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Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity
Score: 85%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
With the exception of a slight misstep involving a fishing title, Atlus has really been on a tear as of late. Stella Deus: The Gates of Eternity is Atlusí latest entry into the Strategy RPG genre, and continues Atlusí streak of fun, quality SRPGs.

Stella Deusí look probably appeals more to the artistic-minded gamer than those who go for hardcore realism. Battles take place on small, grid-based battlefields. The actual grid lines are hidden unless denoting movement or combat range. This gives battlefields a cleaner look than the blocky messes found in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Characters are sprite-based and high-res, which I find to be a big plus. The style is still anime-influenced, but it steers clear of the super-deformed look in favor of a more ďrealisticĒ style. A majority of cut-scenes are in-game and based mostly on hand-drawn, still images and text boxes. However, Stella Deus also features a few animated sequences, which are where the gameís real artistry can be seen. These sequences are cel-shaded and manage to bring their own style to the oft-used graphical technique by sticking to a palette of whites and blacks while important aspects stand out in vivid colors. Shaded areas use muted grays that are literally shaded in with broad strokes, giving these areas a hand-drawn, sketchbook feel.

Sound is marked by two elements: incredible music and terrible voice acting. The gameís score is epic and ranks among some of the best RPG soundtracks of all time. The sweeping score does a wonderful job of setting up the gameís mood. As for voice acting, Iím still not sure if itís due to poor performances or terrible writing. Some lines are delivered in a dull, monotone voice, while others attempt to convey some emotion. Thereís a complete lack of direction, which ends up becoming a distraction once you get into the more complex aspects of the storyline. Trust me, once you get into the meat of the game, youíll want to pay attention...

Judging from plots in recent games, Iíd say itís a safe bet that the Japanese arenít too fond of fog. Stella Deus begins with yet another world-destroying fog, overtaking the world and sending people into frenzied chaos. In the midst of all the chaos, a passive religion emerges preaching a message of peace through apathy. And, so it goes; people become lazy, noncommittal jerks, and civilization goes to pot while everyone waits around for peace to come of its own accord.

At the same time, an alchemist named Viser is working on a plan to dissipate the killer fog and save humanity. His belief is that the fog is connected to spirits, though itís unclear how. Heís soon approached by Lord Dignus, who has his own plans for Viserís alchemy solution. Instead of dissipating the fog, he intends to put the world back in running order by turning it into an army and wiping out apathy (which, of course, involves killing most of the populace).

You play the role of Spero, a softhearted warrior who believes Dignus is an evil tyrant and that Viser is barking up the wrong tree in terms of how the spirits relate to the fog. Confused yet? Clear, concise storytelling is not one of Stella Deusí strong points. The initial setup is enough to get you interested, but soon millions of plot points are thrown at you in succession, including a few moral dilemmas and lots of politics. Still, the main story is engaging enough that you should want to play through the entire game, even if you canít keep track of every plot thread.

The actual gameplay is your basic SRPG fare. You take a small army of six warriors and match wits with another army, usually a little bigger than your own. When compared to other SRPGs on the market, Stella Deus isnít that complicated. Party members are limited to six classes and canít change once they start down a certain path Ė taking away some of the freedom fans of the genre have become accustomed to. Characters can, however, level up to more powerful versions of their chosen class, giving you something to work towards. Still, it would have been fun to mix and match classes and skills.

Quests are more or less divided into two types: Story and Guild missions. As the name implies, Story missions push the story along while Guild missions are meant to help level-up your characters and earn items and money.

Story missions are difficult if you donít prepare for them properly. Thereís a noticeable learning curve, which can become quite punishing early on without the right planning. One or two wrong choices can end up costing you an entire battle.

Guild missions, on the other hand, are much easier, which came as a disappointment. Early on theyíre worth doing in order to build up experience, weapons, and money. But later on, they become pointless since the reward usually isnít worth the effort. If tactics arenít getting the job done, which is a major element of every battle, you can usually head to the catacombs and grind up a few levels.

Game Mechanics:
Stella Deus takes a more basic approach to its battle system than recent Strategy RPGs. The system still takes some time to master, yet at the same time, itís still functional enough that really anyone could jump right in and play.

One of the more notable aspects, at least to me, is the speedy pacing of battles, eliminating an element that can get downright tedious and keep some players away from the genre. At the start of each turn, each of your party members is assigned AP, which can be spent on a variety of different actions, from moving to attacking. All troop types come with a basic array of attack types as well as class-specific abilities. Arch Bishops heal, Alchemists cast spells, and so on. Characters arenít limited to simply moving and then using an ability. They can keep performing actions until their AP runs out. So, instead of having to wait five turns to take down an enemy, itís possible to attack several times in one round, giving Stella Deus its quicker pacing.

Troop types come in two varieties: story-specific and mercenaries. A bulk of your force, at least early on, consists of no-name mercenaries who you can hire to join your ranks. These include the generic spearmen, warriors, priests, and other classes that make up your troupe. As the story progresses, you pick up characters who factor into the story, like mercenaries Ė these story-specific troops fall into one of the gameís job types, but also have access to special abilities as well as performing team-based attacks. The latter attacks are difficult to set up, but most result in a one-hit kill, making planning for them worthwhile.

While it may be a little plot-heavy and it may lack some depth and freedom, Stella Deus is still a great addition to any SRPG fanís library.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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