deus. Unlike most RPG’s that are written in black and white, Stella Deus is all about shades of grey. Even when a third side appears, that of the ancient Shamans and defenders of spirits, they aren’t all that likeable either or completely Noble either. It’s as if all three factors are convinced they are 100% right and everyone is wrong. There’s a lot of blind zealotry in Stella Deus and it makes for an interesting game.

Poor Spero seems to be the only character that can see both the good and bad in all three sides. The problem is he tends to be a whiny insecure slow to make any real decision type of character. Even his two starting charges comment early on, he’s not much of a leader. And this is true. But it’s also what makes him a very original and interesting choice for a main character. He’s not some super chosen one. He’s not the Epic Hero. He’s this kid who has been swept up in events he doesn’t have the ability to fully comprehend. He’s spent his whole life letting other people make decisions for him instead of going on his gut moral instinct. He joins the Imperial Legion even after getting beaten up by them and having his father’s heirloom stolen by them. He blindly follows his friend Vizier, whom he worships as a replacement father figure, into the Imperial Legion and goes around killing Spirits even though he feels it is wrong. He’s a very submissive character and when Linea, princess of the Shaman forces gives him an alternative to Alchemy or Religion that could save the world, he goes along with it, all the while whining that Vizier must be right because they’ve been friends for so long. Spero is a complex but ultimately unlikable character.

And that’s really my big problem with Stella Deus. That out of all the characters, only one is truly likable, and that’s your starting Mage. Spero is a whiny bitch. Grey is a jerk. Linea is a zealot. Gallant is a boor. And these are your heroes! The characters you play as. It’s hard to get into a game when even the faction you are playing as are characters that make you go “Ew.”

So we’ve got characters you can’t empathize with in the negative column, but an intrigue filled plot and a real effort to get past the stereotypical two-dimensional RPG trappings of good and evil in the positive. Would you rather have realistic but annoying characters, or would you prefer the stereotypical and familiar? It’s really what it boils down to.

And for me, I appreciated the plot and the scope of what Pinegrow tried to do, but it was bogged down by the personalities of the characters and how slowly the plot dragged for me. It was decent but it was nothing that grabbed me.

Oh, and “Miasma” was word of the day at dictionary.com on August 3rd, 2004. I just find that amusing for some reason.
Plot Rating: 6/10

2. Graphics

Strategy games are stereotyped as being high on control and low on looks. And well, Stella Deus does nothing to break that trapping here. It’s as they are all highly original in design. The Archers and Axe Knights especially. The designs really intrigued me and show a lot of creativity above that I’ve seen in most strategy RPG’s where it’s like the graphics team said. “Fighter huh? Okay. Guy with some silver armour and a blade. Wizard? Dumb hat and some robes.” and so on.

The problem is the graphics of the in game play are pretty crappy for a PS2 game. Compared to say Disgaea or Phantom Brave, Stella’s Deus is put to shame visually. As well, when you do a team attack or special skill, you are “treated” to a close up of the characters attacking, but all you really get are a blow up of the characters fighting and believe me, the sight is not a flattering one. If you’re one of those gamers that plays for graphics first and foremost, Stella Deus will leave you in the cold.

Outside of Combat the graphics improve slightly, but remind me way too much of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken land, in that all dialogue takes place with a large unmoving piece of character art that gets a different emotional expression cut and pasted onto the graphic depending on what is being said. It’s very retro/old school/whatever you want to call it, but I’m not a fan of a lot of the character designs. Vizier, Echinda, Dingus, the list goes on. It’s bad when I’m more entertained by the generic shock troops design than I am by the major characters. Again, the character designs seem like they were really trying to emulate (or made by the game guys) the PS2 Wizardry game. But I really didn’t like the look or feel of the majority of portraits in Stella Deus.

So it’s a mediocre game graphically with some very nice designs, but also some ugly ones. You’re certainly not playing this game for the special attack scenes or the visuals. That’s for sure.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound

You know, I really liked the US voice acting in this game. I especially enjoyed General Viper as he reminded me of the late great Chris Latta, who was Starscream, Cobra Commander, and the original voice of Moe and Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. All the voice acting was great and every major character in the game is completely voiced throughout the game. This is becoming more and more common, and it’s nice to see Atlus keeps picking actors who don’t grate on my ears or make me want to mute the sound.

The score to the game is excellent as well. I may bitch and moan when games rehash the same old stories and plots and the lack of originality in a lot of games, but there’s something about the classical RPG symphonic style of music that I can never get sick of. Stella Deus really captures this quality with a great opening track and the quality never drops from there. The music of the game really infuses you and helps to capture the mood even when Grey dies YET AGAIN from having the defense of a piece of paper.

I really enjoyed all the aural aspects of Stella Deus. Very nice indeed.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay

It’s a tactical RPG so Controls are impeccable. If you’ve played an Strategy RPG at all, you know the controls are pretty similar to any other.

Gameplay wise, Stella Deus follows a lot of the same generic trappings inherent to all Fantasy SRPGS. Spearmen have a length of two squares to hit. Alchemists (Wizards) and Clerics have are physically weak but have magic to back them up.

But the more you look at it, the more the gameplay is pretty deep and innovative compared to what else is out there.

In a lot of Strategy games, you can class change, but Stella Dues only allows you to change if you find the right item (often you have to make them by fusing items together) and then have stats high enough to let you class change. This is different from games like Shining Force, where you merely have to get to a certain level to class change, or games like Ogre Tactics or Final Fantasy Tactics, where you can class change freely. It’s a nice touch, but it’s time consuming and annoying to try and mix and match every item to try and get something that’s actually useful to you. This was my big annoyance with Star Ocean 2, in that you ended up spending more time making items than playing the game itself. Stella Deus doesn’t fall into that trap, but this constantly making items, along with another factor I’ll talk about in a later section, really drags the game down.

It’s also frustrating when you get the class change item but your stats aren’t high enough to take advantage of it. But this is where Skill Points come in. Skill points are like a second XP, but where XP determines your level, Skill Points, or SP, are a lot more flexible and give you the ability to customize your character.

SP’s can be spent in several ways. First of all, you can spend 50 SP to raise any stat up one point. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. One of my favorite characters is a generic Axe Knight whose accuracy and evasion I kept raising. Axe Knights have the highest defense and Attack in the game, and so instead of roiding him up, I put SP into his quickness and ability to hit and dodge, and he’s by far the most powerful guy on my team. I wish I could name characters as I would totally have called him Banner, as in Bruce.

There are three other ways you can spend Skill Points. The first is for Attack Skills which are powerful, but can be guarded against. There are support skills, which give your character protection against certain abilities like Poison, Dark, or Fear. Support Skills can also give you access to new Combo attacks (Much better than Attack Skills IMO) or stat raises. The final thing you can spend skill points on are Zone Skills, and these make or break a character. Some are mediocre like Accuracy or Evasion boosts, but some are crazy level powerful like Linnea’s starting Zone skill of HP Recover. Early regeneration is too good to pass up. Zone skills end up really deciding what characters you’ll be using, as some are wildly broken and powerful, while others aren’t worth the massive points to put into it.

Of course, every time you class change, you have access to bigger and better skills. Each archetype also has access to different skills than others, and Major “name” characters have access to different (and usually better) skills than the generics.

There’s also a difference in how combat takes place. Where most strategy games are based on agility or quickness and characters have turns based on that order, Stella Deus mixes it up with something called Action points.

See, the first round of the game features the usual quickness order, but instead of moving and acting once or acting then moving, each character in SD can keep going until their action points run out. If you want to spend your points attack three straight times, then go for it! It adds a great deal of strategy, especially as the turns for your characters are based not only on speed/agility, but how many points you have left over from your original turn. With some excellent forethought, you can do a lot of damage to the computer.

In all, the gameplay is innovatively and highly original. But for some reason battles feel longer than they really are. Things seem to drag on. REALLY drag on for me. I’ve never had this feeling of “Get on With it!” with a SRPG like I did with Stella Deus. But aside from that one niggling quirk that’s probably more me than the game, Stella Deus features some very deep and rewarding gameplay that even Hoshigami naysayers will enjoy.

Control and Gameplay rating: 8/10

5. Replayability

This is tough to say. On one hand the game constantly gives you new characters and skills and things to deal with, that you could effectively never play the game the same way again. The problem is that Stella Dues is as linear as it gets, and so many characters (like the generic Thieves and Samurai) are utterly worthless. As well, some battles require certain characters so you constantly have to be leveling them up or you’re screwed.

There’s also the problem of the game dragging on in terms of plot and well, really anything. Thanks to constantly having to make items, you need a lot of money. The solution to this is to do quests, which are okay, but not really fun. You also have another option of the Catacombs. The Catacombs are an “endless” dungeon where you fight level after level of generic troops to get more money and experience. These battles add nothing to the plot or any substance to the game, and since the game gives you a VERY low amount of XP compared to other SRPG’s you have to do a lot of battling in the catacombs anyway to ensure your fighters are not overwhelmed by the main plot forces.

You have a lot of options with a ton of playable characters and even more customization, but the tedious nature of the game and the linear plot, makes it hard more me to see anyone playing this game more than once, especially with a lot of superior SRPG’s out there.

Replayability: 6/10

6. Balance

There’s some things the computer does that might question the AI. But what I see in the computer acting like a very offensive Imperial legion bent on genocide would do. And that’s go straight for the kill of the enemies, even if one of your own guys bites it in the process. Remember Lord Dingus’ men don’t appear to value life in the same way you or I do, so it makes sense.

But then maybe I’m justifying this a bit.

One thing I really love about Stella Deus is the boss fights. The first time you fight them, the battles are tough. Your first encounters with the bosses are probably the toughest boss fights I have had in an SRPG. You don’t really know what to do to them. Their hit points are equal to or greater than your entire team combined, and generally have some trick you aren’t ready for like Viper’s fear ability that makes your characters unable to attack or Jade’s ability to dodge damn near everything and guard against special attacks. Because you don’t know their specific strengths or weaknesses, you’re in for a challenging battle. Not challenging enough that I ever lost one the entire way through the game, but the challenge certainly spikes every time you encounter a boss for the first time, and there were some times when I though I was going down.

Notice I said you face a boss for the first time. You almost always encounter a boss several times, and the first couple of battles, they retreat when you knock them down to half their health. I really appreciated this aspect because you build up a rivalry with these characters and it helps to make the game feel more realistic. Well, as real as a game with magic can.

Each time you face the boss, they are significantly easier, until the last battle where you cake walk through them. This is great because this is a tangible showing of how well you improved since last time. You know the AI for the opponent and what each bosses special trick is.

Let me relay my experience with the first boss, Viper. My first time beating him, none of my characters had access to “Anti-Fear.” Learning this makes your characters resist Viper’s fear ability and so you don’t have to deal with not being able to attack. Although I plowed through his troops, Viper gave me a lot of trouble due to not being able to negate fear and eventually it came down to Spero vs Viper and Spero took him down with only a few hit points remaining. This was my first battle with Viper so I had no idea that it would end when he went down to half his life and so when I hit and he retreated, I marked out.

But by my final battle with him, he was cake. I had two characters with Anti-Fear who pummeled him with physical attacks, two archers and a mage for distance attacks that were not affected by his fear since they were out of range, and a cleric to heal my physical attackers. Not a problem at all.

Some player characters are far superior to others. Usually in SRPG’s, Archers aren’t that great or powerful. But here? Wow are they unbalanced. Archers contain a good deal of power and defense, and can attack several times from far away. Great characters. Especially Linnea who has a wonderful magic spell as well. Alchemists are unbalanced too, and I found their attack spells to be tremendously helpful and superior to normal attacks. Most of the name characters are stronger than their generic counterparts, but characters like Lancers and Fighters just aren’t as good the distance attackers or the Axe Knights. My team for most of the beginning of the game was my wacky Axe Knight, Spero, two alchemists, Linea, And then either another Archer, a Cleric, or another fighter depending on what I actually needed.

Stella Deus is well balanced and although the catacombs and non boss fights can be downright boring and simple, the boss fights are what really make this game. But with a little attention to detail, it is very easy to cheese your way through this game with abuse of the tactics, as well as the standard “abuse the infinite dungeon and level up like crazy only to plow through story mode” option they give you as well. But please, don’t do the latter.

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

There’s a lot about Stella Deus that is highly original. We’ve got some very unique looking characters designs, and some nifty ways to customize your characters. There’s also the AP combat style designed to add some more depth to the standard SRPG fare.

But yes, there’s a lot of the same old, done that, been there, that bogs this genre down. But it is very VERY rare for a SRPG to think outside the box ala Phantom Brave in terms of gameplay.

Stella Deus reminds me of a lot of games that I named earlier and a handful of other ones. It’s not something that really will ever stand on its own as original or a standard bearer of the genre, but there’s some new ideas and tilt the old on its side in this game worth checking out.

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

I have to be honest and say this is the least I’ve ever gotten into an SRPG. Usually these things consume me and time flies by. But with Stella Deus, the game felt like it took forever. Too much of the game was spent crafting new items or in the catacombs so your characters were high enough to take on the storyline opponents.

No matter how much I liked certain aspects of the game, I couldn’t play it for more than 2-3 hours before becoming bored or finding it dull. It was just too slow, and felt far slower than other SRPG’s.

As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t get into the game. Certain aspects of the game just overshadowed the good. If there was more XP handed out and I didn’t have to do the catacombs repeatedly and could have just pressed on with the story, I would have had a lot more fun with this thing. But as it stands, the characters and slow grind of the entire game made it impossible for me to really sink my teeth into this.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9. Appeal Factor

Stella Deus is a simpler slower Tactical RPG from the Nippon Ichi triad we’ve had thrown at us over the past two years. For those that couldn’t get behind the comedy or ‘cuteness’ of those games, Stella Deus will be right up your alley. It’s darker, more serious and still requires some level of thinking and forethought.

But if you’re not an SRPG fan, this games going to do nothing for you and merely reinforce why you don’t like this genre. However, those of you in serious need of a SRPG fix, will be quite happy with most parts of this game.

Appeal Factor Rating: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

Stella Deus is an okay game. It’s nothing brilliant or groundbreaking. It does some neat stuff. It does some bad stuff. It’s worth getting if you’re a fan on the genre, but not worth going out of your way for. It’s an Atlus game, so the print run will be low, so it may be hard to find.

For every good thing about this game I can think of, there was something that annoyed me. I can’t really say much more than I already have. There’s no special or hidden features in the game, nor anything above and beyond a normal SRPG that hasn’t been already discussed. In the end, at least for, this is a game that will be lost in the shuffle and through time. It’s going to be an obscure cult hit at best.
Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

THE SCORES
Story: 6/10
Graphics: 5/10
Sound: 8/10
Controls & Gameplay: 8/10
Replayability: 6/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 6/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10
Total: 60/100
SCORE: 6/10 (ABOVE AVERAGE)

Short Attention Span Summary
Stella Deus is a decent enough game that I think any SRPG fan could have some fun with. Not a lot of fun mind you, as it just isn’t compelling or interesting enough, both in plot and gameplay. But the boss fights are quite enjoyable and the games for challenging than most other SRPG’s on the market. Normally I’d suggest renting this over a weekend first to see if it is a better fit for you than it was for me, but as its an Atlus game, I’d suggest buying it right away if you’re interested or curious to make sure you can actually play it instead of regretting not buying it when you had the chance.