Sea of Stars Review – Bringing The Past To Present

When developer Sabotage Studio released their previous game, The Messenger, they were complemented for creating such a well-crafted 2D action platformer, which with its retro aesthetic was reminiscent of the classic 8 and 16-bit games of the late 80s. Five years later and the studio has returned, though this time deciding to pay homage to iconic games from a different genre within the same time period: the classic JRPG.

The world of Sea of Stars has been plagued by evil monsters called Dwellers, who are the minions of an almighty evil alchemist named The Fleshmancer. In order to combat these foes, children born on the summer and winter solstices are trained to master their respective solar and lunar powers. Sea of Stars puts you in the shoes of Zale and Valere, two newly anointed Solstice Warriors who have trained at the Zenith Academy with their headmaster, Moraine, and are set to go off on their journey to fight a Dweller. Though as the story progresses, secrets are revealed that uncover the greater mysteries of this world and its primary villain; mysterious which both Zale and Valere are inevitably tasked to unravel. 

Sea of Stars
Concept by Bryce Kho

The story of Sea of Stars is one that feels almost intrinsic to the JRPG genre, and Sabotage Studio execute it quite well; wearing their inspirations tightly on their sleeve. The cast are all likeable enough, especially the warrior-cook, Garl, who offers an endearing levity throughout your journey. Though, I can’t say that I was particularly riveted or emotionally connected to any one character, or specific moment during my play-through. The story flows adequately from moment to moment, hitting all the necessary narrative beats, but never with any sense of weight or personality. The writing is fair, the stakes are high, and the twists are interesting enough—albeit come a tad bit later in the game than one would expect—but it all falls a smidge flat.

This isn’t helped by the fact that both Zale and Valere are rather milquetoast protagonists as far as their personalities are concerned. You’d think that each of them being born on the opposite solstice would make for some unique traits that differed from one another, but that is far from the case. Sure, such obvious personality quirks may come across as a tad trite, but it would’ve offered at least something for me to glom onto. Instead, Zale and Valere are perfectly likeable yet forgettable characters. It’s a shame, because Sabotage Studio are able to write decent enough dialogue, which helps to keep the story personal irrespective of how grand it gets. I just wish that they took more risks with character moments to allow for those personal stories to flourish.

Sea of Stars
One of the many beautiful locations you’ll come across during your time with this game.

But for as forgettable as some of the narrative and characters might be, the same absolutely cannot be said for the world in which this story takes place. Sea of Stars is a breathtakingly beautiful game. From cascading waterfalls within a lush jungle, neo-gothic clock towers, cavernous depths infested with zombies, and sprawling archipelagos to name a few, Sea of Stars is a kaleidoscope of visual spectacle that all comes together through its wonderfully crafted, retro-inspired pixel art. I say retro “inspired” purposefully as there are clear aesthetic elements that bring a modernity to the visuals. The way in which lighting, shadows, and reflections work, as well as the minor animations that can be seen on some of the environmental dressings, are all done tactfully so as to never take away from the “retro” look, but still give it that extra visual depth. I couldn’t help but take a (far too long) moment to gawk at each new location, slowly walking through the impeccably designed environments while bobbing my head to the music.

Speaking of which, flowers must yet again be tossed by the bunches at legendary composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, who leant his talents to Sabotage Studio, and alongside composer Eric W. Brown brought Sea of Stars’ striking visuals to life through music. In my thirty-or-so hours with the game, I cannot think of a second where I wasn’t captivated by the tunes that were being played. Whether it’s the adrenaline pumping battle theme that didn’t get old even after hundreds of encounters—especially when considering Mitsuda and Brown slightly alter the track to fit the ambience of the given location—the jaunty soundscapes of your character’s home of Mooncradle, or the sinister and almost Castelvania-esque songs of the Dweller’s lairs, Mitsuda strikes again to give us a truly masterful OST.

Sea of Stars
The cast meet the Elder Mist.

Great audio visuals go a long way in realizing a fictional world, but it isn’t all that is required. What is also needed is lore, history, and a thorough narrative that explores the deeper mechanics of the world you’re creating, with characters that can make it feel truly “lived-in.” It’s here where I feel Sea of Stars both succeeds, and falters. It’s clear that Sabotage Studio had an understanding of how their world functions—even if it takes more than 90% of a play-through to fully grasp the truths of those functions—but I can’t help but feel many of those ideas were somewhat half-baked. As I traversed along the beautiful landscapes, sailing from island to island, town to town, I would get snippets of ideas of the histories of the lands I was walking across, but it never felt truly realized.

NPCs in towns were essentially set-dressing, spouting no more than a non-consequential sentence when approached. There were no collectible items that gave me an idea of the town I was visiting, and nor did my party members say anything to add context. You do meet a character who joins your party in a non-combat fashion (what the game calls “cargo”) whose role is to collect trinkets from you throughout your travels to fill her magical encyclopedic book, after which you can talk to her and listen to a story for each trinket you gave. These stories do a nice job in giving context to some of the notable characters you meet, but finding these trinkets aren’t the easiest. Moreover, there were a couple stories that were directly related to the main storyline, and reading through them baffled me as I can’t imagine not having that context for when you cross certain plot beats.

Sea of Stars
Believe me when I tell you that breaking these locks is never not satisfying

Furthermore, for as enamoured as I was with some of the towns from a design aspect, I couldn’t help but feel a hollowness to them. Once again, the audiovisuals were doing the brunt of the work in making them feel alive, rather than the narrative. I wanted to know more about these people, get invested into the inner-workings of these towns by possibly doing some side-quests, even if they were the standard, menial RPG affair—but alas, these elements never came. Not having side-quests in an RPG was definitely a surprise, and could have gone a long way in getting me invested into these people that my characters were helping. For as ambitious in scope Sea of Stars already is, especially for a relatively small studio, I feel not having a staple such as side-quests was an ill-advised omission.

One area Sabotage Studio didn’t skimp out on, however, is the gameplay. Though it’s marketed as an ode to the classic turn-based JRPG, Sea of Stars does more than enough to keep things fresh and modern. In addition to the standard abilities players are familiar with in turn-based encounters, the game gives one of its many nods to Chrono Trigger by having combo attacks that can be performed by multiple party members. Beyond that, enemies will cycle through various “locks” that your party can “break” by attacking using the proper set of abilities. Failure to break these locks will result in the enemy performing their special ability on their next turn. Additionally, there’s a real-time counter and timed double-hit mechanic that pushes you to stay active during each battle. Press the action button at the right time during any of your party member’s attacks, and you’ll be rewarded with your character doing an additional hit. Conversely, hit the button at the right moment during an enemy attack, and you’ll be rewarded with your character blocking the attack and only taking half the damage.

Sea of Stars
Moving platforms are one of the many things that add to the platforming flair.

These mechanics, paired with the slew of other unique skills and abilities you have with each of your party members, makes for a truly robust and continually satisfying gameplay loop. Not to mention there’s a number of great accessibility features that allows players to fine tune their play-style. These features are cleverly implemented via “relics” you can equip—much like you would an armour set or weapon—to a party member as an accessory. From taking 30% less damage, to automatically doing a successful double-hit with each strike, to restoring health after each encounter, these relics are a nice way to make the game more accessible; while doing so in a way that makes it feel natural within the world, instead of simply toggling on an “easy mode” in the game’s settings.

There are also some surprising traversal elements while exploring the world. You wouldn’t expect a top-down retro JRPG-inspired game to have anything more than simply going from point A to B as far as traversal is concerned, but Sea of Stars adds a surprising amount of depth that keeps things fresh. There are environmental puzzles, a verticality in exploration with ladders, cliff edges, and tightropes, as well as a grapple hook to be used both as a puzzle-solving tool as well as an exploration one. None of it feels like an after-thought, either. Every puzzle, every dungeon layout, and every metroidvania locked door are all purposefully done and well thought-out, with variations in each location that feels unique to their environments.

Sea of Stars
One of the many overworlds that are reminiscent of Chrono Trigger.

I’ve staved away from comparing Sea of Stars to SquareSoft’s universally acclaimed, Chrono Trigger. Even though Sabotage Studio themselves have proudly worn their inspirations on their sleeves, I feel the studio should also be proud in the knowledge that they’ve done enough with their game to make it unique and far more than just a mere modern iteration of a beloved classic. 

Shaz played Sea of Stars on Xbox Series S via Game Pass.

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