Chris Graham of Grumpyface Studios has been a Steven Universe fan longer than almost anyone.
“We were fans even before it premiered,” he told Polygon at a press event in New York City earlier this month.
Cartoon Network first showed Graham and the rest of the team at Grumpyface a series of pilots several years ago, hoping to get the small developer on board to create a mobile game based on one of them. Steven Universe’s pastel color palette, clear anime and role-playing game influences, and family-friendly story made it an obvious pick for the studio.
Steven Universe fans have similarly fallen in love with these aspects and then some, catapulting the cartoon to popularity. The series’ fandom can be characterized not only as large, but devoted beyond belief — which is why broadening the appeal of a game based on it may be a challenge.
Graham likes challenges, though. Grumpyface already proved it was ready to widen Steven Universe’s appeal in 2015, when Cartoon Network published the studio’s first game based on the show. Steven Universe: Attack the Light, released on iOS and Android, received critical acclaim from fans and newcomers alike. Even its creator, Rebecca Sugar, seemed to give the team a vote of confidence when they pitched the concept to Cartoon Network.
“Cartoon Network was asking us, ‘What do you need to make?’” Graham said. “And we were like, oh, it needs to be an RPG. Rebecca was like, ‘I’m so glad you wanna make an RPG.’ Those influences are there.”
Steven Universe is a character-driven show filled with humor, an expansive world (that spans planets and galaxies) and plenty of fight scenes. Steven starts the show as a preteen goober, weak and goofy — but as those who have kept up-to-date know well, he’s changed plenty since the show began. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for an RPG, one that starts off light but gets heavy as the hero grows and changes.
It’s hard to communicate all of that in a free-to-play mobile game, though. Attack the Light has a simple story with a fun, turn-based battle system — think a much lighter version of a classic Final Fantasy. Its success gave Grumpyface the opportunity to take another stab at a Steven Universe RPG, this time on consoles.
“It’s been liberating, really,” said Graham of Steven Universe: Save the Light, which is both an Attack the Light sequel and Grumpyface’s first console project. “We always had a bigger vision for the mobile game than we were able to do ... [with] the show lending itself to the scope we wanted and us being RPG fans and kind of wanting to get into some of these deeper RPG mechanics.”
It’s those mechanics that seem like the most likely way to pull in those who don’t necessarily love Steven Universe, but love a good, old-fashioned RPG. We got to demo a few levels of Save the Light on PlayStation 4 and quickly found a lot to love. The 2.5D graphical style is gorgeous, for starters; it’s a more stylized version of the beautiful Steven Universe cartoon’s animation, and it helps to set a lighthearted tone for the game. Even those who don’t recognize all the background characters populating the main hub world, Beach City, will appreciate how detailed each one is, and how adorably everything is drawn, from buildings to trees.
The battle system is also familiar and fun. It’s a combination of active time-based battles from Final Fantasy, where characters wait for a timer to go off so they can attack, and the Mario RPG games, which grant attack bonuses when players hit the button at just the right time. Save the Light also adds in relationship stat effects and a skill points gauge, so that the team of four can perform special moves to cut down the time spent in a fight. It’s one of those easy to pick up but slightly tougher to master kind of games, based on what we played. We couldn’t get enough.
But most alluring about Save the Light is the same thing that can make or break any RPG: its characters. The Steven Universe cast — there are seven playable characters in this one — is hilarious and varied. Steven is naive and outgoing. Pearl — one of his Crystal Gem guardians, an extraterrestrial being devoted to protecting Steven — has a much shorter fuse. Amethyst and Garnet, the other two members of the Crystal Gem trio, are similarly opposites of each other: One’s brash, the other cool.
These archetypes are recognizable and easy to love. Save the Light has customizable parties and a relationship-building mechanic that makes it possible for players to really hone in on their favorite characters and get to know them better. This comes with Easter eggs for fans, and a dialogue choice system may be easier to navigate if you know the cast already. But for a newcomer, Steven Universe’s heroes are easy to fall in love with.
Graham said that the development studio is making other active strides to ease in non-fans into Save the Light.
“For people new to the franchise, we actually set up the game as Steven telling Connie of the first game and also kind of during his narrative sequence you learn about the Crystal Gems, too,” he explained. “If you’re not familiar, you’ll still be able to enter the game knowing what you need to know.”
In other words, Save the Light won’t only make sense to people who are fully caught up on the cartoon. That will come with added benefits, of course; Graham said the game takes place slightly behind where the show is now. Expect lore reveals and all kinds of hidden characters.
What makes Save the Light most intriguing is that these aren’t necessarily its biggest appeals — or rather, that it stands to succeed without needing knowledge of the deep Steven Universe canon.
“It’s really been a treat on multiple levels,” said Graham, beaming at the thought of this dream come true, speaking as a fan. “It’s all around been a complete treat.”
Steven Universe: Save the Light will launch as a digital exclusive Oct. 31 on PlayStation 4 and Nov. 3 on Xbox One.
Update: Save the Light’s release date has been added above; it arrives first on PS4 starting Oct. 31, and will be exclusive to the online store of both platforms.
The Xbox One version launches Nov. 3.