PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5
November 20, 2023
Armor Games Studios
In Stars and Time is a vibrant and charming indie game that has followed the somewhat recent trend of time-loop shenanigans. The world and many of its characters are frozen in time, brought upon by spellcraft from the evil King who rules all. However, our hero Sifrin (Frin for short) is looping whenever they die. They are reliving more or less the same set of time each time they’re brought back. They too appear to be the only one remembering, or aware of this loop. Controlling this hero and a party of companions, you must ascend the tower known as The House, defeat the King and, hopefully, free the land of this time-hell.
Sporting a bunch of inspirations from modern and retro classics, it’s hard not to be enchanted by In Stars and Time thanks largely also due to its sharp and witty writing spouted from its diverse cast. I just wish it was a little bit shorter and more contained
Set in the contemporary fantasy town of Dormont, Sifrin is experiencing the same two days time and time again. The night before setting off to the House to fight the King and the day of, ultimately aiming to restore everything to how it once was. Along for the journey (although unaware it’s looping) is a youngling, mischievous non-binary by the name of Bonnie, the anxious but ever-endearing housemaiden Mirabelle, the scholar with a hard exterior but soft interior known as Odile and last but certainly not least is the Himbo supreme, the buff but sweetest of all Isabeau.
All of these party members are crucial and you’ll get to know them all intimately. For example, Bonnie’s mischievous nature compliments their role of being the party’s cook, providing snacks and also chaotically running in for random attacks mid-battle despite not being in your formation. Another nice and tender touch is just the natural diversity of the cast. Our hero Frin just uses the pronouns he/they. It’s not ever really brought up in dialogue. Their pronouns are just used correctly and I love that touch and I love that for him.
In Stars and Time’s greatest strength is in its cast and how they’re portrayed, along with the frankly incredible writing. I’m getting this comparison out of the way now, but this is an RPG clearly inspired by classics such as Earthbound, Undertale and even the more recent Omori. Small, self-aware quirky and frankly hilarious moments of dialogue will ensue throughout. You will meet a character early on called Tutorial Kid, intent on showing you how fun rock, paper and scissors (the means of combat) is to play. Another local on Dormont’s first day will try to remain passive and unconvinced that you’ll succeed against fighting the King, but if you do, it’d really work for her because she’d get to keep reading issues of her favourite serialised romance novels.
Like its eccentric but meaningful RPG inspirations before it, I don’t believe it’d be a spoiler to state that In Stars and Time also tackles difficult and complex themes and ideas such as mental health, self-worth and even self-harm to name a few. I can confidently share that it tackles these issues with the delicate care they deserve, depicting accurate moments of depression and self-doubt with dialogue so writing so punchy that it feels very similar to some of my own past experiences.
You’ll be experiencing nigh one-hundred loops, maybe more. Of course in that time, Sifrin’s own will and self-determination is going to be tested. It uses this in conjunction with the time-loop mechanic in clever ways. He’ll be less patient in subsequent loops, engage in negative self-talk and begin to question the purpose of it all. Without spoiling too much, your journey will be a little more complex than just defeating the King. There’ll be different investigative threads to follow to work out why you keep looping and how to stop it. What’s the deal with the King? Why can’t Frin remember where they’re from? These are just some of the questions answered, but the game will have to break and test our protagonist a little to do so first
This is where In Stars and Time starts to feel long in the teeth. As Sifrin isn’t informing his friends of the loop they’re currently all experiencing, that feeling of dread and the mountain of trouble that is stopping the loop feels dragged out in the latter half. If you’re like me, early on you may have a bit of an idea of what’s going on and what needs to be done to stop it. Though you might be varying degrees of correct, you’re still hours upon hours away from getting there. Fake endings will be aplenty and though these are never dry thanks to their excellent fourth-wall-breaking nature, it will become a bit frustrating when you think you’ve wrapped it all up just to see it kick off into another gear. Again. And again.
“In Stars and Time’s greatest strength is in its cast and how they’re portrayed, along with the frankly incredible writing.”
That’s not to say In Stars and Time is ever not fun to play. Even in its monochromatic art style, there’s plenty of room for charm to burst off the screen with its striking character design and spritework. Sifrin has messy, curly hair, an eyepatch and wizard’s hat despite, notably, not being a wizard. Enemy design enters the bizarre, whether it’s coy creatures discreetly throwing up a scissors sign or weird amalgams you’ll need to study to overcome. The difficult obstacle of making simplistic pixel work painterly is gracefully overcome. Throughout are some genuinely high-quality produced chip-tune tracks, with the main battle theme still finding itself earwormed within me.
The turn-based battles that use a classic Final Fantasy ATB-style meter you must wait out before you can make a turn feel more modern thanks to the (literal) rock, paper, scissors mechanic. How they do so is by cleverly having enemies discreetly have a hand in one of these poses, allowing players to more often than not immediately recognise what their weakness is, exploit it and then keep the ball rolling.
The game is even smart enough to have a decent amount of quality-of-life offerings to make the loops more palatable and run along quickly. If there’s a conversation you’ve already had, you can ‘tune out,’ fast-forwarding through the dialogue while the NPC rambles and an adorable sprite of Sifrin pops up, nodding along but definitely not paying attention. To reinitiate the loop quicker than dying in battle, there are quick and even comical ways of resetting everything such as slipping on a banana peel or getting crushed by a rock trap. If there’s a certain floor of the House that you need to travel to, you can spend a currency known as ‘Memories’ to do so with or without doors unlocked, forwards or backward a floor.
The narration also prioritises the interest of time and will periodically offer suggestions or reminders when you’ve found an item pertaining to a relevant investigation. Even combat abilities earned as you progress will make things more seamless; your party members will eventually also become proficient in crafting not just their specialty rock paper or scissors craft, but learn the others. Later on, an ability will make enemies in the overworld run away from you. Something that is incredibly useful as character levels eventually don’t matter all that much.
One of the only other characters aware you’re looping is a mysterious, ethereal figure with a star for the head by the name of Loop. Tucked away in a corner of the map in Durmont, they’ll be available for you to recap what you do and don’t know in the game, and potentially what you can do next to solve the mystery. They’re the closest you get to a mission tracker in the game and though they’re a delightful character to speak to each time, their hints can be a little too vague.
This becomes even more difficult when you’re tasked with an objective like finding all the readables you can on a given topic. When you’re not given much help, all that’s left to do is pixel hunt, going to every floor of the house and interacting with every bookshelf until you find the right clue. I’m not exactly asking for the game to literally guide me to the next objective, but it’s a bit of a concern when you consider other time-loop games it feels inspired by are at least giving you a clearer nudge in the right direction. In the end, it feels like a means of artificially lengthening the runtime, when reigning it in just that little bit would’ve made the project even more special.
I can’t emphasise enough that though there are some pain points, In Stars and Time’s writing and world largely transcends them all. One of my favourite moments in Undertale is when you’re near the end of the long, arduous journey you’re able to look at yourself in the mirror and the narration tells you “Despite everything, it’s still you.” There are beautiful, emotional moments of that ilk here. For the majority of the game, your party members will be referred to as your friends. Then, subtly and unceremoniously though artfully, the narration and Frin will instead start referring to them as your family, honing in more on the beautiful found family story located within.
In Stars and Time has a lot to say about friendship, memory and the passing of time. All of it, and its world are worth engaging with because its writing is just that. Damn. Good. Sifrin begins to feel the brunt of the fact that their party members aren’t remembering the bond they’re developing, only he is. They too will lose track of time the further in you get, questioning themselves. The god that the country of Vaugaurde believes in is known as the god of Change, a being that is ever-shifting in appearance depending on who you ask and encourages the core belief of always motivating people to change and better themselves. Keep an eye out for how this belief can rear its ugly head, applying so much pressure on an individual, in the personal quest you get with Mirabelle later on.
I rolled credits in In Stars and Time in about twenty-five hours. This number can vary greatly depending on how efficient you are in runs. Though it certainly goes on for longer than I expected, I’m very happy with my time spent on this emotional time-loop journey. In some areas, it hit a lot harder than some of the giants it’s basing itself on, providing gut-punching and real depictions of serious issues in near-masterful ways. Sure, at this point you probably can’t count on two hands how many Earthbound-inspired indie RPGs explore mental health. Though this is a frontrunner for that odd category we have today.
- Diverse characters that are key to the plot
- Gut-punching writing that explores complex topics
- Excellent chip-tune tracks found throughout
- The mysteries and world of Vauguarde are deeply engaging
- A little long in the teeth
- Could've offered more guidance to some of its mysteries
Come for the time-loop mechanics and Undertale inspirations, stay for the beautiful, heartfelt and guttural story. In Stars and Time is an artful indie RPG that explores a found family’s battle with time. With this, it explores complex topics with grace and utmost reverence. Though it’s a little long in the teeth and could have been a bit tidier in how you unravel some of its mysteries, within is a magical world much worth exploring, backed by fantastic chip-tune music, a sense of place and some real good vibes. Unlike protagonist Sifrin and his problems with memory in the time labyrinth, your foray into In Stars and Time won’t soon be forgotten.