July 1st, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
We don’t often cover indie games straight out of Japan, but this release has a hefty demo available now, and it’s possible to buy it direct from the Japanese digital store if you’ve got an international-friendly credit card and are willing to get some help from Google Translate, or a friend who speaks the language. StellaVanity: Prelude To The Destined Calamity by Feathered Ether is an interesting mash-up of concepts and styles that is sure to appeal to genre fans, yet remains accessible for newcomers. Here’s my thoughts and impressions from the lengthy demo:
StellaVanity is a game that can be played casually as a pure arcade shooter with just your movement controls and three buttons. Or it can be a sprawlingly complex thing with a dozen stat gauges, a six-button controller required, RPG elements, loot, upgradable game systems and hidden elements that not even the developer has entirely come clean with – word is that players are still discovering alternate final bosses. All of this comes from an extensive development cycle which has seen the game redesigned and reenvisioned several times over, but somehow without scrapping much of the ‘outdated’ elements, and instead layering content on top of content.
Described by some as a mash-up of normally incompatible genre favourites such as CrimsonClover, Hellsinker and even the Touhou series, the focus here is on big, spectacular bullet patterns. Often, bosses will flood the screen with shots in ways that look amazing, but aren’t actually difficult to evade as clear areas of safety slowly drift across the screen for you to swing between. To make things even more accessible, there’s a relatively casual Easy mode provided, and all difficulties have an Auto-Guard system activated by default, which automatically consumes a smart-bomb when you take a hit, instead of costing you a life. It might look hardcore, but it’s easier than you might think. At least at first.
The graphics, while not the most amazing, are crisp and clear. Bullets stand out well from the background – always a good thing – and while the main characters do seem to have fallen into the trap of being cute girls in frilly dresses, the enemies almost all seem to be from a much cooler era of gaming, packed with enormous space-fleets, battlecruisers and killer robots. Your character’s hitbox is always visible too, highlighted by a sparkling cross drawn through it. This gives you a much better sense of exactly how far you are from getting hit – again, useful – and there’s one more concession to accessibility: Hardcoded slowdown. During the biggest and most dramatic enemy attacks, the game will intentionally drop in pace. Effectively, it’s free bullet-time, and something to take advantage of.
Taken by itself, this looks like a rock solid shmup. Then you take a look under the hood, and dig into the options menus. Even the graphics options are baffling in their range of options. You can choose the colour of enemy bullets, how bright they are on-screen, their transparency, how overwhelming other effects are and so on. You can customize everything to personal preference. All the key menus that you’d need to just play the game normally are in English, which is helpful, although there’s some features such as the store (where you spend your points on new features in-between playthroughs) and the equipment menu that are still impenetrable for non-Japanese-speakers such as myself.
StellaVanity appears to be complete and ready for prime-time now, and was just recently released via Japanese digital distribution hub DLSite. You can both purchase the full game for 1260 Yen ($16) or get the demo via the DLSite page here. While purchasing will require a little research, effort and Google Translation help, the demo is within reach of everyone – just click the big golden button underneath the screenshots. The demo is fairly extensive, offering two characters (each with basic and advanced variants), four levels, two playmodes, all the difficulty settings and a whole mess of unlockables. You can also find the full manual in Google Translate-friendly format on the game’s official site. Machine translation isn’t ideal, but it should give you some idea of what the more advanced stuff does. If you’re a fan of the genre at all, the demo is well worth a download – there’s a lot of replay value and depth in just those four stages.