End of an Epoch

By Cassandra Ramos

My completion of Stella Glow marks the end of an epoch. It was a small, personal epoch, but a memorable one to me nonetheless. With Imageepoch Inc.'s CEO Ryoei Mikage having gone missing and the company having filed for bankruptcy, the developer is all but defunct. Stella Glow makes for an appropriate swan song for Imageepoch, as it is both its tenth anniversary game and a spiritual successor to its first game, Luminous Arc. I would not call Imageepoch a great developer. The company made competent games (most of the time), but they didn't stand out in the grand scheme of JRPGs. I would not call it my most favorite developer, but I did enjoy all of its games that I have played. What is it about Imageepoch that makes me sad to see it go? Part of it might be that it is the only developer I've actually followed from the beginning. I also haven't played a game they made that is particularly bad in quality, like Time and Eternity. I find that there's a certain charm to its games that I can't quite describe, though I'll try. As a final send-off for this little developer that never really stood out, I'm going to relay my thoughts on the six Imageepoch-developed games I did play. I hope you will all enjoy my musings.

Luminous Arc

While Imageepoch was founded in 2005, 2007 would see the release of its first game: the DS tactical RPG Luminous Arc. It was a combination of Nintendo Power's positive review of the game, its anime art style, and the fact that it was published by Atlus USA that made me interested enough in the game to pick it up a few months after its release. Looking back at the game now, I can see it's a middling TRPG. The battle system is fairly simple, a bit slow, and the vast majority of the fights are very easy. The interface is notably awkward, especially when using touch controls. The story is also trite and unoriginal, and the fanservice is blatant.

That same story, and Luminous Arc as a whole, does not take itself seriously, which saves it. The game pokes fun at itself often and it is genuinely funny in spots. The characters are, dare I say, clichéd, but most of them are quirky and are characterized in such a way that make them memorable and fun. Two of my favorites are Lucia, the no-nonsense and deadpan Dawn Witch and Nikolai, a witch-obsessed loon with a delightfully hilarious voice. The cast's interaction and camaraderie is also noteworthy. And who could forget those wacky "Life of Kopin" segments, in which one of the series' mascot creatures would discuss recent events in an offbeat manner? All of this is aided by Atlus USA's excellent localization, though more so the script. The voice acting is decent overall, but it had its awkward moments.

Though later games would have much better music, the soundtrack in this game is still quite good and the opening theme "Brilliant World" is catchy and delightful. The main theme "Prelude," was composed by the renowned Yasunori Mitsuda. Mitsuda not only created key music pieces for games I will cover later on, but also leads the production company responsible for rest of the games' soundtracks, Procyon Studio. The game caught my attention with its tongue-in-cheek nature and quirky characters and I absolutely loved it. Over the years I came to see its faults more strongly, but I still find Luminous Arc charming. It's certainly not a bad game for a new developer's first project.

Luminous Arc 2

Luminous Arc 2 takes nearly everything Luminous Arc did and improves upon it. The battle system is faster, more balanced, and more challenging, including some really fun bonus boss fights. The controls are smoother and the interface more streamlined. The story is more original and arguably better, a major plot point involving the early antagonists' lack of communication skills aside. The characters are slightly, but noticeably, better characterized. They are more fleshed out in comparison to the first game with some fun interaction between certain members and with the group as a whole. As an example, there is my favorite character, the Brilliant Witch Dia. She is rather flippant, bossy, rash and sometimes acts like a bit of a ditz. Dia, though, is actually a good leader, is intelligent, selfless, and good at reading people. The voice acting is better and the music is head and shoulders above that in the original, especially the tracks composed by Yoko Shimomura.

I would hesitate to call Luminous Arc 2 a great game, since in spite of all of its improvements over the original, it still does little to stand out among other RPGs. Much like its predecessor, the fanservice continues to be an obvious staple that doesn't go away. The aforementioned awkward plot point could also make or break the game for someone. It even takes itself more seriously than the original game, which surprised me at first. There is still plenty of humor and lampshade hanging to be had, though.

Regardless, I do think Luminous Arc 2 is a good game and a favorite of mine on the original DS. Perhaps what is most telling about my enjoyment of the game is how much time I spent on it. There's still a few character intermissions in the original Luminous Arc I never went back to complete. Meanwhile, I completed the sequel 100%, seeing all of the intermissions, finishing all of the sidequests, and obtaining all of the "I, Kopin" post-chapter segments.

Sands of Destruction

I have such a love-hate relationship with Sands of Destruction. It is the only Imageepoch game I've played where my feelings are anything but generally positive. It has a very intriguing setting, a few seemingly unique story points, and some likable and engaging characters. As this game was published by Sega in North America, the localization isn't quite as strong as one made by Atlus USA, but it still holds its own. The two-second pauses between instances of dialogue are off-putting, but the acting itself is usually competent, even good. The music is great as well. Yet it seems that for every good or promising aspect that Sands of Destruction has, it has an irksome or aggravating flaw.

The battle system has promise and is fun, but it's very easy to exploit, cheapening most fights, including against bosses. What more, enemies can sometimes use these exploits themselves, leading to unfair game overs. The random encounter rate is incredibly high, with no means to lessen it. It's especially baffling since the North American release was allegedly delayed in order to fix the encounter rate. Though a story about protagonists trying to deliberately destroy the world is unique among JRPGs, it becomes quickly apparent that the goal won't last long. Only one of the playable characters is actually enthusiastic about ending the world, and the story soon becomes one about recreating the world instead. What more, the game can't decide how serious or silly it wants the story to be at any given moment, and it doesn't do it in the tongue-in-cheek manner that the Luminous Arc games do.

What especially infuriates me is how the character Morte is handled and her relationship with the main protagonist Kyrie. She's a flat character with no real reasons ever given for why she wants to destroy the world. So little of her backstory is explored that the game deliberately makes fun of its absence in one instance. Her romance with Kyrie is terribly paced and feels forced. Morte changes her goals because of Kyrie, but her feelings for him come out of nowhere and it seems to be a flimsy justification for her no longer wanting to end the world.

In spite of it all, there is still charm in what the game tries to do. Its flaws are numerous and serious, but it had such potential. I can't bring myself to love or hate Sands of Destruction, but I did enjoy my time with it. I would really like to see a sequel that vastly improves upon this game. Sadly, if Sega were to green light a follow up, it won't be Imageepoch who develops it.

Arc Rise Fantasia

I have already spoken at length before about the under-appreciated Wii RPG Arc Rise Fantasia, so I'll be brief. Arc Rise Fantasia was to be Imageepoch's first console game, and it was one of my most anticipated games at the time of its announcement. Almost everything about ARF hits the right notes for me: its vibrant anime art style with distinctive character designs, fast and strategic combat system, challenging boss battles, many memorable and likable characters, interesting story that explores some thought-provoking ideas, and wonderful music. ARF is even half-jokingly implied to be part of the same multiverse that the Luminous Arc games are in.

Arc Rise Fantasia does have a number of shortcomings, such as its weak graphics resolution in large areas, difficult surprise boss fights, and somewhat weak characterization later in the game. That's not even mentioning the game's most glaring flaws: its uninspired and occasionally confusing localized script and infamously awful voice acting. Of course, Imageepoch had little to do with that. It continues to be a shame that ARF did not get the recognition that it deserves. Regardless, it is one of my most favorite Wii titles and it remains my most favorite Imageepoch-developed game.

Luminous Arc 3

Luminous Arc 3: Eyes was sadly never localized, as it came out near the end of the DS's lifespan when the market was over-saturated and with piracy rampant. After a few years I gave up on a localization and bought a Japanese copy. Having played its predecessors, the battle system and controls were easy to figure out. My favorite aspect of the game is how it improves it upon Luminous Arc 2's combat. Battles move faster and the turn order is easier to read. Also, every character is actually useful, a rarity in tactical RPGs. There are two characters per element, specializing in either physical or magical attacks in order to better exploit weaknesses. Certain characters also specialize in tanking damage, buffing stats, or having the highest likelihood of going first in a battle.

I could not follow the story during my first time through the game, but it didn't seem particularly original. Much like the previous games, though, the characters are delightful. Despite being unable to understand their dialogue, I could still get a feel for their personalities through portrait expressions, tone of voice, CG stills, and even scenes using character sprites as opposed to only portraits, a first for the series. Luminous Arc 3 also has fourteen endings, one per character, which can be obtained by having the lead Refi/Levi interact with the rest of the party during post-battle After Breaks and other dating simulation-like mechanics.

I did enjoy my time with Luminous Arc 3, but the lack of an English version does hold the game back for me. While I can get a feel for the characters and read about them and the story on the Internet, it's not the same as experiencing it in-game. The first two games have excellent localizations, so it's an especial shame that this game was passed up for release in the West.

Stella Glow

I finally come to Imageepoch's swan song, the recently released Stella Glow. I was very happy when I learned that Atlus USA would publish the game in North America and hoped that it would at least be on par for Luminous Arc 2 in terms of quality. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. Stella Glow can be considered the best Luminous Arc game despite not actually being part of the series.

To begin with, the story is rather decent, being a shade more original than that of the Luminous Arc titles. The climax of the game and onward is especially well done. There is a botched usage of dramatic irony, but the writing is solid overall, especially with Atlus USA's usual excellent localization. Also, much like Stella Glow's spiritual predecessors, the characters are endearing and likable. None of them are particularly deep, but they are characterized well both during the main game and in Free Time conversations.

The combat system is also fast-paced and well balanced, with battles even providing an extra layer of challenge with bonus condition that earn players rare items if met. The music is excellent, not just due to the many vocal tracks that are integral to the game's story and battle system, but also the instrumental pieces as well. The voice acting is good as well. The fanservice is ever present, with some questionable decisions such as the ninja Nonoka's design and having a "side story" hot springs visit during the main game, but it is subtle in comparison to similar Japanese games.

Stella Glow, like many of Imageepoch's games, doesn't break any new ground or does anything particularly noteworthy. It is, however, a competent and solid tactical RPG with a lot of charm in its aesthetics, characters, and localization. Stella Glow is a very worthy final game for Imageepoch.

Looking over my experiences with Imageepoch, the best thing I can still say about the developer is that it (usually) made competent games with a strange hard-to-describe charm to them. I can see why other people wouldn't give Imageepoch the time of day, or even consider it a poor developer. Its games are not particularly original or noteworthy, and the few that could be considered as such are either bogged down with other flaws or were never localized. There are also titles like Time and Eternity, which was mostly panned by critics, and Criminal Girls, with a concept that can perhaps best be described as cringe-worthy. Regardless, I do think Imageepoch had promise and I enjoyed all of the games that I played. Special thanks goes to Atlus USA for publishing three of the developer's games in North America. The solid and often humorous dialogue and writing, as well as voice acting that is adequate at minimum, are all thanks to Atlus USA's excellent localization work.

I know there are much more capable RPG developers out there. I know that there are much better games than the ones Imageepoch has created. None of the intellectual properties I listed here are even necessarily gone, as they are all owned by either Marvelous Entertainment or Sega, leaving them open to the possibility of getting sequels. Indeed, Luminous Arc Infinity was released in Japan last year, although it was developed in-house by Marvelous. I don't even consider Imageepoch to be among my most favorite developers. It was a favorite developer, though, and its games all left an impression on me, some more than others. I am sad to see this small epoch come to an end.

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