Everyone has that RPG they played as kid. The one that sowed the seeds of a foundational love for a legendary genre of swords and dragons. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Golden Sun, Chrono Trigger, and so many more legendary franchises still have an impact on modern RPGs today. Sea of Stars is a resonant love letter to these seminal games, poking fun at genre conventions in a self-aware manner while wearing its inspiration on its sleeve. Sabotage Studio’s second title isn’t without issues, but they never get in the way of an experience that delivers the same comforts of an old-school turn-based RPG.
Sea of Stars follow two Children of the Solstice, Valere and Zale, who live under the heavy expectations entailed with becoming Solstice Warriors. The horrific alchemist known as the Fleshmancer has been long-since banished from their world, but the powerful remnants of his forces remain at large. It falls to Valere and Zale to fully realize their powers as Solstice Warriors and banish the evil that wreaks havoc on their land before it grows insurmountably strong.
If you’re familiar with Sabotage Studio’s work on The Messenger, you’d be right to assume that the narrative here is much more than meets the eye. Without spoiling too much, Sea of Stars constantly finds ways to up the stakes, keep characters interesting, and floor you with creative and fun plot twists. Friendship and adventure serve as the beating heart of the story here, and party dynamics do so much to build up Valere, Zale, and the surrounding world.
Accompanying them from their hometown of Mooncradle is Garl, a boisterous and infectiously positive warrior cook who cements himself as the rock of the broader group almost instantly. In some ways, Sea of Stars is a story about Garl more than anyone else. His innate ability to see the best in people and in dire situations makes him a helplessly endearing character that is always a joy to engage with.
I’d be at fault if I didn’t mention the quality of writing found in later party members also. Without spoiling too much, each one brings a unique perspective to the table and further expands on just how vile the Fleshmancer is, incentivizing you to see the journey through to the end. It’s always a blast to see how and why Sabotage introduces each member as the narrative unfolds. Each character contributes to a larger whole that is one of the best RPG ensembles in some time.
It’s a shame then that the ending feels a bit rushed in regards to some characters. While Valere, Zale, Garl, and the portal assassin Seraï all reach satisfying conclusions, there is one party member and a few supporting characters that feel forgotten by the time credits roll – even with the game’s true ending. There are loads of tidbits and lore details you can find about these characters in the surrounding world and through the Traveling Historian, Teaks, but the way certain threads wrap up feels odd in comparison to the finality of Valere and Zale’s story.
While technically a prequel to The Messenger, the world of Sea of Stars feels decidedly unique and rooted in fantasy. The inhabitants of each major city are a joy to talk to, each one offering something unique in tone and feel. The Port Town of Brisk for example is your typical seaside port, filled with pirates, shopkeepers, and beachgoers. The Town of Lucent, on the other hand is drowning in the oppressive atmosphere established by one of the Fleshmancer’s most powerful creations. It regularly bounces between joyous fantasy and hauntingly somber introspection in a remarkably seamless fashion.
While today’s RPGs have been blurring the lines of real-time and turn-based combat, Sea of Stars embraces the genre’s turn-based roots with real fervour. It’s most comparable to the Mario RPGs in that you can time basic attacks, abilities, and blocking for additional effects. Each character specializes in certain properties used to exploit enemy weaknesses in combat.
Valere, for example, is a battle monk who uses a blunt staff and her connection with the Moon Goddess Luana to bring her adversaries down with fierce strikes, while also shielding allies. Zale, on the other hand, is a blade dancer with a dagger that can be infused with the Sun God Solen’s solar might to incinerate foes and heal allies.
These unique properties have more emphasis placed on them through the Lock mechanic, which is undoubtedly the best combat feature Sea of Stars brings to the table. While enemies are weak to certain elements and weapon types, they’ll also cast their own abilities over a number of turns. While casting, Locks are presented, which can be broken with the appropriate element and damage types. Breaking each one weakens the effect of the ability, and breaking all of them cancels the cast altogether. While that on its own might not sound too impressive, it’s the way in which it feeds into other mechanics and dynamics in combat that makes it truly special.
Sometimes you’ll have to pull out your own abilities to break a Lock in time, spending mana in the process. Mana is quite limited in Sea of Stars, and can only be regenerated in combat via basic attacks and items. This means you’re always thinking about and balancing when and where to use abilities, as well as Live Mana.
Live Mana is another resource introduced relatively early on, which can be used to Boost attacks. When Boosted, basic attacks gain elemental properties, and abilities have bolstered effects. The catch is that Live Mana is only produced by basic attacks, and only three lots of Live Mana can be on the field at once. Live Mana can be stacked as well, making your abilities hit really hard when you top off with three stacks. It adds another layer of decision making and resource management that makes for thrilling boss fights and regular encounters.
As you engage in combat, you’ll also build up Combo Points used to unleash even heftier attacks. If unused by the end of an encounter, they’ll disappear, so liberal use of these is encouraged when and where possible. It wouldn’t be a turn-based combat system without some form of Ultimate Attack as well, which are slowly unlocked for each character as the story unfolds. While they can only be used when the Ultimate Attack Gauge is filled, each one has its own bombastic animation and properties that link back to the character using it.
If that all seems too overwhelming, that’s where Relics come in. These toggle-able treasures make Sea of Stars more or less difficult depending on what you want. A few of them also add quality-of-life inclusions, like a parrot that points you in the direction of missed collectibles. Others are more straightforward, like automatic timing on attacks and blocks during combat.
It makes for a more flexible difficulty model that can swing in either direction. You also have a slew of weapons, armour, and accessories to collect that bolster your characters further. The inclusion of party-wide experience also means that grinding is a non-factor throughout the entirety of Sea of Stars, allowing for break-neck pace if you want to focus on the main story.
Outside of combat, there’s a decent amount to do. Each area is chock-full of collectibles and secrets to find through traversal and exploration. While there’s also some light puzzle solving, most of it ends up being pretty mindless due to its simplicity, which is a bummer given the engaging nature of combat. I wouldn’t say that traversal or exploration is ever a drag, but it rarely comes close to the excitement of battle. There’s also fishing, which no good RPG is without these days, an arena, and countless minigames to engage with throughout the world.
Most notable is Wheels, a tabletop game you can play within Sea of Stars ala Fort Condor and Triple Triad. It cannot be overstated how addicting Wheels is. Its simple nature and progression as you unlock new Heroes to use made it something I regularly engaged with whenever I spotted a table. It’s a bit too complex to explain the rules here, but trust me when I say you’d be missing out on a great inclusion if you opt to pass it up.
If you’ve seen Sea of Stars, there’s no doubt that you’ve been wowed by its gorgeous 2D pixel-art and dynamic lighting. The Messenger was nothing to shirk at as is, but Sea of Stars is positively dripping with a love and care instilled in every frame. Its vivid colours and intricate character portraits bring the world and cast to life in a way that few 2D pixel-art games can manage. A lot of this is thanks to the dynamic lighting – which further cements a sense of place and pushes the limits of what pixel art can be.
Another spectacular highlight is the game’s utterly sublime soundtrack. It’s no secret that Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger fame has guest composed a few tracks for Sea of Stars, so it should speak volumes to the broader quality of the soundtrack when I say it’s all excellent.
There’s a diverse range of motifs on offer here, from flute-heavy tracks that are almost chip-tune like in nature that call back memories of The Messenger, or the fantastically energetic boss theme that somehow never got old across 30 hours of playtime. Sea of Stars is a true joy to listen to, and I suspect many of its tracks will be in my rotation for some time.
Despite being presented with some known issues to be patched on launch day, I didn’t encounter a single problem during my PC playthrough. It’s not the most technically demanding game given its pixel-art nature, but its remarkable that an experience as large as this is presented in such a polished and technically sound state.
Sea of Stars is simultaneously a love letter and modernisation of the legendary turn-based RPGs of old. It retains everything that made them such a core part of the industry so many years ago, while poking fun at tropes and conventions in an entertainingly self-aware manner. Much like The Messenger, Sea of Stars is another smash hit from Sabotage Studio, and is undoubtedly one of the best games of this year.
Engaging narrative that subverts expectations and always surprises
Wonderful cast of dynamic, unique, and heart-felt characters
Deliciously complex and unique battle system
Pushes the limits of 2D pixel-art with a fantastically realized fantasy world
Impeccably composed soundtrack fit for all manner of situations
Some characters and plot threads are left feeling unresolved