I’d never really taken on a game the like of Starlight Stage before, to be honest. I mean, I never properly dabbled with its most obvious competitor, Love Live School Idol Festival, despite being a proper Love Live fan. You can thank mu’s ending for that. And not even stealing an actual Idolmaster term (of which, more later) has changed my mind. But Starlight Stage is the big thing doing the rounds for iM@s around the world at the moment. So, of course, I had to check it out.
Not the easiest of tasks, all told. Unlike Love Live, which went fully worldwide with its rhythm game, Namco has stuck resolutely to its home turf with its spin-off of a spin-off, released in 2015 as the obvious counter to LLSIF’s resounding success. The difference: ‘Deresute’ – a portmanteau of its Japanese syllables – comes at you in 3D. Which is terrific.
And it looks it too. Relatively speaking, of course. On the whole it’s not gonna be pulling up trees but for a mobile game it looks sweet enough. And so do its idols. Finally, they are right there in front of you and glorious. Aren’t some of them just lovely or what?
But before you can get to them, there’s a whole damn game in front of you. And boy is there a lot of it to take in. When I saw just how many factors you had to take in with all this I thought I would be really up against it, especially with a whole language barrier in front of me. I’d learnt games in Japanese before but not only did I have the backing of English versions in those cases, they weren’t nearly as complex as Starlight Stage. Luckily, the game has the English community around it to provide several translations for everything. But even then I still haven’t got my head round it all. Let me try and put it all to you.
So the aim of the game is to get EXP from songs, and to level up to unlock more songs and items. But to play songs, you need to have stamina, which refills over time or with items. You also get presents through various methods, each of which have to be picked up through the present box. As for what there is to play, well, there’s daily and weekly mission which give you small rewards upon completion. There’s also rewards for reaching milestones – achievements, or trophies, if you will. And there’s also rewards from big events that come around often in the game.
You set up units of 5 idols at a time, the centre idol applying their skill to the entire team as well as the skills each idol comes with. You can make 18 different teams, the centre of your main team being the one who shows up on your profile and home screen. There’s an auto-picker to trivialise a lot of it, sorting by Cute, Cool, Passion or all types and by appeal, Vocal, Dance, Visual and Life, the core stats for all the idols. The game’s songs are split into those four types, and ‘appeal’ is the total of an idol’s Vocal, Dance and Visual. To raise these stats, and the idols’ levels, you give them lessons by consuming other cards, or using trainer tickets. Also, playing songs with an idol increases their affection. Once you max this out, you can ‘awaken’ them, but you have to have the right jewellery to do it. This gives them a new graphic, another stat boost, a raised level cap and a raised affection cap, to give them yet another stat boost. They also have a star rank to be raised through star lessons, whereby you take two identical cards and combine them into one, which allows you to get rarer items when they’re in the centre. There’s also potential breaks that let you power up your idols further. And you can sell idols as well, although that’s only really useful for normals.
That make sense to you all? Thought not. Still, at least that’s the most complex bit out of the way.
Of course, after all that it’s only right and proper that the actual gameplay would be simple as can be. You just tap circle notes, hold on to notes with trails and slide your finger on notes with arrows. Of course, you can make it very unsimple by going right to the highest difficulties, the creme de la creme being Master. However, some songs go even higher and have Master+ difficulties, the toughest of all. Naturally, the higher the difficulty, the greater the rewards – and beating a song on Master difficulty gives you its MV, letting you watch the songs in their full glory. However, I’m still a relative newb to this all, so I haven’t had thoughts on going past Regular difficulty yet. Once I can do some songs properly, I’ll make the step up to Pro. I’m a long way off trying Master yet. Incidentally, a lot of the game’s many songs are always available (once you unlock them, anyway), but some are limited to certain days of the week or are only available for a limited time. And there’s also songs that go round during events, too. Even before it all, there’s still some complexity – a ‘guest’ idol giving you their centre skill, the 10 strongest idols not in your chosen unit giving you half their combined appeal, and so on. But what’s important is that at the end of it, you get EXP, money, fans, some normal cards, some jewellery and affection for your idols. So, there you go.
But to get a lot of the songs, you have to go through the main story. All you have to do to get the songs themselves is read through their dialogues, but then you have to go out and complete the songs in Live mode to actually proceed to the next one. And you have to level up plenty to go on to most of the songs, and you have to do so more and more as you go further on. This takes some time. Time I do not have. Hence why I haven’t been able to go through most of the story. It wouldn’t be so bad if they just let you unlock songs at your own pace, but Starlight Stage is a game that demands your attention, and lots of it. I can’t give it anything like enough. And so, I sit here with a game with plenty of content largely untouchable to me. You can buy a lot of stuff in Starlight Stage. Perhaps they would have been wise to let you buy levels as well. As it turns out, once you get to Level 50, you can do just about everything. But getting there is a real drag and yet a necessity as well. So come on, Namco. Give a busy man a hand here.
I suppose I should also touch on the many, many side stories on hand for each idol – all 184 of them. They have two kinds of them; memories, and episodes. Memories get unlocked as idols get more fans, which you also get by using them in Lives. Episodes are unlocked once you awaken an idol, with a different story for each card. And reading through all these stories gives you friend points and star jewels to use yourself. There’s also the event stories, only accessible if you unlocked them through the event yourself or using memory keys to buy them. And there’s special stories as well that don’t fit in with the rest otherwise.
Hey, I only said the most complex bit was out of the way. But yes, there really are more currencies in this game than the world itself, or so it seems.
Also available is the Room. This is a gloriously cute, and also gloriously pointless, feature, that simply lets you watch 5 idols traipse around your own customised office. Many find these chibi-fied idols sweet, and I can see why. But there’s better places to see them all. Such as, for instance, when you put the game in 2D mode, whereupon the 3D models are replaced by the cuted-up 2D chibis. That’s what you wanna see them in, really. Alternatively, you could be like me, a guy who just prefers to see them in the flesh and in their full glory. Which is exactly what Starlight Stage lets you do. Maybe if my phone weren’t up for it I wouldn’t have a choice, but my phone does let me use 3D. So I do. And it’s damn great. Therefore, cute as they are in 2D, I’m not as sold on them as much as on their actual looks. Therefore, I almost never go into the Room. Especially as the money is better spent elsewhere. Still, the free items (more jewellery and trainer tickets) are nice…
So, with all this complexity around the game, just what the hell is there to sell a new player on it? What is there to encourage a newbie to walk in and give this a shot, when they might not stand a hope in hell of reaching the top from the start? Well, there’s one thing that can make it all happen. One thing that can step forward and give you a leg up, and also break your heart at the same time. It’s the make-or-break of this game… Step forward, the gacha.
This is what gives me hope with this game. But, of course, it doesn’t always work. Not even most of the time. Indeed, things of this sort – in the form of the ‘lootbox’ – are currently a big thing in the gaming world right now, due to their capacity to define games to the point where you need them, except they usually end up giving you crap all. This does not please people. A game I’ve played plenty of recently, Forza Motorsport 7, has been reviled for this sort of thing, and others encourage microtransactions to the point of idiocy. And I’d share a lot more sympathy with these if I didn’t know the way to really make these sorts of things work. And that’s with a system like this, a system I’ve known not just from Starlight Stage, but for well over five years now. As a FIFA player, I know exactly what Ultimate Team demands, and how tempting its packs are. I’ve seen the good side of those before, and the bad side…so I know exactly what’s up with the gacha. And with the rewards on offer, I can’t help but go to it over, and over, again.
The heart of the game is the Platinum Gacha. This is where you spend the one currency in the game that really matters, Star Jewels. This is the one you can buy with your own money, at a rate far greater than the game’s slothful offering. While sometimes they get given out in decent amounts, for special occasions, getting Star Jewels otherwise is a thankless task. However, what the Platinum Gacha does is let you take a free card, of a Rare or higher nature, for less than £1, once a day. Given the potential that you could get something special from it, this is well worth it. Of course, whether it works out is another thing entirely. 85% of the time, it’s nothing more than a Rare, but around 1/8th of the time, it’s a good SR, with a proper picture and all.
And then there’s the 3% chance of getting the game’s most prized possessions – SSRs. These are what everyone aspires towards in this game. And several characters have more than one. However, every character’s second SSR is the ‘limited’ sort – the type that comes out at the start of the month and is available initially for only a ‘limited’ period, as the name suggests. However, there comes a point when they’ll be thrown in the gacha again for another limited period, and during this time they’ll have a higher chance of showing up. So if there’s an idol you like, best go mad for them when they get a limited card, or when it pops up. Because the chance to get them again might not come around for a long, long time…
Lastly, there’s the SSRs afforded to the in-universe gods – the ones available during the ‘Cinderella Festival’, which comes round for 2-3 days, once every four months. The cards available during this come with the best stats in the game, and the chance of getting an SSR during this time is doubled to 6%. However, only the newest ‘CinFes’ idol is easy to get – the ones from previous CinFests, while available, are still hard to get. But if you get one, hoo boy…
Aside from the Platinum Gacha, there’s also the local gacha, which is mostly meant as a place to get cards and tickets to train up your idols. You get one of these free a day, and using it otherwise costs 200 friend points a roll. You can actually get SRs from this, but consider yourself damn lucky if you do – the chance of that happening is less than 1%. Still, it’s a useful thing to have.
All this might make you think Starlight Stage is very much a pay-to-win game. It isn’t. But to get by playing F2P, you have to be real dedicated and have plenty of time on your hands. Which, as I’ve said, I do not. Fortunately, I do have money to use the gacha with. The free £1 rolls are a given every day for me, but it’s the big 10-rolls that are the most tempting. However, doing two of those would cost me some £40. Which is why I’m only doing them every payday, i.e. every other week. A bit like I did this Friday. After getting shafted by the game for a long time on SSRs, having waited for ages, two came along in one 10-roll; Nina and Frederica. One good idol and one great one. See what I mean by these being worth it? The reason I like the 10-rolls most of all is that you’re guaranteed an SR in it, and usually more. You’re only meant to get an SSR in around 1 in 3 of them, but hey, who am I to complain about luck? I’m the type that aims for 1% Pokemon every time I play the game. Heck, I’m running through Silver right now with a Dunsparce and Azumarill around. And they’re both damn rare to find. I like a bit of a lottery every now and again.
However, this was all before I realised what one of the gacha options was – you can pay for a 10-pull, plus two tickets for an SR and any card of your choice, up to and including permanent SSRs. So on Saturday, I went and threw another £20 at the game, to get the one card I’d take above all. Sure, it’d be a lot more special if I got her through the gacha itself, but what if she never came? Best to take the chance while it was there, otherwise it might never come again. So I did what had to be done…
If I’m gonna be tapping through so many stories, I want at least one idol whose stories I’ll sit up and pay attention to. Kanade, meet my phone.
Now go get yourself a limited SSR or show up during CinFes. (Hah, as if either of those would ever happen)
So yes. That’s what £60 gets you in this game. 3 SSRs and a good clutch of SRs as well. Yes, that’s a decent return I think. No, I won’t be spending that much again for a long time. Not until my next pay day, that’s for sure. But as it turns out, I might not need to. Because tonight, with my £1 gacha roll, I went and got another SSR. Guess who?
Someone’s after my heart.
Yes, I did genuinely get two Frederica SSRs this weekend. Which is madder than even she is. I’m OK with this, actually. When you get two of your favourite Cute idol in the series, you take her alright. I’m supposed to keep her for my support team, it seems. So I shall.
You know what I call her now? Half-meme, half-amazing.
But this is exactly what I’m getting at. The gacha is great because it gives you the chance of something this glorious, for so little. Never mind that I got the same card literally two days ago, an SSR is an SSR. That’s the appeal of the gacha. That’s why I’m still coming to this game. Of course, finding time to do anything with my earnings is another matter entirely…
But the thing is, having toiled at this game for a while, and having made mistakes aplenty with it already, as it turns out, I’ve just about got the hang of it all. Whether it actually means anything given how little I play the thing is a worry, but at least I know what the bloody hell I’m doing now. If this complexity might have turned you off in any way, though, I completely understand. I just wanted to get in and dance with the idols I could too but I found myself with ten thousand features thrown in my face. It’s fine once you know it all, but it takes time. And when you just want the gacha to play ball, there’s not a lot of time when there’s so much else more you wanna do. But I can start to give Starlight Stage a proper go, finally.
And at the end of the day, the result of it is just wonderful. The Cinderella Girls, all 184 of them, at their very finest, dancing to the best songs in the series. And there’s a lot of them. Behind the complexity of the menus lies a simple game at its centre. Just tap and let the rhythm flow. And you wonder why so many are playing this right now. It’s tantalising at its best.
It’s just a shame I’m not the kind of person that can really get stuck in to it. No matter how good my situation looks now, at the end of the day, this is a game that requires a lot of playing to get the best out of. I am not capable of making time for that playing. And yet even I can see there’s a good game within. No matter how little I actually play Lives, that gacha is always so, so inviting. And, at the end of the day, I can always remind myself just what this game has given us, on YouTube. The all important MVs are all here to behold. A lot of the stories are translated and on YT, too. So I might not even have to play the game to see its most appealing bits. But that doesn’t stop me. I want these idols for myself. I want them all… And Starlight Stage can give you them all. It’s fantastic. Flawed, for sure, but fantastic.