Tuesday, April 16, 2024

In Stars and Time Review — Take It Slow

Time loops are nothing new when it comes to media, including video games. But insertdisc5’s In Stars and Time manages to iterate on the genre creatively, easing most of the pain points that come with this style of story and meditating on how such an experience would impact someone’s mental state.

In Stars and Time follows an introverted rogue named Siffrin (he/they), who has joined a group of adventurers on a quest to save the land of Vaugarde from a time-freezing curse cast by a mysterious, weeping king. When we meet Siffrin and his companions, they have already successfully gathered the orbs needed to access the king’s lair, and are spending one last day in the town of Dormont before taking him on.

This gives us the opportunity to get to know Siffrin and the party before we get to the big hero stuff. The first companion we meet is Mirabelle, an anxious young woman who served the Change God, before the king started freezing Vaugarde. She was the only one to make it out of the House she served in, and with a mysterious blessing, she was able to start collecting orbs. Along the way, she was joined by a slightly older researcher from the country of Ka Bue named Odelie (she/her), a trans faux himbo named Isabeau (he/him), and a young person named Boniface (a.k.a Bonnie, they/them) who was left alone after their sister was frozen.

Screenshot of Mirabelle saying "but tomorrow we'll go and fight the king, someone who has thrown Vaugarde into stillness and Silence.
Image Source: insertdisc5

Your group spends one last day and evening together, sharing a fun meal at a sleepover before heading to the House to take on the king. Inside, we encounter enemies called Sadnesses, blobby apparitions that constantly cry. In Stars and Time is a turn-based RPG, and quite literally uses a rock-paper-scissors combat system. People in this world use magic called Craft, which they cast with hand signs that mimic the ones used in Rochambeau. People tend to have an affinity for one of the three, making them vulnerable to the corresponding element.

The same goes for Sadnesses, which is how you can defeat them in battle. This game uses a combat system that should be extremely familiar to RPG fans; if you hit an enemy with the sign they’re vulnerable to, you will do extra damage. Not every member of your party can use each type of Craft, but they each have a variety of skills that can buff the party or nerf enemies. This is important since you can stack consecutive instances of the same sign five times to trigger a jackpot, which is an all-out group attack from Persona 5, with the added benefit that it deals the stacked signs’ type of damage. Jackpots also heal much damage and can revive any downed party members.

This is a powerful tool at your disposal, but it’s not always the most practical option, especially when you’re facing enemies of multiple different types. In these situations, In Stars and Time asks players to strategize a little, leaving them to decide between exploiting type advantage and building up a jackpot.

In Stars and Time screenshot of a Sadness enemy
Image Source: insertdisc5

Aside from combat, the main mechanic of note in this game is, of course, its time loops. Eventually, you and your party will fall in battle, or you’ll hit a dead end, or you’ll decide to try your luck touching one of the tears floating around the House. When this happens Siffrin alone loops back to Dormont. As you go on, you gain more control over this ability, learning to trade the memories you get from combat encounters to choose which part of the timeline you return to.

Utilizing this ability is key to advancing through In Stars and Time, and it does a lot of the heavy lifting to alleviate the annoyance of having to repeat the same sections over and over again. Other aspects of the game that also help are that Siffrin retains his experience points and levels throughout loops, and your party members keep any equipment they find while you’re exploring, even if you start again.

That said, the game’s pacing doesn’t quite fit with this mechanic as cleanly as it potentially could. The further you advance into the House, the more questions you raise. At first, you think your goal is to reach the king and defeat him, but that soon splinters into several objectives whose threads continue to unravel even after you’ve reached the final section of the king’s lair multiple times.

I personally felt the order in which these objectives are introduced and resolved was somewhat odd. There are several instances where it feels like this journey is coming to a close, only for some new thread to require investigation. At first, this increases the sense of mystery around the king and his actions, but the longer you go on, the more things start to drag.

I also found myself wishing that the heartwarming, found family and power of friendship climaxes that make up the soul of this game had been reserved for its conclusion. As it stands now, the game dangles that catharsis in front of you before taking it away to reveal there’s still a long investigation of the king and the loops ahead.

Screenshot of Siffrin choosing which floor to restart on
Image Source: insertdisc5

On one hand, I think this is a great way to marry the story of In Stars and Time with its gameplay. The longer he loops, the more haggard Siffrin becomes, reflecting the frustration and desire to finish this off that we may also start to feel as our loop count rises. There are some truly chilling moments in this game where Siffrin begins to unravel in front of his companions after repeating the same stretch of time over and over again. These times feel even more impactful because we completely understand how Siffrin feels in terms of his exhaustion, even if we can’t necessarily imagine the horror of watching your companions die before your eyes.

That said, if you, like me, have a hard time with geography and keeping track of multiple objectives, it can soon become a slog to have to loop over and over again to grab small clues in areas you’ve already visited. This game definitely would have benefitted from a map of some kind to help keep track of important locations and routes.

I’d definitely recommend taking your time with these sections, chipping away at them slowly, rather than trying to slam through them in a few sessions. The grind of looping can become abrasive quickly the longer you’ve been playing, and sometimes you just need to walk away from the House for a little bit to realize what you’re supposed to be looking for.

Game over screen that says "you don't know how long you can keep doing this"
Image Source: insertdisc5

Your party members and relationships with them are the strongest part of In Stars and Time. Each character, including Siffrin, is excellently written. They have unique personalities, including quirks that can be endearing, annoying, or sometimes both. Beyond that, they have obvious group dynamics and individual relationships that differ between party members. And despite being constantly reset, your friends grow as people along the way, facing their shortcomings and trying to change as best they can.

Siffrin’s internal monologue is also very realistic, especially in how brutal and unforgiving it can be when our protagonist makes a mistake. As much as having do-overs is ultimately a blessing, it reveals some of his shortcomings as the party’s rogue and only puts further stress on his already overwhelmed mind.

Though there is maybe too much of a rollercoaster feeling when it comes to this game’s narrative pacing, I can’t deny the quality of its writing, or the obvious care that has gone into trying to streamline and innovate on its gameplay mechanics. In Stars and Time is an absolute no-brainer for fans of turn-based RPGs, as it will absolutely scratch that itch, but those who maybe aren’t as keen on that genre should still give it a try.

In Stars and Time rewards our effort and frustration with a protagonist who completely understands what we’re going through, and centers them in a story about building the life you want for yourself with people who love you for who you are.

Score: 4.5/5

A copy of In Stars and Time for Nintendo Switch was provided to Gayming Magazine by PR.

Ty Galiz-Rowe

Ty is a freelance games writer and esports expert.