Steven Universe: Save the Light is an active-time battle RPG developed by Grumpyface Studios and published by Cartoon Network Games for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It features characters and locations from the popular Cartoon Network show, Steven Universe, and is a sequel to the highly praised Steven Universe: Attack the Light that was released on mobile devices in 2015. It is the first game that Grumpyface Studios have developed for consoles, in order to expand from the relatively small scope of the original game.
As a huge fan of the show (I’m swaddled in my Steven Universe blanket while writing this review!), I greatly enjoyed Attack the Light when I first discovered it a year or so ago, but I didn’t ever beat it because of technical issues with the platform (read: my phone sucks). As a successor to Attack the Light that greatly expands the amount exploration and complexity of combat from the previous game, as well as an even more heartfelt love letter to fans of the show, Save the Light certainly courts both fans of its previous game and the show that evolved a great deal in between installments. However, an unacceptable number of bugs and glitches, many of which are game-crashing, combined with a general lack of polish, uninspired puzzles, and clunky controls, considerably bog down the experience from what might have been a fun, easygoing romp through Beach City and beyond to an often-frustrating tug-of-war between the player and the game. Nonetheless, it’s hard for this Steven Universe fanatic not to love this mess of a game for what it does get right, and for what it tries so hard to do.
All of the events of both Attack the Light and Save the Light are what Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar describes as “Level 2 canon.” Basically, everything in the video games is canon, unless something happens in the show that contradicts one of the games, which then makes those specific parts of the games non-canon. However, the adventures of Attack the Light are not mentioned at all in the show aside from one small Easter egg, and it is highly unlikely that the events of Save the Light will have any bearing on the show. Both the events of Attack the Light and those of the show between the two games impact Save the Light, with the beginning recapping the events of the former. The game seems to take place in season four, before the final few episodes, but no major revelations from the show past season three are featured.
The game begins with Steven and Connie playing with Light Steven from Attack the Light at the temple, who suddenly disappears. They chase after him when a gem spaceship crashes into Greg’s carwash. Out of the ship steps Hessonite, the original antagonist for Save the Light. She steals the Light Prism containing Light Steven, releases the army of light creatures upon the world once again, and disappears. The goal of the game is to find Hessonite, save Light Steven (Save the light, if you will) and rid the world of the light army.
The story itself was written in large part by Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe. The writing from all of the characters is faithfully accurate to how all of the characters would speak, with all of the charm and wit associated with the show. While minor parts of the story only involve voice clips, important cutscenes are fully voice-acted by the original cast of the show. Performances are generally well done, with Tony award-winning actress Christine Baranski playing the diva-like villain, Hessonite. The only exception is for Garnet’s voice actress, Estelle, the pop star most famous for “American Boy.” While her performance as the cool yet occasionally fiery leader of the crystal gems in the show is fantastic, her performance in Save the Light sadly comes across like she had a hangover at the booth, a problem that also existed in Attack the Light.
While the game nearly meets the level of the show in terms of charm, it falls short as far as tearjerkers go. Anyone who can watch Steven Universe and not cry multiple times per season is not a person to be trusted, but the game keeps things relatively light. The end does go a bit deeper into humanizing Hessonite, which should come to no surprise for any fans of the show, and has a handful of more serious moments, but it doesn’t linger on them. And to be honest, I’m alright with the happy-go-lucky tone of the game. As all of the characters refer to almost ad nauseum, they are self-aware that their adventure strongly parallels that of a traditional RPG, and as such, the story has this whimsical feel even less rooted in reality than the show itself. The games remind me a bit of the episode “Garnet’s Universe,” but instead of showing Steven’s enthusiasm for anime, it shows his enthusiasm for video games.
If you’ve played Attack the Light or Mario & Luigi, the combat should feel similar. There will be enemies in the overworld that can attack you in real time to inflict damage and initiate combat, and vice versa. Some combat can be skipped by outrunning them, but a fair number of fights are mandatory. If you only focus on four or five characters, you should be fine skipping most fights, which I found myself doing often. I’ll go into that later.
The game transitions seamlessly into combat without a transition screen, with the characters and enemies walking into their places. Once combat begins, your star meter will fill up over time, which you use to execute attacks. When either you or an enemy attack, you tap a button, and the result will depend on how soon or late you pressed it. If you’re on the offensive, a perfect button press will do extra damage and have other possible bonuses, ok timing will be slightly less damage, and being way off will do very little damage, with none of the usual effects. If you’re on the defensive, perfect is little damage done with possible bonuses, ok is the average amount, and completely missing does extra damage against you. This is no new game mechanic, but Final Fantasy IV and the recent “Project Octopath Travelers” demo come to mind as games that share a similar system, among surely countless others. But there’s a reason why this has been used so much, and it’s because it works.
Steven, who has to be on the team at all times, is a healer, with a cheap attack to brush off the last sliver of an enemy’s HP and knock them off ledges. Connie is an excellent protector with her move that allows her to take a hit for another team member and parry it, with a standard midrange attack more powerful than Steven but less so than Garnet. Greg supplies buffs by playing his guitar to increase the speed the star gage fills up, gradually heal the party closest to him, or gradually chip away at enemies’ HP. Garnet is a heavy hitter, with powerful moves that chips off a sizable amount of enemy health. Amethyst has moves that can hit multiple enemies at once. Pearl has a spear attack similar to Connie’s, but she can also use projectile attack that are perfect for dealing with aerial enemies. Finally, Peridot can build turrets that chip away at an enemy’s health as well as distract them, as well as a midrange projectile move. You can only have four characters in a team at once, so you’ll have to think about how they complement each other. Garnet was so useful that I seldom took her off the team, which gained her more experience and in turn made her even more invaluable. Greg was always paired with Connie so I could have her protect him while he was playing the guitar. And Amethyst and Peridot quickly became obsolete because I never used them except for a few specific circumstances, although I admit that is entirely my fault.
Each character also has a reasonably large amount of customization available to them. Each time a character levels up, you can use points to increase attack, defense, luck, and teamwork, the last of which increases affinity with other characters more quickly, which I will go into later. Additionally, at certain points along each stat, you can unlock different abilities, from new attacks to buffs. You will also find badges along the way, which can be attached to characters to do anything from increase experience gained, negate or inflict a certain status effect, or buff a stat. Some of them will only work on certain characters, however.
For items, there is the Cheeseburger Backpack. Most of the items are your standard fare, buffing attack, defense, making one move free, and, most useful, adding more star points. Using items liberally is the key to success, but there is a cooldown period where the backpack can’t be used. Additionally, if Steven gets knocked out, it can’t be accessed at all until he is revived. The items themselves are loving references to various episodes of the show that I greatly enjoyed.
You can upgrade your character’s weapons by collecting chroma in the overworld. Once you have enough, go to the Forge (from “Bismuth”), and you can upgrade your weapons to do more damage and have additional abilities. Each character’s weapon can be upgraded twice, and in my playthrough, I only upgraded two of them. While this is surprisingly perfect for a weapon upgrade system to be so effortlessly integrated from the show (for those who don’t know, Bismuth upgraded all of the gems’ weapons at the Forge), its inclusion seems a little unnecessary and half-baked, but perhaps it reaches more use in the post-game.
The last significant mechanics are fusions and team attacks. If two characters (counting Garnet as one) are able to fuse in the show, they can in the game, with a total of five available fusions. Fusions have significantly more HP and have fantastic moves that work great against bosses or particularly nasty enemies. They’re quite clever as well, integrating the strengths of the two characters and making an even greater one, much like the show! These moves are costly in terms of star points, however, so use them wisely. Combos are even more powerful than the moves fusions can pull off, or very strong buffs for characters in multiple stats, but the obvious drawback is that these moves can only be used once, with moves from fusions being available throughout the entire battle.
In order to fuse or use a combo, the two characters need to increase their friendship, which can happen through protecting one another in combat, complimenting a character for a perfect execution of a move, or having them give each other presents. One they reach maximum friendship, the fusion or combo is unlocked. You can only use it once, and then you’re all the way back to square zero, so make it count!
It’s a fair amount of information to handle for about a nine-hour game, and it was definitely frustrating to grasp everything from the start, combined with not having the timing down for the various moves. However, once I figured out what I was supposed to be doing, around halfway through world two, I started to get into a groove. Once you get the basics down, there’s a fair amount of customization you can do, from equipping different team members with different badges, having different members on the team to achieve specific fusions or combos, to lowering a boss’ defense, fusing, raising the fusion’s attack, and then taking a quarter out of the boss’ health.
At its best, combat feels exciting, dynamic, and tense. At its worst, it’s a slog I can’t wait to get over with. While bosses are a joy to fight, there isn’t a huge number of different light enemies to keep things interesting, so standard fights often feel like unnecessary repeats, especially towards the middle of the game, after the initial novelty but before things get interesting.
When not in combat, you will be exploring the overworld. I found it extremely cathartic to finally walk through beach city, but the area is pretty small, and you unfortunately can’t enter people’s houses, except for the temple. There is a very small number of NPCs consisting of characters from the show that will ask you to collect items and bring them back for a reward, but these “side-quests” are so small in their scope that they’re barely worth acknowledging.
The rest of the game takes place over essentially five areas, which are relatively linear in structure. Each area consists of five or so levels, with an extra area that serves as an optional extra challenge to come back to later after finding a key in another area. To break up the pace of going from battle to battle, there are various puzzles, such as finding seeds to plant a tree to get up to the next area, jumping across ice platforms, and moving magnetic blocks around. I’ll put things bluntly: these puzzles and platforming segments suck. Except for the quite good end-game dungeon where Grumpyface seem to have finally brought their A-game (and even then they range from standard to somewhat interesting), the puzzles are uninspired and easily broken in many cases, with the “platforming” on ice in the second world leading me to be the most frustrated I’ve been with the game in a while, because each time you fall in the water, you receive a status ailment where you slowly lose HP until you use an item that’s in limited supply! To Grumpyface’s credit, not once did I feel confounded by a puzzle. They were kept straightforward, but perhaps a little too straightforward. I should note, however, that the final two dungeons of the game that I genuinely enjoyed take almost almost four hours to beat, making them a bit over a third of the entire game if you’re not looking to complete it.
From both breaking crystals (slightly morbid for Steven Universe, even if they’re non-sentient) found in the overworld and winning battles, you will gain a form of currency (sadly not the dollars with “sneople” on them) which you can use to buy badges and items from Onion at certain points. You can also find a plethora of items and badges out in the open in the same way you find currency, making currency a little obsolete around halfway through.
Not only do completionists have their work cut out for them with the extra challenges, but there are plenty of collectables to find in each area. I was never compelled to find them all, but for those who are, the game clearly spells out to you what you’re missing and what level to find it in. The actual fun you’ll have doing this depends on how much you enjoy combing through areas with average to abysmal level design in order to find largely meaningless collectibles.
All of these past complaints are what I feel to be legitimate, but ultimately not damning. They expose flaws in a combat system that still ultimately works well at best, and acceptably at worst. While I’m no huge fan of what’s in-between combat, that’s largely supplemental. It’s not the main course. However, the following criticism is one so grave that it takes the game from being a fun, if occasionally ho-hum, game for fans of the show, to one that I have trouble recommending to people:
This game has bugs up the wazoo! I’m talking about falling though floors, getting stuck in all sorts of places, game-crashing glitches that happen consistently, with silly ones occurring almost every 10 minutes and game-freezing ones occurring once or twice every half hour or so. The game does have a save and quit feature that I was able to access whenever this happened, but it would take me back to the beginning of the level, so I might have lost up to 20 minutes of gameplay. This made me want to avoid combat even more, because I knew each chance I fought, there was a chance the game would freeze on me, and it even completely crashed once.
Grumpyface have stated that they are working on these issues, and patches have already started rolling out while I was in the middle of writing this review, along with some small changes in the game’s balance. From general fan impressions, the patch seems to improve some bug fixes but certainly not all of them. Definitely do some research about the state of the game’s bugs before making a purchase.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
The bugs certainly affect the game’s presentation in a way unintended, but these made me laugh more than rage. Some of my personal favorites are where characters will fall in a loop, gaining momentum until they’re a blur of frames and they respawn next to you, or the one time when Garnet was frozen in ice from a battle and then moved around and detained the lovable side antagonist, “Squaridot,” still appearing frozen stiff all the while. It was one time seeing part of the game "freeze" made me smile, although not in a way the developers wanted.
When the game does work as intended, however, it looks even better. The game imitates the show’s “zoomed-out” style, which would occur whenever anyone was far away, or for a comic effect. The style is even more minimalist than the show’s usual look, which I personally love. While not coming close to imitating the recent South Park triumphs of perfectly replicating the show’s art style, Save the Light does the next best thing in dealing with a significantly more visually complex show, and it pulls it off very well. Strawberry fields and the Sky Arena in particular are a treat for the eyes of any fan of the show.
The game’s music, however, is quite disappointing. While the show is known for some of the most emotionally charged tunes, both incidental and lyrical, the game has its standard musical fare. It’s energetic and appropriate RPG music, but it isn’t anything like that of the show, and certainly nowhere near its quality. A nice touch is that when Greg or Steven play the guitar or ukulele, respectively, the music changes to incorporate those instruments, but it makes me wonder if this compromised the number of tracks in the game. The selection is small, and while I never became too annoyed with it because of the game’s short length, some more variety would have been welcome, even if the quality wasn’t as high as I’d hoped.
Steven Universe: Save the Light does not have the widespread appeal of Attack the Light. The original was a small but fun mobile game that didn’t try to do too much, but did what it could very well. The latter took the series to platforms that Grumpyface clearly weren’t ready for, with technical issues, uninspired level design, and a general misunderstanding of what is expected from a console game pervading throughout the entire experience. I would have much preferred a middle-of-the-road approach, perhaps on 3DS, expanding more on the scope of the former but not biting off more than it could chew. There is a game with a genuinely fun battle system and a lot of heart buried under repetitive combat, dull puzzles, and holy hell a lot of bugs.
|+ Faithful to the show's writing||– Bugs for days|
|+ Strong and substantial end-game||– Small variety of already sub-par music|
|+ A fair amount of strategy involved with combat||– Combat becomes repetitious with limited variety of enemies|
|+ Pretty locales presented in an adorable minimalist style|