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March 2024

In Stars And Time

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Armor Games Studios
Developer: Insertdisc5
Release Date: Nov. 20, 2023


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PC Review - 'In Stars and Time'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 5, 2024 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

In Stars And Time is an RPG adventure from about finding hope in a hopeless place to save the world from a mysterious time loop.

In a year of big-budget titles like Baldur's Gate 3 and Final Fantasy XVI, it can be easy to overlook the smaller RPGs. There have been plenty of excellent indie RPGs released in 2023, and while they might not have the graphical prowess, they are still strong experiences. In Stars and Time is absolutely a niche experience that is easily overlooked but is a must-play.

In Stars and Time opens at the end of a story. A team of four heroes, led by Mirabelle, who was chosen by the Change God, has adventured across the land to stop an evil king who seeks to freeze the land in time. They have stopped for the day in the town of Dormot, which is right outside the king's castle, and Siffrin, the team's rogue, is enjoying their last day with their friends. As soon as they step into the evil king's castle, Siffrin misses a trap and is crushed by a falling boulder. This is not the end, and Siffrin wakes up at the start of the day, shocked and horrified but alive. Only Siffrin can travel back in time every time they die, and this quirk is the only thing that may give the heroes the chance to defeat the king and stop the world from being frozen forever.

In Stars and Time has one of the most charming and delightful casts I've encountered in an indie RPG outside of something like Undertale. They are quirky and strange but immensely endearing and likable. The story begins with the cast already being friends, so they already have a strong dynamic, and that allows the story to slowly piece out details about the characters, their history, and their backstory in a way that feels natural instead of forced. It's also just a frequently funny game with genuinely laugh-out-loud humor. It can also become incredibly dark in a way that hits much harder when contrasted with the lighthearted laughs.

What sets apart In Stars and Time from a lot of other "time loop" games I've played is how heavily it focuses on the overwhelming helplessness of the situation. In a lot of loop games, your character loops time again and again, and it has no real impact on them. In In Stars and Time, there is a genuine horror to the situation that the protagonist responds to. They realize that they screwed up and got everyone killed, doomed the world, or irreparably ruined something important, and it weighs on them. It becomes an increasingly large part of the game that they have this constantly building guilt, and the loop in time is the only thing that is preventing their adventure from ending in tragedy. It even applies to their friendships and interactions — and the hollowness of repeating the same events and the same actions.

This helps to avoid the "been there, done that" element of these kinds of games because while you repeat things again and again, even the dullness of repeating events is woven into the story, and it's pretty clever about picking up what players do to speed things up and how odd that would seem to people living in the world. It gives the game a real sense of being a "lived-in" world.

The core gameplay is simple. Siffrin begins each day in a loop just outside Dormot, where you can talk to and interact with the townsfolk and prepare for the journey into the king's castle. Once in the castle, you explore room by room until you reach a roadblock (usually fatal), and then you restart the loop. Some of the roadblocks are forced, and some are not. As the game progresses, you'll get the ability to warp back to certain points or carry items between loops, or find shortcuts so you don't have to repeat certain events.

Combat is a pretty standard turn-based RPG system based around — of all things — rock paper scissors. Every attack is tied to one of those three elements, and every character (and enemy) has a weakness against one of the three. Hitting an enemy with an attack they are weak against will fill up a jackpot bar, and if you hit five weaknesses in a row, you'll activate a jackpot, which inflicts huge damage to foes and heals your party. Each character has special skills that are on a cooldown method, so you can trade turns, use different elements, buff or debuff, or perform other tasks.

The combat system is fun but simple and lacks a bit of variety. Once you see an enemy once or twice, you know exactly how to handle them. It's engaging enough to be fun, but it can wear a touch thin if you've done a lot of loops in a row. The most compelling part of the system isn't the actual combat but how the story is reflected in the combat. Characters learning new abilities, enemy behaviors changing, and the slow way that Siffrin's power grows all feel essential to the main story.

Siffrin is the only one who loops back, so they are the only one who retains every level they've earned. The rest of the party resets back to zero, but they will keep equipment that they've found. You can optimize characters by unlocking memories, which are created from special events and grant unique buffs to your characters. These can include massive stat increases, using skills early, special bonuses, and certain abilities and skills. This rewards you for seeing lots of different events by giving you more ways to interact with time loops. Even Siffrin retains memories, which can allow them to subvert events as long as they have them equipped. There are ways to loop back to later than the starting point, and once you unlock those memories, your characters will retain the highest level and skills they had on the previous loop — unless you restart from scratch.

If there's one core problem with In Stars and Time, it is that the repetition, although intentional, can start to wear on the player, especially if you're having trouble figuring out the next trigger to progress. It's incredibly cool when you discover that entire lines of dialogue have changed or that there are ongoing miniquests that advance every time you loop, but it doesn't change the fact that you're still progressing the same areas and hitting the same events. Siffrin being worn down alongside you makes it more compelling, but I got tired of fighting the same enemies and going through the same key collection events before Siffrin did. The rest of the game was excellent enough that I stuck with it, and the payoff was worth it, but you need to have a tolerance for repetition to see what the game is going for.

In Stars and Time is a visually simplistic game that works extremely well. The entire world is in black and white (and this is indeed something true of the actual world), and most of the characters are cute and simple designs, akin to something on Cartoon Network. There's a lot of heart and detail in the simple sprites, and the game makes excellent use of splash artwork to emphasize some of the bigger scenes. The music is quite good and adds a lot of atmosphere, making the title shine far beyond its initial visuals.

In Stars and Time is probably my dark horse for one of the best games of the year. It's a distinct, fun and interesting experience that makes masterful use of the time loop concept to create something that's deeply heartfelt. At times, it borders more on an RPG-themed visual novel than a full-on RPG, but it uses the RPG trappings more than well enough to justify it. Aside from some dullness when it comes to repeating events, In Stars and Time hits all the marks dead-on and should be a must-play for fans of plot-heavy RPGs.

Score: 9.0/10

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