Witch Tuning 101

Does just the usual stuff but with surprising grace

All right, enough with the sulking already! Stella Glow, which I started this weekend, has effortlessly returned my temporarily fleeting faith in games. Even if it is preciously little else than just a very conventional strategy-JRPG, it still manages to entertain in a solid fashion. The game takes place in a world whose petty god has decided to punish his apathetic followers by stripping  away the ability to sing. Now that skill is only possessed by a small handful of witches who use songs to wield powerful magic. In a small hamlet of Mithra, childhood friends Alto and Lisette experience this power in the worst possible way, as the Witch of Destruction, Hilda, one day appears in the village with her cohorts, turning it and its inhabitants into crystals. Alto and Lisette escape this gruesome fate only because Lisette – much to even her own surprise – awakens as the Witch of Water while Alto discovers that he is the fabled Conductor; someone with the ability to enter witches’ hearts to tune their feelings and unlock their latent powers. While that is certainly a lovely turn of events, it sadly takes four good witches to rise against one that is evil. Luckily the rulers of the kingdom have at least some idea where Alto and Lisette could find the remaining three witches. As the armed forces of the nation’s capital, Lambert, can spare a whopping three knights to assist them, another team of world saviors is ready to depart.

Okay, that’s not much of a story but at least it’s one that rolls gracefully. Lambert acts as the operational headquarters from which the team embarks to the world map, traveling from point to point to reach the next story mission. The battles are faithful to the genre; very traditional skirmishes fought on isometric maps where units take turns to move and act, trying to take advantage of various types of terrain and high ground. The battle system doesn’t really feature anything new or innovative, but its chibi-style attack animations are cute, and the level of challenge is quite pleasing. Even the characters’ strongest special attacks rarely take out an enemy in one hit, so working as a team and isolating hard-hitting foes from one another is paramount. Stella Glow isn’t particularly difficult but survival definitely requires at least a little bit of constant thought. Each story battle has a recommended character level, but should one lack in faith or skill, the world map has plenty of optional encounters to grind with.

Every now and then, story missions are interrupted with limited free time that Alto can use to socialize with his companions, work part-time jobs, or go on exploration trips. Those last two would apparently reward with money, items, and gear, but so far I’ve always spent excess time chatting up my team members. Not only is this a good way to get to know everyone better, it also provides them with new skills and passive bonuses to be used on the battlefield. Unfortunately free time between missions is limited to just three activities, so establishing a thorough emotional bond with everyone is most likely going to take quite some time.

Aside from the stinginess of spare time, the pacing of the game in general is commendable. The storytelling cutscenes are hardly ever exceedingly lengthy, the usual talking portraits are sometimes replaced by proper anime clips, and battles follow one another on a brisk pace. To put the tempo into perspective, it has taken me only a little over 11 hours to recruit both the Witch of Wind and the Witch of Fire, and my happy entourage is already nine members strong. It already seems like merely gathering a four witch ensemble won’t solve everything but let’s get back to that after locating the Witch of Earth. For now, though, this journey is turning out to be an upbeat one!

Groundhog Century

So nice, if only it would end :'(

If my gaming is in a slump due to everyday drudge once more replacing glorious vacation days, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars does its damnedest to keep it that way. As surmised, I’ve now given it around 58 hours but pretty much nothing of any interest has happened. Going through horribly monotonic motions increases the idols’ experience and number of fans, but progress is so laughably slow that the game has regressed into nothing more than a weary battle of attrition. Should a new gig show up, you can rest assured that it’s something that won’t be even remotely beatable until 10-20 hours later. Perfect performances mean jack shit as if your characters aren’t on a high enough level, the required score limit is just plain impossible to reach. End of discussion. So, I’ve entertained myself playing through the same challenge over and over again for a couple of hundred of times, grinding slow and steady. Such wow. Much joy. Surely a few paid helper items from the store would do the trick, eh? F**k you, Project iM@S.

In a rueful fashion, the game follows a virtual year cycle advancing on a weekly basis. Skipping every possible cutscene, it’s possible to truncate one in-game year into a three hour real-time marathon covering 48 ordinary shows and four specials involving the entire cast of idols. If this cycle was realistic, these 13-21-year-old heroines would be at the peak of their careers around the ripe age of 90, and even that might take an incarnation or two. Thankfully, they’re effectively ageless. Still, at this point minor observations like that are crucial to endure the whole ordeal. You could, for example, set a daily goal of going through one in-game year (even if a quarter is already starting to feel repulsive). On Valentine’s Day, the chosen leader gives out complimentary chocolate, so that’s another potential goal to spend 39 hours or so. The pitiful selection of songs can also be raised to Legend status, which requires them to be completed 200 times each. The biggest reward of doing so is most likely that you’re never ever going to choose them again. Still, repeatedly playing the same song over and over again means that you quickly figure out that exact note when your current crew hits maximum audience zeal. Since missed notes carry no penalty, that’s when the song can be left to play itself while the player can just as well go to the fridge, take a piss, have a smoke, or spend a serious moment contemplating why they’re voluntarily submitting to this level of self-inflicted torture. Oh, and those 20 songs featured in the game? One is still locked. It’ll probably become available after 60-70 hours or something. Jesus.

All this is especially maddening as Platinum Stars is a proper rhythm game, even if awfully lightweight in content. If it would’ve rolled its ending credits after 15-20 hours and shown all that it genuinely has by 30-50 hours, it would’ve left the stage as a celebrated winner. Now it has turned into that person. You know, the one you meet by chance and who’s awfully jovial and remarkably pleasant for a while until you realize that they’re nothing more than an absolute asshole and you’re inadvertently stuck with them for life with the only way of escape probably involving a sharp ax and a manslaughter charge. I’ll continue my rhythmical journey, although it has already turned into a macabre social study of what it actually takes to finish a game that has obviously been designed around nothing else than skimming its players off hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Bloody cynical.

Moving on would be a trigger pull away…

Ditching a game once started is always la petite mort of sorts but should that (once again) happen, at least intensive care would be close by. Mind-numbing repetition could easily be replaced either by the backlog or the five new JRPGs joining the fray; Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Nights of Azure, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls (dual releases be forever damned), but especially Stella Glow. That one might actually feature that strategic role-playing bliss I was expecting from Utawarerumono, which kind of failed to deliver.

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire

Something along those lines. Whatever.

Sometimes running away from unpleasant things only gets you further into the gutter. Or at least that’s how I felt after switching from repetitious producing to Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni. It’s a game where big-breasted teenage girls are infected by a mysterious virus that turns some into powerful valkyries and others into weapons wielded by them and…

Oh, hell no…. No… I just can’t.

I refuse to spend even a single minute outlining a background story that would make even the shittiest of camp seem like an Oscar worthy script. Valkyrie Drive is nothing more than an incredibly rapid third person beat ’em up starring anime girls with gargantuan tits the size of their heads. Anything after that is pretty much downhill all the way.

If you’ve ever witnessed popular games in Japanese arcades, they often seem to be about lean mechas darting all over 3D battle arenas with breathtaking speed, unleashing devastating special attacks upon each other. Valkyrie Drive is something like that, only with buxom girls. One button is used for a light attack, another for a heavy one, third launches the enemy into air, and carefully timed bursts of the fourth is good for either scooting from one target to another, or juggling a hapless airborne adversary for so long that they can be pummeled with a 999 hit combo. The action is relentless and should the player lose focus, they soon find themselves on the opposing end of equally ruthless punishment.

I usually give any game a fair chance to sell itself but in this case, the lackluster story is a lost cause from the get-go. After just half an hour, I’ve skipped every cutscene, if only to save myself from second-hand embarrassment, and after a couple of hours I’m getting quite worried that I’m now in a quagmire of two weak-ish games badly overestimating their prowess. All that comes from the Land of the Rising Sun certainly isn’t good by default. I will keep pushing on under the gallant banner of Seeing Things Through, but it’s times like these that even an all-out average game from start to finish would feel welcome.