Steven Universe is one of my favourite cartoons in recent years because of its unapologetic representation and positive storytelling about love, friendship and forgiveness. While obviously a children’s show, the moral lessons and respect for the LGBTQIA+ community extend well beyond the boundaries of their demographic and serve as a representation of what the world could be like if we fostered that outlook across the globe. (Thanks Rebecca Sugar)
Unleash the Light is no exception to this statement, however, a rather abrupt beginning to the game with little in the way of explanation or exposition begs that you either remember events from the previous game or have played these titles back-to-back. It’s a rather jarring start to the game when characters start talking about “era 3” and you as the player, are expected to know what that means.
Gameplay takes a slight turn from its predecessor as the player no longer has direct control of Steven and his party, instead the game now controls in a Point and Click style as you transition from screen to screen, solving puzzles and collecting hidden items with the occasional battle in between. Personally, while both styles fit and have their pros and cons, Save the Light had a stronger immersive quality due to its direct control and exploration.
Splitting the game into levels in a scrapbook-like grid of interconnecting nodes, the game never feels like it drags on outside of combat as levels consist of only a handful of screens before reaching their climax. The only time I felt the need for backtracking was during the limited side-missions and only then was it a 20min max diversion. Things stay on track for the whole game and it was a breath of fresh air after coming from larger, open-world titles. The simplicity of Unleash the Light is its most redeeming feature.
While there are no collectibles so to speak, to 100% every level you do need to find every hidden item, open every chest and complete every possible battle. The nice thing is, one of these hidden items are quite literally keys for the Deep Dungeon that also doubles up as the final location for the main story – It’s the kind of collectible that makes it worth collecting.
Don’t be fooled by its outwardly colourful and child friendly aesthetic however, Unleash the Light has a tendency to exhibit some high difficulty spikes for the underprepared and I can only imagine how difficult a younger player would find this. The game asks you to be more tactically aware than you’d expect for a title aimed at young children, multiple times per fight you will need to swap positions with other party members to control who on the team is more likely to be targeted by enemy fire and use certain actions to their full effect. With attacks that strike out in a cone or single lane fire, it behoves the player to think about positioning at all times. All this being said, I struggled with some of the larger groups of enemies and needed to spam items from the bag of holding… sorry, the Cheeseburger Backpack to stay alive and maintain my turn with star point items to get rid of as many enemies as possible before I took an irrevocable amount of damage.
Alongside finding character specific equipment and badges to bolster your stats, each level up grants a star point to spend on skill trees and while you can’t unlock every skill available, you can re-spec your upgrades and experiment with builds for each of the Gems. It does however feel like the best course of action is to improve their innate strengths rather than supplement their weaknesses which never fully rectifies their shortcomings. With only 4 possible moves at their disposal, each Gem’s actions are usually more dedicated to their “Role” than the implied freedom that the skill trees suggest. It also means that a lot of the upgrades feel like less of a feasibly optional build and more of a wasted effort to make up where each Gem lacks.
Nevertheless, Unleash the Light like its source material is a charming and welcoming port in the storm that continues to put a smile on my face - free from the classic tropes of open-world and filler that plague the AAA market and stands apart from the show as a fun filled journey and extension of the wonderful world of Steven Universe and his friends.