Steven Universe: Save the Light would be the perfect video game reimagining of an episode of Steven Universe, if it weren’t completely broken.
Save the Light is a direct sequel to the 2015 mobile game Steven Universe: Attack the Light. The small-screen original was a success, blending the look and feel of Steven Universe with fun, touch-based RPG gameplay. Steven Universe: Save the Light aims to do more than its predecessor in all ways, from the depth of the world to the complexity of the gameplay — hence the move to more powerful hardware.
Save the Light uses that power well in so many ways. The game is a perfect recreation and extension of the show’s world, right down to the UI. And that’s exactly why it's so disappointing that Steven Universe: Save the Light is one of the buggiest, glitchiest games I’ve ever played.
Steven Universe: Save the Light doesn’t waste time with any introductions or expositions. It assumes that you already know the characters and general situation of the long-running Cartoon Network show. For the unfamiliar, Steven Universe centers around the kind-hearted, fun-loving Steven and his best friends, a group of magical rock women from outer space called the Crystal Gems. Together, Steven and the gems fight against planet-threatening catastrophes and mundane interpersonal problems, summoning up the powers of goodness, hope and friendship in a way that’s inspiring and joyful rather than cheesy.
Save the Light doesn’t get too ambitious in messing with that formula. Early into the game, a new threat is established: a light weapon called the Prism and the villainous Gem who wants to take control of it. As you might expect, it’s up to Steven and crew to prevent the Prism from being used for evil. The plot is pretty straightforward, but that might be for the best given the game’s abundance of crippling technical issues.
Steven Universe: Save the Light is simply a mess from a stability standpoint. I lost count of the number of times the game froze in the middle of a battle, necessitating a restart, or just out-and-out crashed entirely. Some of the glitches were cosmetic, like a battle effect continuing to play out in the background after the fight was over, or a sound effect getting stuck on a loop. At one point, I had to listen to Greg Universe endlessly repeating “I FEEL A JAM SESSION COMING ON” until I restarted the game.
The bugs aren’t just of the small, relatively forgivable variety, either; I was held back from progressing by major glitches. It took me an hour to get through one small section of Save the Light because I kept running into busted battles and having to restart. Instead of learning how to play the game better, I felt like a quality assurance tester learning how to avoid breaking it. Each battle and new interaction filled me with a dreadful anticipation: Would this be something else that killed the game?
How bad did it get? The game couldn’t even get through the end credits without crashing to the PlayStation 4 menu.
It breaks my heart that Steven Universe: Save the Light is such a disaster on the technical level, because it does everything else so right. The game reinterprets the show’s characters in a simpler, stylized form, like cute paper cut-outs, and I was smiling from the moment I laid eyes on them.
As a fan of the show, it was an absolute delight to explore 3D versions of familiar settings. Beach City is recreated perfectly down to the smallest detail, and places like the Strawberry Battlefield and the Sky Arena, which have been featured in the show but not in great detail, are fully realized and fantastic to explore. I only wish that Save the Light didn’t use a fixed camera, because I wanted to look at every angle of the world that had been created.
The characters filling this world are perfect recreations, too. The original voice cast are all present (with the addition of Christine Baranski doing a fantastic turn as new villain Hessonite), filling each menu option and battle action with in-character quips that make everything feel straight from the show. Great attention clearly went into animation as well; everyone has their own specific personality-filled running and jumping animations. In particular, I loved Peridot’s Looney Tunes-esque leg-whirling jump.
Beyond the cosmetic, Save the Light really gets what Steven Universe is about. The show’s themes of kindness and friendship are woven right into the game mechanics. Combat involves choosing actions from a menu, in the classic turn-based style, but attacks can be enhanced by pressing a button timed correctly with the attack. Perfect hits are rewarded with the chance for characters to give kudos to each other.
Garnet punched a monster? Pearl can tell her that she did a great job, and their relationship will grow stronger. The power of friendship fills up a meter, which can in turn be used to unleash powerful attacks. Each of the characters combines with others in unique ways, which made filling up the friendship meter even more fulfilling. Garnet and Greg Universe have my favorite “Fusion” attack; it’s perhaps the first time I’ve seen a keytar used in battle.
Steven Universe: Save the Light understands who these characters are, what makes them special, how they act and react. Steven himself is the one party member that can't be changed out, and I love that he’s only really useful as support. Steven heals damage with the power of encouragement or by pulling Cookie Cat ice cream sandwiches out of his cheeseburger backpack, and plays his ukulele to inspire his friends to fight harder. Everyone in the game gets this kind of thoughtful customization to their set of skills. There’s no such thing as just hitting the attack option over and over again, and I enjoyed it that way.
There aren’t a lot of opportunities for battle — just around three or four per area — but these fights don’t go quickly. I found myself struggling early in the game not just because of the game-breaking bugs, but also because of the level of challenge. Winning battles in Save the Light requires planning out your order of attacks, using buffs and debuffs, and taking the layout of the battlefield into account. I often fail to make much use of more complex, passive forms of attack in RPGs, but I had Peridot building a turret in every battle so I could watch the slow, satisfying chipping away of enemy health. Save the Light’s battle system encouraged me to be more creative and thoughtful with how I tackled enemies.
Steven Universe: Save the Light feels like watching an episode of the show mixed with some sweet old-school RPG nostalgia. It’s got the pure heart that makes Steven Universe so special, which makes it all the more tragic that it's just so riddled with stability issues. I hope that future patches will alleviate these problems, but this is a game that could have been perfect. Instead, it’s just a colorful shell of its potential — beautiful on the outside and a complete wreck on the inside.
Steven Universe: Save the Light was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Cartoon Network Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here