At the risk of sounding cliche, Sea Of Stars made me feel like a kid again. And I really mean that; while playing this game, I warped back to an era where I'd turn the TV to channel 4 to get my Nintendo games to appear on the screen before I'd dive into games like Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger. Developer Sabotage Studio's ability to conjure the feelings of the past in a modern game astounds me, but it's obvious a lot of hard work and due diligence has paid off here. Sea Of Stars reflects the best of a bygone era, and it does so with a quality that makes it stand out not only among the giants of the past, but also among those in the present day.
Sea Of Stars is a turn-based RPG and a prequel to The Messenger, Sabotage Studio's other retro-tinged romp that focused on 2D Metroidvania elements. The story follows Zale and Valere, two children of destiny who train to become Solstice Warriors, aka mighty fighters who wield the power of the sun and moon. Zale represents the sun, while Valere takes on the powers of the moon. Right away, the game establishes that these two will be inseparable for the entire adventure, but it allows players to choose which of the two party members they want to take the lead, though the choice only affects which character is at the front of the line during the adventure. I like this flexibility, as it gives the player a small bit of agency in an otherwise linear story experience.
Zale and Valere take on a years-long struggle between the Solstice Warriors and The Fleshmancer, a standard RPG villain who wants to take the world for themselves by any means necessary, which for them means summoning powerful demons and unleashing them on the innocent. The villains are a colorful bunch, ranging from a shadowy quartet named One, Two, Three, and Four who are pulling strings behind the scenes, to a necromancer named Romaya who makes creatures from spare bones and flesh piles during our battle. While the story does take some turns I didn't see coming, for the most part I was able to call out story beats before they happened. I still enjoyed seeing them play out, but the predictability dulled their impact.
While individual events may have been predictable, I wasn't fully prepared for some of the heavier themes in Sea Of Stars. This may be a game dressed up in retro attire, but character development in this game ranks highly among the RPGs of today. Serai, one of the companions Zale and Valere meet up with early in the game, is fascinating. Serai's tragic past--the full weight of which doesn't come to fruition until later in the game--informs a lot of her earlier actions, where she lurks in the background and disguises herself in order to track Zale and Valere's progress. They can see through her deception, but they play along in the hopes of gaining her trust. Even in her early appearances, when she seemed shifty, it's apparent she's a good soul. Soon after she joins the group, there's a story beat centered around a coin that, upon completion, made me gasp at how Serai had acted, and it made me happy to add her to the team.
The battle system here starts out as standard turn-based RPG fare where each character on-screen--friend or foe--acts individually without interruption on their turn. However, a small countdown will appear next to each enemy, which lets players know how many moves they have before they attack next. This allows players to plan each action accordingly, and I love that strategic element in my turn-based battles. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but this battle system is still a ton of fun every time I'm matched up with an enemy.
The turn timer isn't the only new feature of battling; for example, sometimes symbols appear above an enemy on the field along with the countdown. Each symbol represents either a type of attack or an element. If I'm able to attack that enemy in ways that correspond with the symbols before the countdown ends, I can halt that attack altogether. It's a cool mechanic that adds even more strategy to each battle. That said, this particular feature isn't always fair: For example, there were multiple moments where I'd have one turn to remove four symbols, but no one in my party was able to do it. Luckily, every symbol I removed lessened the power of the attack, but I still felt like this mechanic stacked the odds against me unfairly at times. Seeing those symbols create an impossible situation out of nowhere feels like an randomly generated difficulty increase.
Sea Of Stars reflects the best of a bygone era, and it does so with a quality that makes it stand out not only among the giants of the past, but also among those in the present day
This happens more often with the bosses, which range from massive screen-filling creatures to small and powerful beings, and each of them provides a grueling challenge. Some of these boss fights required as much strategy as raw power, as each brought its own wrinkle to the fight. Botanical Horror, for example, had four branches and a central head, and I couldn't damage the head until I brought down the branches. After a few turns, the central head would revive the branches, and I had to deal with them again. Other bosses could easily wipe my team in one or two attacks, which forced me to focus on defense. As such, I never knew what to expect when a boss fight would start, which increased the excitement when I reached one.
There's one other added wrinkle to these big fights that I especially appreciate, and it's a simple visual cue. Like in other RPGs of the era, there's no health bar on these bosses, so I don't know precisely how long I have until I achieve victory. However, at a certain point, the boss will begin to look tired and beaten up, with the expressive pixel art to signify that victory is close. Seeing this small change instantly energizes me for the rest of the battle, and the mood immediately becomes intense. That visual signal is a small addition, but it makes each boss battle that much more enjoyable by bringing victory so close that you can taste it.
The two Solstice Warriors aren't the only fighters you'll be working with, as throughout the game they'll meet multiple companions who add their own flair to each battle. The aforementioned Serai's poison abilities got me out of a few jams, but my favorite of the bunch is Garl. A childhood friend of Zale and Valere, Garl's ineffable positivity keeps the group going even at the lowest of times. This guy puts up with a lot--he loses an eye as a child while exploring a cave with Zale and Valere, not being a Solstice Warrior means he has to wait 10 years for his friends to finish their isolated training, and he has to sit out one of the more climatic battles simply because he's not a Solstice Warrior-- and yet he continues to encourage, support, and fight alongside his friends. He's also excited about cooking in anadorable way, going so far as to separate from the party to check out a nearby kitchen at one point. Garl is a real one, and more games need characters like him.
While the party does grow, battles only allow for the use of three characters at one time. However, unlike in past RPGs where I'd focus on three main characters and leave the rest to the dustbin, Sea Of Stars allows me to keep every hero in the rotation in two key ways. First, in a move hearkening back to Final Fantasy X, I can switch party members on the fly in battle--even if doing so costs me one of my actions. If I'm in a bad spot and my boy Garl is on the sidelines, I can swap him in, let him heal whoever needs it, and pop out. Similarly, if an enemy is weak to a certain element and I forget to swap the right hero in before the fight, I'm not left in the lurch.
The second way it does this is one of my favorite parts of the game: The entire party gains experience from battles at the same time. Gone are individual experience bars with sporadic level gains. Here, when I hit the level up screen, everyone's getting a buff. This was a major frustration of mine back in the old days; I distinctly remember getting to the end of Final Fantasy VIII with half of my team maxed out and the other half ignored, and when the final battle randomized my party, things didn't go well for me. Seeing this solution in action made me wish I had the same courtesy back then.
Not only that, but I get to choose an extra stat boost for each character during the level up screen, so if I see one of my teammates is low on Magic Defense, and that buff is available to choose, then I can add a little more to that stat. This is a throwback to Super Mario RPG, which offered a similar benefit, and it allows me to keep an eye on my complete team rather than fall into that FFVIII pit again.
Each character comes with their own unique abilities, whether it's Garl's healing, the Solstice Warriors' elemental attacks, and so on. Some of them come with small minigame elements to boost their abilities, whether I'm holding a button down to charge an attack or pressing a button with precise timing for multiple hits. I like these ideas, as they provide welcome variety and skill-based elements, but I noticed there are some wonky timing issues going on with a few of the moves. Valere's Moonerang and Serai's Venom Flurry, for instance, felt inconsistent and sometimes wouldn't trigger, even when I hit the button dead on.
That being said, I feel every character stands out amongst the rest of the group. No matter what situation I find myself in, I know that any combination of the three will get me out of it, even if I have to use a turn to swap a new teammate in. It's a cohesive unit of powerful fighters, and thanks to the combo of varied skill sets and full team level-ups, I never felt like I was entering a major fight at a significant disadvantage.
The world that hosts these battles features some of the most gorgeous pixel art I've ever seen. From beautiful horizons to even the dark and dreary swamps, the visual style of this game is a delightfully retro look that can fit right in with the best of the SNES era. That said, modern upgrades are definitely noticeable, especially in the animations of background elements. Zale's Sunball ability, for example, creates a giant ball of orange sunlight that reflects off of walls and enemies in real time, as does Valere's blue-tinged Moonerang as it sails across the battlefield. There's some pixel-art sorcery going on here, and all of it has certainly cast a spell on me.
Sea Of Stars is a classic SNES-era turn-based RPG that holds up next to the titans of the era. There are bits and pieces of those classics scattered throughout this game, but Sea Of Stars doesn't just rest on the laurels of its predecessors. There are plenty of new little tweaks to the system that kept me on my toes from beginning to end, from unique combat mechanics to a couple of story beats that sent me through a loop--though not as many as I'd hoped. In a crowded year of big-budget AAA releases, Sea Of Stars has an impeccable sense of craft that helps it stand tall alongside them.