While licensed games may have died down in recent years, no-one has told the Cartoon Network. We’ve had a steady stream of family-friendly games that have ranged from beat ’em-ups (Battle Crashers) to detective adventures (Adventure Time: Finn & Jake Investigations), and their quality has been variable but never less than decent. Steven Universe himself has cropped up in most of them, but his headline series has been the ‘Something-the-Light’ series, which has previously given us Attack the Light and Save the Light, the last of which made it to the Xbox One.
Following on from Save the Light, Steven Universe: Unleash the Light assumes you chose the ending where the Prism stayed on Earth, while events take place just before those of Steven Universe: The Movie. If you didn’t play Save the Light, or haven’t watched any Steven Universe beforehand, then prepare for roughly twenty minutes of complete bamboozlement. The various names will whizz past you in quick succession – Gems, Eras, Prisms – but it soon settles into a rhythm you’ll understand: you are the champions of democracy, banging the drum for peace under the name of ‘Era 3’. However, a couple of baddie Gems – Pyrope and Demantoid – have put their fingers in their ears and gone back to their authoritarian states to make sure their people do the same. You’re going to have to hunt them down, and bring peace by defeating enemies, which is a brand of hypocrisy that the game has fun with.
As with Save the Light, Steven Universe: Unleash the Light is a stripped-back, turn-based RPG, focusing mostly on combat and moving from room to room through various areas, grabbing any goodies that might be hiding. The other stuff you might be used to from JRPGs is pushed down: don’t expect too much in the way of story or a progressing narrative (although creator Rebecca Sugar co-writes, so the character interactions are great), and everything’s pretty much on rails.
It’s a simple structure that doesn’t ask too much of you. You’ll choose a level from a Super Mario World-style map, then portal into it. You don’t move the characters: rather, you move the rooms, sliding them in and your team catches up. In each room, there might be hidden items (grabbed with the right stick), hidden exits (taking you to secret rooms), chests to loot, pots to smash, puzzles or enemies.
The puzzles are cracking, actually: they’re that old chestnut of light beams and mirrors, with a goal of making sure the correct colour reaches a final prism. They’re in that sweet spot of simple but foxing, pitched at a level that a younger player could work out, but often sprawling over an entire map. On a later set of levels on a spaceship, which feel more like DLC than integrated into the main game, the puzzles switch track to become more fiendish but still well-structured, as you’re asked to attack nodes on a grid to make them all one colour; the problem being that your attacks are often area-of-effect, so you’re accidentally triggering the ones you shouldn’t, so you have to be precise. Both sets of puzzles get the thumbs up.
The only criticism of these puzzles, and the scanning for chests/urns/treasures, is that interacting with stuff can be so inaccurate and janky. You try to highlight them with your right stick, but there’s some weird latency at play, so the game takes a while to catch up. If there are a number of things to select from, Unleash the Light has trouble too, while puzzles that need further interaction with that item – like sliding a mirror into place – have a hard time communicating whether they’re ‘active’ or not. It’s all a bit unnecessarily sloppy, and you’d expect more from a long-running series that’s coming to the Xbox One and Series X|S late.
The puzzles are reasonably rare, though – probably one every few levels. The core of Steven Universe: Unleash the Light is the combat. Find some enemies and you’ll get into battle positions, or you’ll sometimes be unlucky enough to get ambushed, which encourages the enemies to go first. This is your traditional JRPG-style setup, with a bit of party-positioning going on. You have five ‘star’ points to use (until abilities kick in that boost it), and each of your characters has different attacks that cost different numbers of stars. So, you’re picking and choosing the best attacks, defences or heals for the situation, totalling them up to five if you can, before pushing ‘End Turn’.
What pushes Steven Universe: Unleash the Light into the ‘consider purchasing’ category is just how varied, fresh and awesome the different characters and their abilities are. We’d like to think we’re well-versed in turn-based battlers, but there are mechanics at play here that we’re new to, and they’re top notch. Bismuth is a personal favourite, effectively dragging a complete RPG crafting system into one character. Mid-battle, you can mine for crystals, and then start forging them. This takes an enemy-turn to complete, and Bismuth is effectively defenceless during that period. When it comes back to her, she’ll have a super-powered buff or artefact to offer the entire party.
But that’s okay, as you have personal favourite number #2, Garnet. She’s slightly more traditional, in that she’s a tank who can absorb attacks and then counter, and she can act as Bismuth’s protection, making them a must-have duo for our team. This synergy is way more than we expected from a family-friendly ‘training wheels’ RPG, and there are plenty more of them to be found. While we didn’t warm to his power levels, there’s a latter character called Peridot who summons turrets that can absorb, fire and self-destruct, and she feels just as unique as Bismuth.
It’s not a case of just activating an ability and sitting back, maybe catching an episode of Steven Universe at the same time. Unleash the Light is pretty intensive, demanding that your reflexes are on point. Pearl, the DPS-dealer for the team, has a basic attack that CAN hit three times in succession, but only if you time it to the visual cues. Another of her attacks fires in a straight line, so you’re lining it up so that you nick a pixel on as many enemies as you can. Peridot’s basic even has you firing a stream of bullets, with you controlling it like you were suddenly in a shmup. These all manage to just-about make combat varied and joyful all the way to the end.
We say just-about, as it could still have benefitted from some tuning, as match-ups take slightly longer than we would have liked. Particularly when you’re chewing through some of the larger stages, like Pyrope’s Palace which acts almost like a survival mode, where they can get slightly too laborious. A couple of niggles cause this, including combat animations that go on slightly too long (the same goes for the exploration, actually: even with a ‘skip’ function, the grabbing of keys is about three seconds too long), and enemies that refuse to cluster and whose life points are about 25% too high. It’s all a pacing thing: we’d have just liked to rattle through things a little quicker, although latter abilities make everything moot anyway, as you become a teenage combat Adonis.
There are a fair few ways to improve your character, and they’re a varied bunch. Each character has three equipment slots, and you’ll get suitably strange stuff to stick in them, like pizzas, toys and NES cartridges. These are the weakest of the improvements, as they amount to nothing more than boosts to stats. The odd status ability would have been golden here. You get a Borderlands-style set of perk paths per character, and these are more niche than you might expect, while the real winner-winners are the Badges, which give huge boosts but you can only socket one or two at once. It was here that we did most of our tinkering, as Badges can be worn by any character.
Outside of this, things are extremely simple, hinting at what might have been a bigger focus if Unleash the Light wanted them to be. There are occasional cities where you can find quests, which tend to track passively as you play the game proper – things like forging a full list of items with Bismuth, or smashing pots. Bosses turn up at the end of stages, and are good, if a little meek: most could feasibly have been enemies, and don’t quite have that boss ‘x-factor’. Shops offer items that you’ve probably got loads of already, and the items themselves are mostly chaff and we ended up focusing on only a few.
The niggles tended not to matter, though. Steven Universe: Unleash the Light knows exactly what it is good at, and the frillery – like the items, quests and collectibles – are just as ignorable as they are flawed. Combat and exploration is where Steven Universe sticks all of its chips, and wisely so – it’ll pull you through to the very end with a smile on your face. With a campaign that goes into the double-figures of hours, that’s quite the achievement.
In all honesty, we were sidewinded by Steven Universe: Unleash the Light on Xbox. We came into it without any experience of Save the Light, and had unfounded assumptions that this was a My First RPG that would be as dull as dishwater. What we got was something in the way of Costume Quest 1 and 2: a witty, elegant little turn-based RPG that surprised every time that we thought it would dive into monotony. Don’t dismiss Unleash the Light as throwaway – it might just swallow up your weekend.