Steven Universe has emerged as one of the most important cartoons on television today — few Western animated series are equipped to handle ideas like queer identity and the brutal cost of war so gracefully. As the show’s fandom has grown, the title character has become steadily more ubiquitous, with an ever-expanding presence in children’s books, comics, and even video games. In 2015, Grumpyface Studios released the well-received Steven Universe: Attack the Light for iOS and Android. It’s a charming tie-in game — a love letter to Nintendo games like Paper Mario and The Legend of Zelda — and, as a story, it feels perfectly at home in Steven’s world.
This year, Grumpyface is releasing Steven Universe: Save the Light, a direct sequel, and the studio’s first full-fledged console release. For this effort, the team — with help from the TV series’s creator, Rebecca Sugar — aimed to build a more ambitious game set in the universe of the show, with new characters, richer gameplay mechanics, and a longer campaign that rewards diehards and series newcomers alike. More significant than that, though, is the game’s attempt to strike at the heart of Steven Universe’s driving philosophy: that our relationships with the ones we love and the things we care about make us stronger.
“This is our first console game, so right away, we knew this was gonna be a big undertaking for us,” Grumpyface director and owner Chris Graham told The Verge earlier this month. “This time, we wanted to go deeper. You’ve got the 3D world with all sorts of realms to explore. You’ve got side quests, a crafting system, character perks, upgrades, customizable teams. Really, from [the] top down, we said to ourselves, ‘This needs to be suitable for consoles, and be the biggest possible Steven Universe adventure we can imagine.’”
That much was obvious in the opening moments of the demo version we previewed earlier this month. From the beginning, it plants players in a fully realized, 3D version of Beach City, Steven’s fictional hometown. The open world isn’t as vast as, say, Hyrule in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it’s easy to see that a great deal of care went into re-creating the boardwalk from the show, complete with its shops, hideaways, and the colorful supporting cast milling around. (Graham also admits that the game’s style was inspired by Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, so the team’s love for Nintendo is as clear as ever.)
In Save The Light, Steven explores a variety of worlds on his quest to rescue the ancient light weapon he befriended in the first game. Joining Steven on his adventure are the Crystal Gems — alien warriors Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl — along with Steven’s best friend, Connie, and his father, Greg Universe. As in the series and original game, the Gems have a variety of combat abilities, like Pearl’s spear and beam attacks, and Garnet’s magic gauntlets. Connie and Greg add even more depth to the action; Connie’s sword makes her a frontline fighter, while Greg’s guitar lets him amplify the abilities of other party members. Steven, with few offensive abilities of his own, serves as the support character, since he can heal his friends, shield them from danger, and even resurrect them if they’re defeated. Not only are these abilities useful in battle, but the developers brought some of them — like Greg’s musical talents — into the open world, too, adding platforming and puzzle-solving elements to the game.
“When we did the first game, we had all these big, ambitious ideas that we had to put into a smaller game,” Sugar says. “Now, we get to expand on everything, especially a lot of the relationship dynamics that in these small ways, sort of snuck into the first game. Like, you tell a joke that you know one of the Gems will laugh at. Who you’re trying to impress or support has gone from a kind of Easter egg to being a huge part of the gameplay.”
That relationship system is key to the game, and it’s part of what makes the adventure fit so well alongside the series it draws from. During battle, the game rewards players for defending teammates, or executing a perfect combo by having characters build up relationship points with each other. Those points build up over time, and when maxed out, they can unlock new abilities. For instance, Steven and Connie can gain the ability to fuse into Stevonnie, an “experience” who embodies the best of both characters.
Stevonnie is a walking thesis statement for the show, and the fusion’s presence is not only fun for fans, it also hammers home how important it was to the game’s creators to have Steven Universe’s emotional underpinnings influence their work. “For me,” Sugar says, “the big goal is to have everything that I get the chance to see or touch [in the game] have the feeling that the show has.”
The designers sought to establish a tighter connection with the show’s story. Since Steven Universe’s 2013 debut, the show’s lore about the Crystal Gems and the war against their Homeworld has expanded alongside Steven’s coming-of-age story. Where Attack the Light was related to that larger narrative in a fairly oblique way, Graham says this new game will connect that story with the sweep of the show’s mythology.
“[Rebecca] had a great vision for how this could fit in, and we’re so happy to be able to have our own little take on Steven Universe,” he said. “You’re gonna find out a lot of extra little things about the show from the game, I think.”
Steven Universe: Save the Light will land on the PS4 this summer and other consoles in the months ahead.