There are pretty much three things that I care about in life: mobile games, baseball, and cartoons. How society decided I was an adult was a tremendous failure on the part of a lot of people, but we’ve got to live with the consequences. My latest obsession besides games or crying over Texas Rangers players suffering season-ending injuries? It’s Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, who pretty much wrote and storyboarded all the best episodes of Adventure Time before she became the first woman to create a Cartoon Network show. And Steven Universe is amazing. It’s gotten better and better as it’s passed its first season, it’s picking up fans, and it is now the recipient of its own licensed game, in Attack the Light ($2.99).
Cartoon Network and Adult Swim Games’ regular key collaborator Grumpyface Studios, who did Adventure Time Game Wizard ($4.99), Castle Doombad ($2.99), and plenty more games, are the developers here. They made this a Mario and Luigi style of RPG that has just enough action to be an involving game. If you want an intense challenge, prepare for disappointment. But there’s a lot here to love, even if you’re not a fan of the show.
If you haven’t watched the show, shame on you; not that I can judge. But the plot to Attack the Light is that Steven and the Crystal Gems – his protectors/stand-in mothers because his actual mom gave up her physical form to give birth to him – have to restore seven creatures who escaped from a powerful light prism back to their rightful place. Steven is still figuring out his powers, so he’s a weakling who plays a support role to the Crystal Gems, who do all the battling.
This is cleverly lampshaded in the game itself, where Steven starts out at level 1, but the Gems start out at 9001. Not only is this a clever “OVER 9000!" reference, it works to justify that Steven is unable to do anything besides provide support. The gems have been around for millennia; they’ve leveled up a few thousand times in the interim. Other games throw out flimsy excuses for why seemingly-powerful characters are so weak, or just strip abilities from powerful heroes for no good reason. Here, there is a clever justification and dank memeage!
Combat works off of a star system, where you get 5 stars per round in combat, and every ability that a character has uses up a certain number of star points. You can also save star points and end your turn early, though you can only have a maximum of 9 points at a time. Why save points, besides being able to do more moves in a round? Well, some enemies are unhittable, will do damage to you in their current state, or have a shield. Shield breaker abilities take at least 3 stars, so if you have just 2 and need to break a shield, best bet is to end your turn.
Some abilities need more than 5 stars, and these are the most powerful moves. This includes the 9-star Alexandrite fusion summon, where a giant six-armed creature comes down and just smashes everything in sight. It’s a practical instant-win button for regular encounters once you have it unlocked. Yet it requires 9 star points and that the entire party has full health, so it requires particular circumstances to trigger. If your party has full health entering the battle, then you can use an item to fill your star points or to get one free move, and start a battle with Alexandrite. The summon won’t kill bosses in one hit, and items that give off a lot of star points don’t come cheap, but if you can do it, go for it as quickly as possible.
Timing plays a role in combat as well. Many attacks can strike again if you time a tap with a star that pops on screen, which also appears when enemies attack. Star defenses can reduce damage and even resist status effects. Some abilities have meters that involve timing or rapid taps, and a couple need aiming. Pearl has a spear attack that can hit multiple enemies if the angles are just right. There doesn’t appear to be the ability to rearrange party members, which is a shame, as Pearl’s spear would be deadlier from Garnet’s center position. This might be a balancing factor, as Pearl feels like by far the deadliest character if you level up her attack stat and abilities.
Each character gains experience if they survive a battle, and upon level up, they can unlock new abilities, upgrade stats, or enhance existing abilities. There is a level cap, so you need to make intelligent upgrade choices each time, as you might not get a chance to choose something else. The more moves a character uses, the more experience they get afterward. Still, everyone gets experience for surviving a battle. Steven gets experience just for being there, and he can get new support abilities, and the ability to hold more money. If a character dies, they come back with a small amount of health after the battle, holding true to how Gems can only die for real if their gem breaks. They don’t revive in slightly-different outfits as they do in the show, but this appears to be a “Grumpyface’s artists need some shreds of sanity" decision. That I care about this shows how deep I am here. Again, how am I an adult?
But that characters don’t just die and just retreat into their games shows the care that went into the game. The Steven Universe show often makes video game references: a Sanic action figure makes an appearance in one episode. The creative staff helped with various aspects of the game, so you had to know that good references would be there. The game pokes fun at RPG tropes in a way that doesn’t overplay its hand, but it does laugh at how Steven will get items from behind rocks and from skeletons. Also, this spawned hilarious fan art.
The point is that the game strikes that balance between using RPG tropes, and acknowledging them and poking a bit of fun at them. Don’t expect much in the way of lore relating to the show, but there’s plenty of fan-friendly moments. Steven and the Crystal Gems have the voice actors from the show saying recognizable lines and catchphrases, and a couple of familiar settings are present. The character designs are simpler than the actual ones, but they all resemble the simulated humans from the “Rose’s Room" episode. They have the same eye designs, too! It’s not all that out of place, either, as the show itself uses simplified designs when necessary, and the animation is still of the typical Grumpyface high caliber.
The overworld exploration works well, in that you can just swipe around everywhere to go from room to room, and tap on items to pick them up. It’s perfect for a touchscreen game. Nothing is too secret or hidden, but this is a game for kids that adults can also enjoy, just like the show itself. This factors in to the difficulty as well. The game isn’t ‘easy’, but it’s one that once you figure out your strategy, and if you figure out the star timing, you can do well at it.
For me, I wound up using Pearl as my wrecking ball through the game, because her attacks are so effective and powerful. Her one-star attack is handy and it feels like two of those do more damage than Garnet’s two-star attack. Pearl’s spear does massive damage, and is a regular part of my attack plan. Her disable ability is great for unleashing Alexandrite on a powerful lone enemy by disabling them long enough to set up to unleash it. Her fireball is a powerful attack for either going after groups or to deal massive damage on one enemy. Plus, there’s much less risk with her attacks than with the others’ if you’re comfortable with aiming them.
Garnet’s six-hit combo is tough to pull off with its timing, especially when you rarely use it. Garnet’s swipe-whip is potentially deadly but it requires fast swiping. The Purple Puma has a risk because timing all 3 hits on the meter to use it is challenging. And her spin-dash attack isn’t great. But Amethyst as a group attacker is handy, especially if you pair it with fire salt to burn everyone. Garnet’s shield-buster is effective in certain circumstances, but she was the least effective of the three Gems. This is a surprise because she’s positioned as the most powerful Gem on the show. Still, with upgrade choices, your characters may have different quality levels than mine did.
Attack the Light is $2.99 and without IAP, which is quite the value for a game with this level of production value and length. You’ll get a few hours at least out of this, and there’s reason to backtrack to find secrets and play the tough gauntlet levels. Each level tracks how many treasure chests or other secrets there are to discover, so you’re never at a loss about what you may need to do to get that vaunted 100% completion. Remember that Attack the Light is for kids to enjoy. Experienced players may not find it so difficult, but it’s still a fun ride. Less-experienced gamers may get a bit more challenge out of this.
I admit to some bias toward Attack the Light because I am a Steven Universe fan. I had more excitement for a licensed game than a twenty-eight year old man should have. But in my somewhat old age, I also can recognize a stinker of a licensed game versus one that I enjoy on its own merits. Some of the Adventure Time games are hit or miss, for example. But with Attack the Light, Grumpyface delivered a fantastic RPG that anyone can enjoy.