Steven Universe: Unleash the Light Review
Before I get started on this review, I thought it’d be good to provide some context on why Steven Universe: Unleash the Light is such a bizarrely perfect scenario for me. First of all there’s the obvious- it’s an RPG, and we’re pretty fond of that genre here. Not only that, but it’s an RPG in the vein of the Paper Mario games, one that has you as more of an active participant in combat rather than just issuing commands, which is perfect for gimmick-lovers like myself.
Then there’s the big one- Steven Universe is one of my favorite pieces of media in the world. I don’t mean that lightly either, I adore the original show, the music, the animation and especially the epilogue series Steven Universe Future. Kingdom Hearts is the only thing I’d put above it, and that’s arguably because I’m closer to games than I am to any other medium. I won’t turn this into a Steven Universe love essay, but rest assured it’s one of the most inclusive, heart-warming, mature cartoons I have ever seen and one that I grew up alongside.
All of this is to say that Steven Universe means a lot to me, but that doesn’t mean Unleash the Light gets a free pass because of where it came from. The last entry in the series, Save the Light, was a bit mixed in my opinion with some uneven combat and slow exploration that made me put it down after a few hours. I have a sweet spot for Steven Universe, but I’m not going to go claiming the Rocknaldo episodes were any good or that White Diamond arc didn’t end abruptly.
Despite all of my furious attempts at not allowing myself any bias, it turns out that wasn’t really necessary; Steven Universe: Unleash the Light is the best Steven Universe game out there sure but it’s also a fun RPG in its own right thanks to some awesome combat, great music and a love for the show that shines through in every aspect. It’s great for many more reasons than its source material.
Steven Universe: Unleash the Light takes place after the conclusion of the original show and before the epilogue series Steven Universe Future. Steven is going from planet to planet introducing gems to Era 3 and the dismantling of the Diamond authority. Upon hearing of two new gems who wield powerful light prisms and won’t follow the new free way of living, Demantoid and Pyrope, Steven and the Crystal Gems embark on a quest to stop them and once again bring peace to the galaxy.
It’s a simple set-up but it gets that Steven Universe magic right in the character interactions. I particularly loved the interactions between Steven and George, which may make me a narcissist but still. Unleash the Light gives a rare look at Steven’s life after the main series and shows him at his most confident and happy. Anyone who’s watched the movie or Future knows how bad things get for him after this point, and although I loved that emotional depth in the show I’m actually really happy to see this side of him. Tonally this feels very in-line with the original show, with all of the characters feeling like they were written by the actual Steven Universe crew.
I’m also very happy to be able to see more of the larger Steven Universe… uh, universe. The show was pretty grounded in a few different locations and rarely went far beyond Earth but in Unleash the Light we get to visit different planets with Jades, Peridots and Bismuths. It’s a nice touch and something that isn’t really seen anywhere else in the series.
There’s also a ton of in-jokes and references that tie this game into the original series. Everything from items in the menu, to the names of most of the skills are references to the show and it all feels genuine rather than forced in for the sake of pleasing fans. Some of the quips felt a little bit repetitive towards the end, but that’s minor compared to all of the love that’s been put in otherwise. For newcomers to Steven Universe, I’m sure you lose a little bit of magic without knowing all the little touches here and there, but I think the fun gameplay will be enough on its own.
One problem I previously had with Attack the Light and Save the Light was the graphical style. Attack was straight up ugly, whilst Save had some nice touches but still felt a little bit off. Thankfully, I think Unleash has done it best, with a more painterly look to the character models, as well as arguably the best music out of the three titles. Perhaps the focus on less exploration allowed more room for the art side of things, but either way it’s certainly an improvement over the last two titles.
Speaking of improvements, Unleash the Light is easily the best playing game in the trilogy too. It mixes ideas from the first two games to make the best out of the three, and it’s really this side of the game that I enjoyed the most. It’s all well and good looking and sounding great, but if the game doesn’t feel good to play it’s a waste. Thankfully that’s not the case here.
Rather than being open-ended like the last title, Unleash the Light has you moving from stage to stage on a world map. Each stage is filled with enemy encounters, puzzles, hidden items and more for the player to find and work towards a 100% ranking. The stages are fairly short and can take around 10 minutes each, but it’s surprisingly addictive working through them all to completion. Movement is extremely limited now, with the player basically just moving from room to room with one flick of the stick. This was my biggest concern going into the game, but it honestly works really well and keeps things moving at a speedy pace.
This brings us to the heart of the game- the combat. As I mentioned earlier, the closest comparison I can think of is the Paper Mario games, with combat making you actively time button presses and blocks rather than having you watch on the sidelines. Combat works in a turn-based fashion now, rather than the more freeform fashion of Save the Light. Both games have the same star meter that has you spending items to use moves, but in this game once you run out of points you end your turn and the enemy begins theirs. In the last game there weren't really turns at all, you just had to wait for that meter to fill up, which meant a ton of time was spent just waiting for anything to happen. There’s none of that here now and the combat sings because of it.
Another big improvement is the fact that you can now swap where your party members are positioned whilst in battle, which means that you can send the healer to the back to be protected, or move a character to the top so that they can hit more enemies. It seems like a simple change, but it gives you so many more options.There’s no more knockback or friendship meter either which is a godsend because those mechanics made battles a lot slower. Save the Light was certainly experimentative and I appreciate that, but I’m really glad to see this style of turn-based combat come back.
I was surprised at just how much depth there was to the combat thanks to the variety in each character’s moveset. Although there aren’t classes, each character has their own role that matches their character. Steven acts as a healer whilst Amethyst is a glass cannon with amazing range and Garnet is a powerhouse that works well as a leader. New characters Bismuth and Lapis provide a lot of variety as well, adding in some trickier moves to come to terms with, even if I do miss Greg and Connie being part of the roster.
Factor all of this in alongside fusions, special moves, item usage and the fact that you’re having to block every attack and try to master the timings of your own and Unleash the Light can actually be a pretty formidable challenge. I never had a game over but there were a lot of close calls and tense moments. Things get easier as you go on, but it was never a cakewalk. I do wish that there was an option to speed up battles, as towards the end of my playthrough I was getting a little bit tired of watching some of the animations play out, but that might be because I played the game from start to finish in a few sit downs. Because of the game's active combat, I can also appreciate that this sort of addition isn't an easy one.
Unleash the Light is also pretty developed as an RPG, with some cool skill trees that feel really worthwhile and badges and charms that make battles a ton of fun to mess around with. Each character can go up to level 30 and have two sides to their skill tree, but the range of upgrades and moves made it a lot of fun to experiment with.
Save the Light introduced actual free-moving exploration across Beach City and several other areas from the show, but Unleash the Light pares that down a massive amount and only really has one explorable area with the Temple of Light. It’s kind of a shame that there’s no proper exploration but if it was the trade-off for a more satisfying combat system and a quicker pace I think it’s a worthy trade.
Speaking of the Temple of Light, it’s one of the cooler elements of the game. Three of the game’s worlds are stage-based and pretty formulaic, but the Temple of Light is this big dungeonesque level that opens up as you unlock more of it. The enemies in here level alongside you as well which means it’s a great place to grind battles out. It makes for a great final challenge before the game ends, and there’s a lot to it that I still haven’t gotten around to seeing. It took me around 9 hours to finish the main game, but I think you could get up to 15 if you were trying for 100% completion, which I’d honestly recommend doing.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering if I have any problems at all with Unleash the Light, and there are a few things that bring it down a bit. For example, the lack of exploration is a bit of a shame, the targeting can feel a bit flimsy when trying to select objects within the world and the whole experience is pretty short in reality. My biggest complaint overall is the repetition that eventually sets in towards the end, but I’m willing to admit that most people aren’t going to beat it in two sittings without many breaks. Even though this is a great port, this was clearly meant to be a phone game and it shows from how everything is structured.
Even with that repetition, at the end of my time with Unleash the Light I was left wanting even more of it. There are so many improvements to the game’s base mechanics and so much potential in the world of Steven Universe that I just want more. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but at the very least I got to experience a game that not only works on its own merits, but simultaneously shows off everything I love about Steven Universe.