I can't stop thinking about In Stars and Time. It's been a few weeks since I first started playing, and it's on my mind constantly. When I'm not playing it, I'm ruminating on little details, planning what steps I need to take next, and reflecting on why I've come to care about the characters so darn much. The time-looping adventure from developer insertdisc5 isn't just the best indie RPG I've played this year, it's quickly become an all-time personal favorite, and I'm still trying to unpack everything it has to offer. It's such a rich experience, with excellent writing that constantly tugs at my heartstrings, and a cast of diverse party members I can't help but love. It's also home to a rather genius concept that's clever not only in the way it incorporates time travel mechanically, but also thematically.
Following the quest of Siffrin and their adventurer friends, you find yourself going up against an evil king who's frozen people in time. The story begins as you awaken in a small village just as you're about to get ready to head to the palace to face the mighty foe himself. As you speak with the residents and your companions, it becomes clear that the relationships between your ragtag crew are already established, and a long and arduous journey is evidently already behind you. At first, it makes you feel as though you've skipped right to the tail-end of an RPG, but that's all part of what makes it so intriguing… and it won't take long before you realize why.
Once inside the palace, you get caught out by a deadly trap and quickly meet your untimely demise. Just when you think all is lost before it's already begun, though, you once again awaken back in the village and repeat what you just did – only this time, you can learn from what just happened to progress further. So begins the first loop of many to come. Every loop gives you another chance to learn something new, take another step forward, and keep growing stronger in a bid to defeat the king once and for all.
Make a change
The more I think about it, the more I appreciate how well In Stars and Time pulls off its time-looping feature. For the most part, you'll be adventuring through the palace which is made up of four floors, the last of which houses the king for the final showdown. Once you experience your first time loop, you'll discover there are ways to deliberately end a loop to start over, which factors into the puzzle-like element of the game. Sometimes, for example, you might come across a locked door or a blocked path that prevents you from progressing, and it's only until you reach it that you realize the solution is on the previous floor. With no way back down, there's nothing for it but to start again.
It constantly feels like you're learning from your mistakes, a bit like a roguelike experience, where each death will let you start over fresh, but it naturally feeds into the idea that you are, in your role as Siffrin, also growing as a character. This delivers a satisfying sense of progression, and since you're safe in the knowledge you can start over again if things go awry, you feel encouraged to experiment and try new things to see what may come of it. In every loop I experience, I feel like I'm peeling back the layers of the world to learn more about the story, Siffrin, and the characters I adventure alongside.
From changing the responses I choose in conversation with my party members, to taking a different path, or finding a useful piece of information that I can use to complete a side quest back in the village in another loop, time never feels wasted. While the main motivation driving you forward is to head to the top of the palace to defeat the king, there's so much discover peppered throughout and there's an element of mystery to everything that constantly hooks me in; so much so, that I'm determined to do as many loops as I need to learn absolutely everything I can.
As a turn-based RPG, you'll face enemies along the way that take the shape of different forms of sadness, with combat that plays out like a game of rock paper scissors. Each character and enemy will be a different type – rock, paper, or scissors – and just like the actual game, their attacks will be more effective against certain types than others.
You'll often know what type an enemy is by the hand symbol that's incorporated into their design. As characters level up, they'll learn more powers, and during each loop, you may unlock a memory that can be assigned to characters that will give them an ability they won't forget later on. Stacking up a particular type of move will also trigger a group attack that sees all party members work together to deliver a powerful hit. Overall, the combat system is effective and easy to get the hang of, with move-sets that complement the characters in your party.
What really helps to make In Stars and Time so special for me above all is the sense of found family it brings to life in your companionship with Isabeau, Odile, Mirabelle, and Bonnie. All of them have their own distinct personalities and motivations for being there, and getting to know them as you make your way through each loop is the highlight. It's so clear that they care about each other and you as Siffrin a great deal, and in turn, I came to care for them, too. Siffrin is a wonderful protagonist, and I felt closer and closer to them as I learned more and more about them in every attempt I made to defeat the king.
Honestly, I keep going on and on about this game to anyone who'll listen. There's so much I love about it. It's definitely going to be on my mind for a long time, and that's really the best compliment I could ever give it. If you play one indie RPG to see out 2023, make it In Stars and Time.
In Stars and Time is out now on PC, PS5, PS4, and Switch. For more exciting releases check out our roundup of upcoming indie games, or see what else we've been enjoying with our Indie Spotlight series.