Sea of Stars Review – Over the moon

Reviewed August 29, 2023 on PC

Platforms:

Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X

Released:

August 29, 2023

Publisher:

Sabotage

Developer:

Sabotage

Bedraggled and beaten, the two heroes are fighting for their last ragged breaths. The Fleshmancer’s minions swarm and heave. These snarling masses of limb, tooth, and blood are desperate abominations thirsting for carnage. As they poise to strike, the cold light of the watchful moon suddenly breaks through the surrounding gloom. Energy surges in the heroes, sunlit balls of flame and glittering lunar lances erupting from their fingertips, cutting through the wretched beings that surround them. Glowing, revelling in the splendour of their eclipse, the heroes approach the Dweller’s lair.

A neo-retro title drawing inspiration from 90s classics such as Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, Sea of Stars is a modern take on the turn-based RPG. Fans of the 2018 title The Messenger will be delighted to hear that Sea of Stars is a prequel. Quebec-based developers Sabotage Studio self-describe as creators of “retro-inspired indie games”, which makes this Kickstarter-funded pivot from Metroidvania to turn-based RPG make a little more sense. Set centuries in the past, this is a standalone adventure that uses the universe of The Messenger as inspiration for an original narrative. The result is both a beautiful tribute to a classic style of gameplay and an innovative, mechanically satisfying RPG adventure.

Born six months apart on the lunar and solar solstices respectively, protagonists Valere and Zale are destined to become Solstice Warriors, brave defenders of the world against the cruel Fleshmancer and his horrific Dwellers. As children, they are separated from their best friend Garl and taught the ways of combat and magic by the grumpy headmaster Moraine. Here they learn that dormant Dwellers slumber across the land, gradually growing more powerful, and it is their duty to “cleanse” them all before they can awaken and consume the world.

At its core, Sea of Stars is a traditional RPG. You’ll be travelling across the world exploring villages and dungeons, completing light navigation puzzles, collecting gear and treasure, and fighting beasties. You control either Zale or Valere and can swap between them at any time, gradually unlocking movement abilities to help you explore. Environments are rendered in stunning isometric pixel art, and your adventures are serenaded with a gloriously nostalgic soundtrack. So much care, attention, and polish has been given to Sea of Stars’ presentation, from the way the music muffles slightly when you’re underwater to the briefly animated cutscenes that introduce new areas. It consistently looks and sounds incredible, no matter if you’re sailing the high seas or delving into some fleshy dungeon.

Combat in Sea of Stars is turn-based, allowing you to choose actions for each of your three active party members in any order. Your characters can choose between a physical attack (which replenishes some mana), a skill (which costs mana but usually has an extra effect), a combo/ultimate attack (unlocked through story events, these need to be charged up by performing other actions), or they can use a healing item. Every action taken decrements countdown timers displayed next to each enemy, with them attacking when their timer reaches zero. There’s a timing window attached to every action, adding an element of real-time input to each turn (similar to the early Paper Mario titles). Pressing A as you land an attack will trigger extra damage, and blocking an enemy attack will reduce damage taken by your party.

Different skills allow for more complex interactions. For example, holding A charges up one of Zale’s special attacks, while Valere’s “Moonerang” can be deflected multiple times if you keep hitting it accurately. Successfully timing actions is described by the in-game tutorials as a bit of a “bonus” and not something to beat yourself up about missing – this is true in the early game, but once you start encountering enemies with more dangerous abilities, it becomes vital to understand the different timings of each skill in your party’s toolkit.

Particularly important to combat is Sea of Stars’ “Locks” mechanic. Sometimes an enemy will display a bunch of floating icons next to their countdown timer. These correspond to different attacking types or elements, such as Blunt, Solar, or Poison damage. Hitting the enemy with the displayed element will break its Lock, which reduces the damage of its next attack and adds to the combo metre. Successfully breaking all of an enemy’s Locks cancels its next turn. This is key during boss fights, where abilities unleashed from behind a Lock tend to take massive chunks of health from your party.

It’s core to what makes combat feel so good – you’ll be swapping out party members on the fly to access different attacking types depending on the Locks you see, trying to wrangle the unique timing of each ability to squeeze in as many hits as you can. Simple physical attacks are incredibly useful as well, generating orbs of power that can be harnessed to enhance damage or add elements to an attack. Even healing items stand out in their usefulness: since you can only carry ten meals at a time, hoarding is impossible. You’ll constantly be gathering recipes and ingredients and actually using them in between battles to top off your party’s health and mana.

Not a single mechanic in Sea of Stars’ combat is wasted. It’s delightful to engage with a system that feeds into itself so satisfyingly, and manages to remain accessible without sacrificing complexity. There’s enough enemy variety to keep each encounter interesting, a tonne of excellent and unique bosses, and absolutely no need for grinding thanks to a behind-the-scenes “rubber-banding” effect that keeps you around the level you need to be for fights to feel challenging but manageable. You’ll also collect “Relics” that toggle various difficulty options, such as a flat party-wide defence increase or free healing after each battle. Every element of combat is thoughtfully considered and cleverly builds into a rhythmic, satisfying gameplay loop that carries the essence of titles like Secret of Mana or Golden Sun without any of their minor frustrations.

Sea of Stars’ narrative arc hearkens back to the traditional RPG. After a brief tutorial in a safe village, the stakes ramp up immediately and only increase in intensity as the game progresses. The Solstice Warriors are first sent to destroy a Dweller that has imprisoned an entire island of villagers and is gradually eating them. From there on, themes of compassion, vengeance, and destiny are explored against the backdrop of unspeakable evils.

The main party of protagonists each have their own motivations, but their shared purpose unites them and allows for different journeys through the story’s narrative arc. Most satisfying of these is seen in the growth of Warrior Cook Garl, the best example of a lovable optimistic bestie I’ve seen in an RPG for a while. While playable characters Zale and Valere don’t have a tonne of inherent personality, they’re well-defined through their friendship with Garl and their responsibilities as Solstice Warriors.

As a prequel, Sea of Stars’ narrative does a great job of standing on its own for most of the adventure, not leaning on required knowledge of The Messenger in order to tell a coherent story. However, there are a few sections towards the end of the game that feel a little lacking in inherent dramatic weight, and had me feeling like I was missing some useful context. The pacing gets slightly confusing for a few scenes, introducing eleventh-hour characters who perform extremely plot-significant actions without much explanation. It’s a little frustrating that some of the narrative pay-offs felt more like quick wink-nudges to a different game that I hadn’t played. Despite this, there are a number of strong moments of pathos and drama that are handled beautifully, and the overall story, while epic in scope, manages to remain both compelling and personal throughout.

Sea of Stars does its best to offset its otherwise pretty heavy story content with little moments of levity. For example, one of the giants that throws you across the map as a form of fast travel is called “Y’eet”, which got a laugh out of me. While puns and jokes in characters’ names are cute, occasionally the writing gets carried away with the pop culture references. A pirate you travel with constantly breaks the fourth wall and makes jokes about RPG tropes, and at one point you meet a character literally based on YouTuber The Completionist. It’s the “Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones” kind of referential humour that might elicit a little chuckle from those who recognise its source, but at its worst feels out of place and kind of alienating to everyone else. Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often, and I did appreciate that some of the out-of-game references are entirely optional, such as the area of the game dedicated to honouring all of Sea of Stars’ Kickstarter backers.

As a whole package, Sea of Stars is a fantastic neo-retro adventure that scratches that Dragon Quest itch with flare, polish, and refreshingly modern design. It took around thirty hours to reach the credits, and there’s a decent amount of side content I’ve yet to complete. Optional side missions include collecting rainbow shells to unlock building materials for a village, catching all of the fish at each lake, and the tabletop minigame “Wheels” which can be played in taverns across the land. All of this combined with a compelling narrative and an engaging combat system provide a swathe of absolutely delicious content for an RPG fan to devour.

8.5

Great

Positive:

  • Thoughtful, innovative take on the turn-based RPG
  • Beautifully designed world and environments
  • A compelling story with unique, likeable characters
  • Gloriously embued with clever nostalgia

Negative:

  • Narrative pacing gets a bit wonky in the last few hours
  • Some of the humour is out of step with the game's tone

A polished, cleverly designed, and utterly joyful experience, Sea of Stars takes the best parts of classic RPGs and distils their essence into something at once comfortingly nostalgic and refreshingly modern. Its combat system twists traditional turn-based combat into a satisfyingly tactile blend of strategy and execution, making exploring every inch of its gorgeous world an absolute pleasure. Despite some odd pacing in the final act and the occasional cringey joke, Sea of Stars holds up as a fantastic modern RPG and a must-play for fans of the genre.