Sea of Stars Review
Classic inspired retro RPGs can often feel like cheap imitations. New ideas are added to the formula, but its ultimately never enough to feel unique. Sabotage Studio uses this inspiration as a foundation for Sea of Stars and it fortunately quickly rounds into form as a unique and modern take on the genre. It’s an extremely refined RPG with a tightly-packed story full of heart and charm. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, it doesn’t need to, Sea of Stars has its own identity that allows it to stand out in a crowd.
While its retro RPGs inspirations are prevalent early on, Sea of Stars’ story feels uniquely its own, especially in the way that it’s told. After choosing which character leads the story (which has no effect on how the story is played out), the player is brought to a room called the Great Archives and introduced to The Archivist. In this messy room full of scattered books, The Archivist begins to lay the foundation for the adventure that is about to unfold for the Solstice Warriors Zale and Valere. Solstice Warriors wield powerful eclipse magic; Zale, is a blade dancer who uses the power of the sun, while Valere is a monk who utilizes the power of the moon. These warriors will travel the world to take down an evil alchemist threatening to end the world called The Fleshmancer.
It’s an approachable story that pulls many clever twists throughout. While this isn’t a deep thought-provoking tale (it’s ultimately a standard affair dealing with friendship and betrayal), there’s an abundance of heart at its core to carry the narrative. Most of that is felt through the charming cast of characters, especially Garl, who is childhood friends with the Solstice Warriors. Garl is an incredibly likable character that has a profound impact on the story through his generosity and kindness. With such a great supporting cast, it is unfortunate that the two main characters aren’t nearly as intriguing: they’re rather dull and stiff compared to the rest. By the end, Zale and Valere’s full arc is rewarding, but their dry personalities make it tough to stay invested in them. For the most part though, Sea of Stars is a compact story that moves along at a consistently spectacular pace.
Sea of Stars’ personality ultimately shines through its world and level design. There is an infectious rhythm to the world’s trees and grass swaying in the wind, flowing waterfalls, and perfectly paired retro-inspired soundtrack. The traversal, puzzles and verticality of each area has the player constantly interacting with the world, whether that’s using a hook to catapult long distances, hopping around to different platforms, or using bursts of wind to move blocks. From the sounds of one’s hook hitting wood or the splash when jumping into water, the sounds that the players encounter bring so much life into the world. The sound effects bring so much life into the world. From a grappling hook hitting wood, to the splash when jumping into water, there’s so many vibrant sights and sounds that make exploration enjoyable. Areas flow together well and puzzles are simple, yet gratifying to solve. There is also plenty of variety found throughout Sea of Stars that makes for great exploration, including underwater temples, snow-covered forests, and dark swamps. Exploring every part of the world is rewarding since hidden chests carry substantial weapons and collectibles that are essential to understanding the full scope of the story. New zones are first reached by giant creatures literally tossing players across the world. As the story progresses, the party acquires a boat as another means of travel
Along the way there are towns that have shops to buy items and equipment, lakes to fish in, and a mini-game called Wheels. Fishing can be fun and is useful for cooking recipes, but it’s far too simple. Wheels is an attempt to capture the magic of retro mini-games and not only does it succeed, it may be one of the best. While the basic mechanics of Wheels are easy to understand, the challenge lies in decision making. Players need to decide between building energy for attacks, leveling up their heroes to increase damage, or building defenses against incoming opponent attacks. Each hero class has different strengths and abilities. For example, mages take longer to build up energy, but launches two attacks, while assassins delay an opponent’s attack and deal small amounts of damage that ignore defense. It takes time, but it’s very rewarding to master all the combinations of classes and how classes can counter an opponent. Wheels is completely optional, so players are free to choose when to play it and enjoy it.
Of course, the Solstice Warriors encounter many enemies while exploring this vast world. Sea of Stars’ active turn-based combat recalls Super Mario RPG more than other retro RPGs, since players can inflict more damage or better defend against an attack with a well timed button press. Special attacks also use active commands, like using Valere’s staff to deflect a moon-like boomerang that continuously hits enemies. It’s especially engaging to figure out the perfect timing to defend against enemy attacks. Combat has some strategy involved, as some attacks can be broken by using the right combination of attack types. Stronger enemy attacks display a countdown with locks above indicating attack types. Locks can be broken by using the correct attack type. Breaking locks can weaken the attack or, if all the locks are broken, cancel the attack entirely. Each character has unique attack types that can be combined with others in the party to stagger enemies this way. There is an element of risk vs. reward involved in doing this as skills drain character’s magic points and combos take time to build up. The mechanics easy to understand combat mechanics, but there are few instances that push players to fully engage with them. It’s easy to figure out the right attack combinations, and in the second half of the game, the Solstice Warriors’ eclipse magic is most effective, rendering the rest of the party almost useless.
Basic enemy encounters can sometimes feel tedious because of this, ending too quickly to use combos. The combo gauge is filled by using normal attacks, skills, and taking damage. Since basic encounters end so quickly and the combo gauge resets after every battle, the gauge hardly fills up and remains unused. Sea of Stars’ boss battles require effective use of the full arsenal of skills, even if they aren’t particularly challenging. Boss battles take longer to complete, giving players the option to build their combo gauge and use stronger combos. Bosses also have more locks to break; it can be challenging to find the perfect combination of attacks to cancel powerful boss abilities before time runs out. It’s more fun to use the full arsenal of attacks, and it’s a shame it doesn’t happen more often. One advantage is that players won’t have to spend extra time grinding to level up. Combat is balanced perfectly, allowing players to progress the story and avoid unwanted extra battles.
Players can adjust their experience using Relics that alter the difficulty in a variety of ways. Relics can make the game easier for those who want to only experience the story, or harder for those looking for more challenging combat. Other relics have benefits outside of combat, such as sailing faster or discounts at shops. Sea of Stars might not have many deep systems, but there is plenty of customization options for players to enjoy it without many frustrations.
Sea of Stars is a perfectly balanced modern RPG with a beautiful world to explore. The game’s story is full of heart and charismatic characters that push it forward in emotional and meaningful ways. There is a plethora of amazing music and sounds that contribute to its classic vibe, and some great minigames. Its retro RPG inspirations are used only as a foundation; it comes into its own through clever storytelling ideas and vivid world interactions. Although it never quite reaches the heights of the classic RPGs it takes inspiration from, Sea of Stars stands out as a superb, modern turn-based RPG due to its incredible polish and refinement.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Excellent and interactive world to explore
Wheels is a classic minigame
Characters are full of personality and charm
Break Lock system keeps combat engaging
Most battles are too short to fully use combat system
Protagonists are stiff compared to the rest of the party
Combat system is not very deep