Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stella Deus: The Gate of Mediocrity


After a solid string of five action platformers in a row, it was time to settle in with a good old-fashioned tactics game.  Looking through my library of unplayed strategy offerings, I singled out Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity for a few reasons.  First, I know that historically I've always loved Atlus games.  Second, this advertised a run of about 50+ hours, and that seemed like a reasonable amount of time to spend on a game.  50 hours of gameplay amounts to being able to play it start to finish in just a few hours a day, so this would be something I could beat in a week or two and then have a fresh report up for all of you.

What it neglects to say on the back is that 50 hour estimate is only if you play the first game included on this disc.

I'd had my eye on this game for awhile before someone on the BlueGartr forums advertised that they had it for sale.  The Order of the BlueGartr started out as a message board for Final Fantasy XI, but has since grown into a much larger community site, complete with a Buy-Sell-Trade section.  After seeing this pop up on the list of some PS2 games another member was selling for a very reasonable price, I leaped at it.  It came quickly and in great condition, so it looked really nice on my shelf where it sat for the next five months after purchase.  Yeah, I ordered this right around the same time as when I started The Backlog itself, so it got lost in the sea of games I already had lined up to play.

Although, I'm glad it did sit there for awhile, because I really needed something to get back into more RPG-type games after all my action-based outings, and this is a really solid transitional title.  I think of it as like training wheels.  I've learned all I can from it, now I'm ready to cast it aside and get that ten-speed.

I'm gonna be really embarrassed if I fall and skin my knee.

Stella Deus is a typical tactics-style game.  You are given a squad of characters with different classes, with a couple mages, some healers, and a glut of melee.  Assemble a team at the start of each stage and then fight it out in grid-based combat.  The game takes place in the world of Solum, and you control the party by walking them from town to town, where inevitably a battle waits for you as you fight against the evil empire of Overlord Dignus.  That's the first game.  The second is an area called The Catacombs.

Pink is the final boss.

So in that 50 advertised hours, you can easily get through the story mode.  In fact, the last "Chapter" of the game is essentially one long final battle.  The Catacombs are another story.  They have no connection to the plot at all, and serve no purpose other than expedient leveling up or collecting treasure.  However, there are 100 levels to the Catacombs, each representing a unique fight, with enemies in each one the same level as the current floor.  This means you can go through the whole game without ever even touching this increasingly difficult nest of enemies, or you can take the entire time it would take you to get through the game by itself over again - and probably more - fighting your way down to the bottom.

Overall, this isn't a bad game, but it's not exceptional by any means.  It's time-consuming, and has lots of distractions to keep you invested, but there are a number of problems with it that end up making it just "meh."  However, there is fun to be had, and if I can focus on that, I can tell you about a pretty good experience with a game that just needed a little more polish to be great.



The Story


When the game begins, we're given the backstory of the world of Solum.  There's this deadly Miasma sweeping across the globe, killing everything it touches.  At the same time, everything that used to be green and fertile is slowly becoming desert.  So every day, life in Solum becomes a little shittier, and people being people, they start to freak out a little.

"There's nothing keeping me from acting on my hatred of cars!"




The world plunged into chaos, and it looked like man might wipe himself out, until along came the religion of Aeque.  Preaching a doctrine of "nothing we can do about it," they actually manged to convert pretty much everybody to the belief that God wishes for a peaceful end.  So their goal is to sit around and do nothing until the miasma swallows the whole world.  So given the choice between despair and total lack of hope, the people choose widespread apathy and just wait for the end.


It's a lot like this.

So really, Dignus isn't such a bad guy when he shows up and tells people to get up off their asses.  I mean, it's primarily thieves and murderers who answer his call, but that's hardly his fault.  A general goes to war with the army they've got.  His doctrine is basically "if you don't want to live, then you don't deserve to," and he wages a struggle against the Aeque and starts scouring what's left of the world for someone who can defeat the miasma.

And that's where we come in.  The first person we meet is Viser, as he stands in a forest murdering a living spirit to power his wristwatch.  Then we meet his best friend, the hero of our story, Spero.

You've come a long way, baby.

Almost immediately, soldiers from the Empire come in and demand Viser come with them.  Spero and Viser fight them off, but eventually their boss, Echidna, shows up, and beats Spero easily in a swordfight.  Viser surrenders on the condition that neither Spero nor their village are harmed, and joins the Empire.  He's an alchemist, you see, and Dignus wants to use alchemy to get rid of the miasma.

Spero trusts Viser implicitly, so he joins up with the Imperial Legion and heads up the spirit-murdering division.  Spirits are faceless, gender-neutral beings with no defining characteristics that wander through Solum, and are the only things that can power Viser's argyrion, the tool he uses to slow down the miasma.

Pictured: Renewable Energy Source

So around the time you meet General Viper, the Imperial leader whose sole purpose in life seems to be raping Lumena, the High Priestess of the Aeque, in front of her boyfriend's severed head, you start getting the sense that all's not kosher in the empire.

"Look at those speed lines," says Viper, "she's totally asking for it."
It's not long before Spero and friends are accompanying an archer named Linea on a quest to open the Gate of Eternity.  Her people, the Anima, contend that opening the Gate will let millions of Spirits into the world, and it is in fact the killing of Spirits by the Empire that's causing the land to turn to desert and the miasma to spread.  Since Viser's method of murdering things until the problem is solved isn't working out, Spero decides to give Plan B a shot.  This leads them to encounter Avis, Lumena's aforementioned boyfriend, Gallant, a warrior from an ancient tribe, Lumena's handmaiden Prier, and a slew of other colorful characters.

There's some spoilers ahead, so beware -

It turns out that there's two kinds of Aeque.  The Meridies, which Lumena controls, and the Nox.  The Nox are headed up by Nebula, sort of the anti-Lumena.  Both factions have the same goal in mind - get humanity to submit to the idea that there's absolutely no hope and God wants everybody to die.  Lumena's job is to make sure nobody gets any fancy ideas about survival or long-term planning.  Nebula's there to kill the people that do.  It was to this end that the Aeque started the great war between Viser's people and Linea's which caused the whole gradual destruction of the world in the first place.


Viser, by the way, learned alchemy from the teachings of the country of Alchemia.  One surmises he then had a formal education in Collegevania before learning swordplay in Fightingburg.

Fightingburg High's school mascot.

So from there it becomes a dash to gather the power of the Spirits and open the Gate of Eternity before either the Empire crushes Avis's resistance force or the Nox track down Spero and Linea and murder them.

If that seemed like a fairly long summation, well, the story takes awhile to get going.  The game is divided into five chapters, and it's not even until chapter three that Spero realizes Viser's plans might not be on the up-and-up.  Then for some reason, they drag out chapter four by making you fight a variation of the same two battles over and over again, and then the final chapter is literally just the last fight.  There's some build up, of course, with you fighting through Overlord Dignus's generals and such (before reaching the real bad guy), but it all happens at the same location with no story development in between combat.

The story, muddy as it gets, is pretty simply told.  What bugs me the most, really, is that the opening video seems to display a dramatic moment between Linea and Spero done in an animated sequence.  That's really the only part of the game that features any kind of animated cutscene besides the intro itself.  When you get to that point, the realization that they chose to animate this part instead of any number of other important moments of the game (including the actual opening of the Gate of Eternity) leaves you feeling kind of cheated.  How many FMV sequences did we have in our PSX games?  This is PS2-era.  I expect more.  There was nothing in this game that made it stand out from anything from the previous generation.  Heck, if it weren't for the voice acting, this wouldn't be a far cry from Super Nintendo.

That's the real issue, I suppose.  For all their emphasis on how doomed the world is and how hopeless their situation, and how great Spero is for inspiring people, the way the story is told never really supports it.  Some still-photos of the characters talking to one another, shown one at a time, doesn't really instill a sense of conflict.  They had a pretty good idea, but the execution left a lot to be desired.

Gameplay


If you're familiar with tactics games, then you know how they play out.  You line up your team in a starting position, then you and the enemy run at each other.  People with long-range attacks or magic stay in the back or seek high ground for greater advantage, and you utilize the skills unique to each class to try and gain an edge.  

Stella Deus actually makes a few good moves in this department.  Unlike a lot of other games where you move within your allotted movement range and either perform an action or wait, it uses a system of Action Points.  Every step you take, weapon you swing, or spell you cast consumes AP, and when you don't have enough left to move another square your turn is over.  What this means though is that you can rush up to an enemy, hit him, and then move away so he can't easily counterattack you.  They can do the same to you, so positioning and figuring out where each enemy might move next is crucial to your strategy. 

Successfully performing an action also nets you Skill Points, which you can trade in for new abilities.  These are broken up into 3 categories;  Action Skills, which are your basic spells and attacks, Status Skills, which can be used to alter your character's stats, and Zone Skills.  Zone Skills are both the best and worst.  Each character has a range of influence - their "Zone."  Zone Skills are passive traits which affect anyone standing in that Zone either positively or negatively, depending on the skill.  This can do anything from increase your allies evasion to turn enemies into stone.  Great when it's working for you, not so enjoyable when the enemies, a lot of whom have Zones many times larger than yours, can inflict status effects or end your turn early just by standing there.

Another aspect of Zones is Team Attacks.  If a single enemy falls within the zones of 2 or more characters, the Team Attack option opens up.  Not only do these do much more damage than usual, but defeating an enemy this way greatly increases your chances of obtaining any items they might be holding.  They also threw in some special animations you can view if the right combination of characters team up.  I haven't seen all of them (I'm told Gallant and Tia have an amusing one) but so far "Death Pong" is my favorite.  If you play the game, let Spero, Grey, and Prier do a Team Attack.  I found it amusing, at least.  Some points in the game require you to completely finish off certain enemies whom would otherwise run away when their HP got too low.  Using Team Attacks, you can be sure to wipe out that last quarter of their life before they get the chance.

Yeah, she's not going anywhere.
They also put in some terrain effects to which affect your movement range, limits on your ability to perform certain actions, and other layers to make the combat more robust.  

So why does it get so boring?

Hey, we're back to this already.

There's no such thing as a random battle in Stella Deus.  You either go through Catacomb battles or story battles, and there are also some side-quests which involve combat.  You can wander around the map as much as you want and there's no chance of entering a fight.  When you do get into battle, all of your opponents look exactly the same.  Now, this isn't new - lots of games use one character model to represent a certain class.  What bugs me about it is that there's nine classes in the game, and those are essentially the only enemies you ever see.  There are no monsters, there are no variations on what different soldiers look like.  There's just the same nine character models (two of which are practically identical) over and over and over again.  I can only fight so many swordsmen and spear guys before it starts to feel tedious.

Another big part of the game is Fusion.  

Ha?

Every item in the game has a rank, ranging from 1 to 16.  The shops sell odd-numbered ranked items, and you can get even-numbered ones through fusion or from enemies.  However, the shop only goes to rank 9.  From there you fuse rank 9 items to get rank 10, 10 to 11, and so forth.  Getting a single rank 16 weapon or item might take literally over a hundred fusion attempts - and I say attempts because there's always a chance of an "accident" happening and your result being completely unexpected and unwanted.  There's a glitch in chapter 5 which grants near-unlimited money, so that takes the gathering time away at least, but it's still going to be a few minutes spent in the shop buying 99 of every rank 9 item, and then a couple hours in the guild going back and forth from your items to the Fusion guide on GameFAQs to try and make a single weapon.

He planned this!

Further frustrating things is that despite the fact that you're given a wide cast of characters, you can never put more than 6 people in the field at once.  One or two levels actually make a huge difference in Stella Deus, so if you've reached the point where you have more than 6 characters, having to keep them out of a fight means that there's going to be a handicap on them in the next battle.

No offense, Adara.

What this means is more time spent in the Catacombs leveling everybody up, or leaving half the cast behind and fighting with the same crew over and over again.

So while battles can be fun, and fusion can be exciting, both are dragged out in this game to the point where they end up being exercises in tedium if you actually try and explore them fully.  

In Conclusion
I had fun playing this game - at times.  It really depended on how long I sat down to play it at any given point.  An hour or two and I was great, constantly trying to delve into the Catacombs depths, gather items for fusion, advance the story, learn new skills, and so on.  Three hours or so and I'd leave the game idle for a stretch here or there while I went and did something else.  Any more than four was pretty much my limit for patience with this anywhere after chapter 2.  So it's a game that's easy to get into, but easier to get out of.

I also found myself wondering if Dignus was really such a bad guy or just a victim of circumstance.  He entered a world where everyone was seemingly doomed to die without any chance of mercy, and the major religion teaches that's exactly what God wants. Sure, he wants to destroy the world in an orgy of violence, but it's ending anyway, you know?  His main goal is for people to stand up and live before the end.  By the end of the game things change a little, sure, but he's still a product of his environment. 

Just look how much he's hurting inside.

I'll say this is no Final Fantasy Tactics, in fact, it's not even Shining Force, but it's respectable.  By the end of the game I admit I was waffling back and forth between completing the final few battles or taking the time to fuse all the rank 16 items and descend to the 100th level of the Catacombs.  Doing so would have added another 20-30 hours onto the roughly 25 minutes it would take me to go through the last three fights.  I've decided to keep this game around for awhile and see if the urge continues, and if not, move on.  I'm glad I played it, but this probably isn't anything I'll get nostalgic for and go back to someday.  I'll just leave this as a final criticism.  You know Rule #34 of the internet?  If you can think of it, there is porn of it?  Well, THIS is Echidna.


In searching for images for this post, I came across not a single instance of 34 for her.  Or Lumena.  Or Adara.  Or any of the characters in this predominantly-female game.  I'm not judging it, but it seems like the internet is.

Speaking of moving on, I'd like to go back to BlueGartr for a moment.  The Gaming forum over there is all hopped up at the moment on the news that Tales of Graces F is getting a U.S. translation.  The Namco-made Tales series has a slew of entries which never made it to American shores, so this is big news for its English-speaking fans.  With that in mind, I've decided that the next game to get crossed off my list will be Tales of the Abyss.  I've heard it's fantastic.  If not, everybody on that forum is a filthy liar.  Which will not be surprising.

That's all for now.  Until next time, keep playing.

1 comment:

ali d said...

I've seen the movie Catacombs! It actually wasn't terrible. I mean, it wasn't good, don't get me wrong. But yeah, definitely watchable.