Those of you who have been following this blog probably recall that its strongest swear word so far has been The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, that utterly abhorrent loot hell in which I masochistically dwelled for several months. Last January, I solemnly swore never to touch crap like that ever again but only a month earlier Bandai Namco had already released The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage. Darn. Thankfully all news coverage about that one asserted that it wouldn’t be nearly as inane as its predecessor, so while I was still extremely wary, I decided to give the idol girls one more chance to woo me over.
The premise of the game is not promising in the slightest. All the idols who I had painstakingly nurtured to shiny platinum stardom are once again just feeble F-class newbies, and the same applies to the player’s alter ego of Producer-san. The head of 765 Production talent agency entrusts you with just one idol out of 13 with the rest remaining behind lock and key until you prove your managerial worth. So, is this just the same nightmare all over again? Broadly speaking, yes, although much to my relief it seems like Stella Stage fixes pretty much everything that was so hopelessly broken in Platinum Stars.
First of all, this time around there’s actually content to speak of. The selection of 45 songs, 116 costumes, and 140 accessories is almost thrice as much as before. Granted, those numbers include practically everything that Platinum Stars had but should you have been lucky enough to miss that one altogether, Stella Stage is an even better reason to forget that it ever even existed. Even more important, though, is that the costumes and accessories are no longer random presents but guaranteed rewards for successful lives. They can also be bought from the local tailor or unlocked with coaching points in a brand new board game. It’s a cute little mini-game in which you walk around the 13 idols in their chibi form on a board that has tiles containing permanent performance bonuses, costumes, accessories, and new songs. Presents are also still around but now they only contain minor stuff such as fan letters and exp drinks, on top of which there’s always a bunch of them after each and every live. Playing is still as grindy as ever but at least those who are into collecting stuff will feel rewarded on a constant basis.
Also, the grind itself feels much more tolerable. Even if you’re once again tasked with raising all girls to sterling S-class, it now only requires one million fans instead of ten. Song levels improve after just five plays rather than 20, and even when enhancing costumes and accessories, their level cap has been lowered from ten to seven. New songs still become available in an annoyingly slow pace but on whole Stella Stage is – at least for the time being – actually fun to toil at.
As for the rhythm part, improvements are fairly modest. Songs can be played with ensembles of almost every size from solo runs to All Stars medleys that include everyone with each variety even being available pretty much from the get-go. The same applies to the second hardest Pro difficulty of each song, although anyone marinated in rhythm games will probably find that so easy that even with new songs, perfect chains on first attempts are more norm than exception. To counter that, the hardest Master difficulty is now even more difficult, mostly thanks to sections that require two right-hand buttons to be pressed or held down at the same time. This either requires baffling thumb acrobatics or moving your left hand to assist, which in turn causes panic with notes that require a simultaneous press on the d-pad. At least for me, Pro feels a bit too easy whereas Master is frustratingly hard, so an additional difficulty between these two really wouldn’t go amiss.
For a main project, Stella Stage feels a bit too familiar and grindy but it works remarkably well in short bursts between other releases. Only half a year ago, I never would’ve believed to have any sympathy left for Project iM@S, yet it still feels like Stella Stage could very well be the rhythm game I always wanted Platinum Stars to be, and that’s actually saying a lot!
Although my backlog of candidates to enjoy alongside Stella Stage is massive already, perhaps it still has room for a couple more. While Initial D: Extreme Stage provided a fun weekend on Japan’s mountain roads, Wangan Midnight promises similar fun but on the country’s highways instead. I’m certainly keen to see if its iconic Nissan Fairlady Z would be slightly less demanding than the AE86. Then again, perhaps taking it easy for a change would be nice, too; Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon promises carefree farming days in some sort of sci-fi setting, which doesn’t sound half bad at all.