Despite what the old cliché says, sometimes the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts. Which is perhaps the best way to accurately describe Atlus' latest strategy Role-Playing Game (SRPG) Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity. This is not to say that Stella Deus is a bad game, because it's not; it's just that when one examines the lineage of all the parties involved, the end product doesn't quite live up to the pedigree of the creators.
Boasting a script from Ryo Mizuno (who penned the anime classic Record of Lodoss War), character designs from Shigeki Soejima (the mastermind behind the creepy demons of the Shin Megami games), a score from Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy fame) and a development team who worked on the ambitious (albeit tragically flawed) Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth one wouldn't be remiss in imagining Stella Deus standing as an SRPG for the ages. The end result, however, isn't even the best SRPG on the PlayStation 2 (Disgaea retains its crown in that category).
The problem with Stella Deus isn't one that's readily apparent while playing. The core engine works well, the staples of the genre are all present and accounted for, the story is pretty much the standard for SRPGs, and the graphics are generally appealing, if relatively understated and a little muted throughout. It's only after one spends many hours with the game that the real problem becomes apparent; Stella Deus just doesn't have much heart.
I realize that game reviews (and the people who read them) are always hung up on numbers and scores for quantifiable things like graphics, soundtracks, gameplay and the like. Heart and soul is not one of those things that a reviewer or a gamer can pull out and give a score to, yet when a game lacks heart, it becomes readily apparent as things progress. Some games (like Stella Deus, to a degree) can overcome this and still be enjoyable enough. Other games are simply DOA.
This lack of heart makes itself apparent in just about every facet of the game. There's simply nothing in Stella Deus that SRPG fans haven't seen before and seen done in a better fashion. The plot, with its quasi-religious nature and political intrigue never reaches the level of Final Fantasy Tactics. The characters lack the likeability of the cast of pretty much any of Nippon Ichi's games. The combat is a stripped down version of Hoshigami (although, this is technically a good thing; Hoshigami was almost too obtuse for its own good), and the graphics would have been at home on the original PlayStation. None of these things cripple the game, but when mixed together the final product is a title that has a great deal of unrealized potential.
Granted, the RPG has never been known as a genre that pushes the envelope in terms of anything. Fifteen years after the original Final Fantasy, most of the games still feature random encounters, the same archetypal storylines, and a similar structure in terms of gameplay. But after a decade or more of SRPGs, the conventions are starting to look a little long in the tooth. This is particularly true when one compares a game like Stella Deus to the much more ambitious titles like Disgaea.
However, this doesn't make Stella Deus a bad game. It's just one that never strives to innovate. Instead, it's content to recycle all the tried-and-true elements for which SRPGs have become known. The game's few breaks from tradition come in the form of tandem attacks that can have all six players attacking at once, a revamped use of the action point system (an attack doesn't always end a turn, meaning a player can move, attack, and move again if he manages his points), and a random dungeon for leveling up outside of the game's standard story-driven battles. This all sounds pretty good until one realizes that while these things aren't norms in the SRPG field, they've all still been done in earlier games.
The biggest "problem" is essentially that the game doesn't require much in the way of strategy. Oh sure, it can be brutally unforgiving early on (one boss battle smacked me around for hours on end until I finally won it in a war of attrition), but as soon as you realize the game features a catacombs area where you can level-up pretty much endlessly the game becomes so easy it's almost not worth finishing. Players can level-up to the max early on if they choose, while the story battle enemies stay at the same level regardless of where the player is. This leads to players slaughtering bosses in one hit.
Granted, players could avoid abusing the catacombs in the game, but since when have gamers ever had scruples? This is the industry that sustains a whole "cheat-based" subculture that employs a whole lot of people. And really, why should the player be responsible anyway? Simple coding could have alleviated the unfair advantage.
The real issue is that the whole thing is ultimately a double-edged sword. Players who take advantage of the system will have an easy time. Players who don't will find the game incredibly difficult because even a one-level gap between combatants can wreak complete havoc on the best laid plans. Compounding this further is the game's alchemy system, wherein players combine items to make new items (including pretty much all of the uber equipment). Guess where most of the good ingredients are found? (If you guessed the lower levels of the catacombs, give yourself a cookie.)
Factor in that even with the power-leveling the game still runs over 50 hours (without a real story to sustain that running time) and that the graphics are at best average and at worst damn near archaic (the special attack animations are just sad for this era), and you wind up with a game that pretty much screams rental. Ten years ago, when there were like six RPGs released in a good year, I would have loved a game that gave me 60 or more hours of playtime. In today's market, where there seem to be six RPGs released a week, I'd like my games shorter unless they have a story epic enough to warrant the extended running time.
All that being said, this is not a terrible game. I have a special fondness for SRPGs (and have been playing them since they first started turning up on consoles) and I'm always hardest on the things I love most. Stella Deus is slightly better than average. The pieces to assemble a great game are all there, but it just never quite gels into the game it could have been.