Release date: August 29, 2023
Developer: Sabotage Studio
Publisher: Sabotage Studio
Another successful Kickstarter project, Sea of Stars was fully funded only seven hours after being live on the platform. Canadian-based developer Sabotage Studio mapped out several stretch goals only to see them continuously blown away. Now with the release of this retro-inspired turn-based RPG, a nostalgic wind blows for older gamers that remember the golden age of SNES and SEGA Genesis titles – RPGs that Sea of Stars pays homage to in myriad ways. As a prequel to their previous game, The Messenger, Sea of Stars expands upon Sabotage Studio’s ability to tell a story, and this time they’ve taken a bit more of a lofty approach. Going from an action platformer to a storied RPG is quite a change, after all.
Not long ago, two children were brought to the village of Mooncradle. These fated souls were imbued with the power of the sun and moon, destined to become legendary Solstice Warriors and follow their predecessors into battle against the nightmarish creations of the Fleshmancer. With one remaining terrible foe somewhere in the world, the sun-blessed Zale and moon-touched Valere must embark on a journey using their powers to take down the creature and bring peace to the world. As children, they and their close friend Garl aspire to adventure together when the time comes, and when Zale and Valere are taken to a whimsical dojo in the sky for rigorous training for years upon years, Garl resolves to wait for them. With the time at hand, the two Solstice Warriors have to embark on one final trial before being sent along on their journey. Unsure of whether or not they’ll be able to see their friend, they’re sent off to ascend a nearby mountain and learn a secret that will aid them in their endeavor.
The lovingly crafted pixelated world around you is quite pretty and exploration is very rewarding. Early on, you’ll come across various cooking ingredients and will soon after learn that camp is where the food crafting is at, and you’re not just reduced to subsisting on hastily thrown together sandwiches. Cooking becomes a very easy way to regain HP in battle, so making sure to keep a good stock of food will serve you well, especially items that can revive fallen comrades if you happen to find yourself in a pinch. Recipes can be discovered through exploration as well, so making sure to check out every single nook and cranny on your journey pays off. Weapons, armor, and accessories can also be found and equipping them right away can end up saving you quite a bit of gold from merchants and shops if you’re thorough enough and lucky enough to find something useful. The world is full of treasure waiting to be discovered, and Sea of Stars has many branching paths to explore.
Combat in Sea of Stars is not unlike popular turn-based games like Dragon Quest – select a party member and you’ll be given a menu in which to choose commands. Regular melee attacks, character-specific skills, and items can be selected and used. Zale and Valere have a couple of different effects to use wisely in each skirmish: weapon type and magic type. With Zale using slashing weapons, enemies with that icon over their heads in a fight can be interrupted if struck the appropriate amount of times before their turn arrives in battle. These icons correspond to other types of weapons along with sun or moon magic damage as well, and enemies can have multiple icons that will need to be struck in order to interrupt the queued ability. Failure to meet each icon with its opposing force will usually result in a move that does massive damage to one or more party members, making it a good idea to try and interrupt them whenever possible.
Sea of Stars doesn’t just stop at turn-based combat, though. Adding a bit of real-time gameplay into the mix, players can block with the confirm button in the nick of time to reduce the damage taken by the character being targeted. Additionally, when attacking with a weapon or using a skill, the player can also time a button press to take another hit against a foe, or hold a button in order to charge up attacks. There are several skills that do different things, each of which can benefit from player input in some way. While inputs do have to be timed, they can result in a massive amount of extra damage. Though this is not required at all to beat the game or enjoy your time with it, it can assist in making short work of enemies and give you a competitive edge against strong foes and especially in boss fights.
Combat can also be tailored in some ways due to the game’s relic system. During your journey you can receive or even find various relics which act as settings for battle. Early on you’ll be given two to start with, which can make the game a little easier if you happen to be struggling. One will allow you to heal HP fully after each battle, and the other shows a visual cue if you happened to time your button press correctly for an attack or block maneuver during the fight. These can easily be toggled on or off in the game’s menu, so give them a look if you feel you need them, or turn them right back off if you want a more challenging experience. You’ll get various others throughout the course of the game, so make sure to check them out when you get a chance.
The level up system is a bit different than expected as well. In addition to the standard stat boosts, you’ll also be able to choose from various stats to bolster, like extra HP or Defense. This does give you a bit of control over how each character grows over the course of the game. Will you prioritize Magic Defense on one character, or go with a more offensive build with the idea of cutting down your foes quickly and not taking much damage overall? Maybe a more balanced approach in picking each option as it comes up is more your way, and honestly that’s okay. You can build each party member as you like, and reap the benefits of those extra stat points. One point to note is that grinding isn’t really a thing in Sea of Stars. For players that enjoyed chaining random battle after random battle, you won’t really be able to do that here. Enemies will show up on screen to be encountered and will disappear upon defeat. There won’t be any running in circles in order to trigger fights to grind for experience and money here.
While that is the case, I didn’t find it to be too hard to keep up with the story progression in the game but I did find myself looking forward to each encounter rather than dreading the sight of enemies like I might in games like Persona or Final Fantasy. Keeping encounters as a positive meant that I’d go out of my way to trigger a fight if I could for that sweet experience and hope of getting a nice drop from an enemy. Various ingredients can often be won from defeating monsters which can help bolster your item list for cooking at camp, and while you can’t carry a full feast on you at any time, items do stack, so making more than one of something useful pays off in the end.
During your exploration, you’ll also come across fishing holes that can be farmed for resources as well. The fishing mini game is super simple and easy to get used to early on, rewarding the player with more cooking ingredients when landing a catch. Ever since Breath of Fire II on the SNES, I’ve absolutely adored fishing games in my RPG’s – Sea of Stars does not disappoint. While the minigame may not be as robust as what you find in The Legend of Heroes series, its simplicity makes it a relaxing way to unwind and spend some time. I made sure to stock up on fish at the first one I came across and made sure to hit up the different ones I’d discover on my journey. Different ingredients would lend well to new dishes I’d discover, and I never felt like the time spent fishing was a waste. I probably, once again, spent a little -too- much time with fishing rod in hand, but I know what I’m about.
As you progress in the game and the story really opens up, hopefully you’ll be as captivated as I have been. I’ve enjoyed every plot point and every character encountered while reaching the latter stages. The beautiful pixel graphics paint a very colorful world that can’t be understated. Even the world map makes the game feel like a work of art, as do the individual character portraits that help flesh out the game’s dialogue and story sequences.
With music from Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger renown, the true golden age of 90’s RPGs shines brightly. Various Chrono Trigger references are lovingly weaved into the fabric of the game, and that’s not the only classic you’ll see influence from (in a previous meeting with the developers, they did laugh when I said that the fishing reminded me of Breath of Fire…) In the course of my gameplay, I’ve been reminded of so many games that I almost forgot that I’d ever played, dredging up so many memories of summers spent on my SNES and later on the RPG powerhouse that was the GBA.
If I could hope for anything with Sea of Stars, its that you’ll load it up on a hot summer night and maybe let the sun come up before you finally call it and get some sleep. Maybe play again on a crisp fall morning before you have to go to work or school, with a mug of hot cocoa in hand. Whatever you do, give this the time and love it deserves. Give this your undivided attention for a couple of weeks. Engross yourself in the immersive world and pay attention to the riveting story and get to know it’s characters. Get to know the world you’re exploring, because it is well and truly a beautiful experience that I never thought I’d get to have as an adult gamer.
Sea of Stars is for the kids that spent their summer nights in front of a fan trying to beat the heat while you did your best to get through the final dungeon and collect the last piece of legendary Dragon Master armor. It’s for the kids that built up their teams with the best equipment and connected their Game Boys together on the school bus with a link cable and battled it out against their friends. This game is for anyone that picked up a controller and went to another world full of adventure – and maybe you broke and entered some houses and smashed their pottery. Maybe you rifled through their dresser and stole their last healing herb – if so, Sea of Stars is for you, and its also for your kids. Kids that need to see that good has to triumph over evil, and that friendship really can keep you going. It’s for anyone that needs to see that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but sometimes the hard things are what you were born to do. Sea of Stars is for you.
As a beautiful callback to a long-gone age of classic role-playing games, Sabotage Studios has hit a home run for fans of turn-based titles. There are so many references are scattered throughout the world to discover, and fans of the very titles that inspired Sea of Stars will have plenty to look forward to. Newcomers will get to see charming examples of what many of us fell in love with long ago, and every gamer has something to love with this story. Don’t sleep on this one – it’s going to be an experience that you’ll remember for years to come.
Sea of Stars copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.