Sea of Stars Review

Sea of Stars Review – Sailing to Stardom

Sea of Stars is the realization of a team’s dream. Sabotage Studios, the developer, embarked on its journey with The Messenger, a retro-inspired platformer whose success served as a springboard and bootstrap for a large-scale RPG in Sea of Stars, another retro-inspired game.

We are living through a pivotal moment for the RPG genre. After countless AAA games took advantage of RPG elements to design features that give their titles an edge, such as skill trees, levels, and myriad sidequests, the industry needed to see a revamp of a genre that is more ambiguous than ever.

With the release of Baldur’s Gate 3, considered the pinnacle of tabletop representation in electronic RPGs, Sea of Stars had a different role to play: to rescue the essence of RPGs where adventure, discovery, and the feeling of newness greeted us with each new dungeon, story beat or mystery.

And did it succeed? After spending days enjoying the game, hunting down all the secrets without any guide, and relying solely on the experience of a teenager who was introduced to RPGs in the 16-bit era, I finally feel prepared to share with you my Sea of Stars review, played on PlayStation 5. Buckle up. It’s gonna be a hell of a ride.

Retro Done Right

Usually, I start my reviews with the game’s settings and story. This time, I will kick off with the gameplay. One, because I believe Sea of Stars deserves to be praised right off the bat, and its gameplay isn’t short of praise. Two, because every gripe I have with the game is within its narrative, and I like to start sharing good news first.

sea of stars bos battles
Timing skills really add a dynamic to every battle – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

Sabotage Studios leveraged the experience gained from creating the platformer The Messenger to prepare a level design in Sea of Stars that’s insanely entertaining. They even brought back an overworld map! Exploration is charming and stimulating. The game allows for vertical exploration—jumping, climbing, and swimming—which significantly expands the scope of each area. Each dungeon contains a puzzle that is relatively easy to solve but still engaging. The exploration is so immersive that it took me a while to notice that there aren’t many battles on each map. Still, I will take good and intriguing adventuring over random fodder enemies anytime.

Speaking of battles, most classic-inspired RPGs will bring to the table turn-based combat because that’s what the old days were all about. No complaints since it’s my favorite battle style. Having played numerous turn-based RPGs has made me extra critical of any novelties introduced in each system. I can proudly state that Sea of Stars has added a spectacular twist to it.

First, there are the timed input hits. Not really a surprise among RPGs, but one that has been more prominent in the past. Sabotage Studio said Mario RPG was an inspiration, and it’s here where it shows. After most attacks, skills, and defense, an accurately pressed timed button can improve attacks or reduce incoming damage. This mechanic kept me on my toes at every turn. The game warns you that while a well-timed attack/defense can be beneficial, it’s not a requirement to triumph over battles. I second this.

sea of stars mechanics
The “locks” mechanics set Sea of Stars’ battle apart from others. – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

The second feature, the one that truly sets Sea of Stars’ combat apart, is the lock mechanics. Occasionally, enemies will attempt to cast spells. Players can, and often should, disrupt these casting attempts by dealing damage using the right types of attacks, such as a sword strike or a moon-element spell. Breaking all locks cancels the attack while breaking some locks reduces the incoming damage.

Many turn-based battles suffer from the repetitive nature of simply selecting the attack command. If I were to do that in Sea of Stars, every battle would end with me on the losing side. Neglecting enemies’ spells carries significant consequences, especially in boss battles. At the outset, with just three characters, interrupting enemies was effortless. But as new members joined and extra attack varieties were introduced to the fray, managing the party—including mid-battle character swaps—became increasingly challenging and strategic.

Boosting attacks, combos, and ultimate abilities are other features that enhance the battles and introduce fresh elements to turn-based combat. It’s enticing, thought-provoking, and tests the player’s analytical observation. As I mentioned before, there aren’t many encounters against common mobs. But when in battle, every second invested in contemplating the best course of action is worthwhile.

And then we come to the icing on the cake: leveling up. Party members don’t have individual levels. Instead, they all level up together when an experience threshold is reached. When this happens, each character receives a substantial boost to their attributes, which makes a real difference. Besides that, the game allows us to choose one bonus status out of four options to further increase.

sea of stars level up
Enemies can’t hurt you if they’re dead. – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

I enjoy creating highly focused characters in what they’re already good at. If a character hits hard, I’ll make sure they hit even harder. So, I’d choose attributes that increased their damage. If another character was more defensive, I’d maximize their HP and defense. The point is you get to choose. Depending on your proficiency with RPGs, these choices serve as more of a placebo effect and won’t impact your experience significantly. Still, having a bit of control over my characters’ development always left me positively thrilled and excited whenever the level-up screen appeared.

What’s truly remarkable is how Sabotage managed to integrate so many features into Sea of Stars’ battle while maintaining a consistent level of difficulty. The game can get tricky if you rush through and don’t utilize each party member’s unique abilities. There’s always the option to grind, but it’s not necessary. If you’re struggling, you have items called Relics that can be activated at any time, giving you an advantage in battle—essential for those who just want to enjoy the journey and immerse themselves in Sea of Stars’ story. Speaking of which…

The World Beneath the Stars

Typically, every story involves two types of conflict: external and internal. The external conflict shapes the overarching plot of the story, serving as the driving force that propels the hero forward. The internal conflict represents the characters’ struggles, vulnerabilities, and flaws, which they must overcome to become the champions of their story. The external conflict captivates and intrigues, while the internal conflict makes the story relatable.

sea of stars save points
Save points are one feature from the past that I hate to love – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

Sea of Stars boasts a gripping overarching story. We play as Valere and Zale, the dual protagonists known as Solstice Warriors—fate-bound heroes whose mission is to slay massive monsters called Dwellers before they transform into World Eaters and devour entire worlds. Our objective is palpable right from the beginning, and the game’s pacing guides us toward it seamlessly. The stakes evolve in a believable manner as the characters gain new means to confront the hardships they face, intertwining gameplay design with narrative impeccably. Sabotage Studios effectively times the story beats, always leaving me wondering what the next chapter would bring, yet never straying too far from the established tone. I have zero complaints about the narrative itself.

My only gripes revolve around character development. When the game starts, we can choose between Valere and Zale. There’s a note on the initial screen that the choice doesn’t matter, and we can switch the main character at any time. This is true because both characters are so similar, molded from the typical heroic archetype of those determined to eradicate evil, that they both come across as somewhat shallow.

Sea of Stars introduces its main characters in the game’s prologue, and I felt like a proud papa witnessing their rise as Solstice Warriors. Yet, after a third character joins the group and takes the lead with his boundless optimism and somewhat clueless demeanor, the original protagonists seem to fade into the background. Their dialogue becomes limited to generic interjections or merely echoing the third character’s words.

sea of stars Solstice Warriors
It should be forbidden for anyone to look this cute – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

Throughout the journey, I expected to see their development, some vulnerability, and internal struggle. But there was none. If you were to remove the names and portraits from the text box between Valere and Zale, it would be impossible to distinguish one from the other. This lack of agency on their part not only made them feel soulless but also created a void that was filled by the third wheel character in moments that should have been impactful but felt diminished because the Solstice Warriors chose silence.

This shortcoming wasn’t enough to overshadow the brilliance and artisan’s work of the main story. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been much more impactful if the main characters had cared about it as much as I did.

As a side note, for those who aren’t aware, Sea of Stars is a prequel set in the same universe as The Messenger, but it takes place thousands of years before the platformer. In preparation, I played through The Messenger in its entirety, and I can attest you don’t have to play it to enjoy Sea of Stars fully. There are references and Easter eggs in Sea of Stars that only The Messenger’s players will recognize, but nothing that will significantly impact your experience.

Greater Than Pixel Perfect

As if the utterly delightful gameplay wasn’t enough, Sea of Stars’ art direction is a feast for the eyes. Every pixel has been meticulously crafted, proudly showcasing a beautifully shaped world filled with life, personality, and harmony, infusing the adventure with a refreshing, heartwarming demeanor. The animation of every attack and every interaction with the environment brings substance to Sea of Stars even more than I thought possible for a game restricted to the visual limitations of 16-bit graphics. What matters most is that it works and adds an appealing layer to the overall experience.

sea of stars visuals
It’s hard not to fall in love when the game is this adorable! – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

To further enhance the game’s visual presentation with an even more dreamy essence, the soundtrack rises to the occasion. Eric W. Brown, a.k.a Rainbowdragoneyes, brought his chiptune expertise to create a melodic ambiance that switches when it’s day or night. I was already impressed by his work in The Messenger, and he continues to prove his excellence in Sea of Stars.

However, without diminishing Eric’s contribution, Sabotage Studios teased an illustrious guest to aid in composing the game’s soundtrack. None other than Yasunori Mitsuda, renowned composer of games like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and the Xeno franchise. For those familiar with his work, it’s easy to identify which tracks he composed. His musical style exudes elegance, freshness, and a touch of nostalgia. To this day, the soundtrack of Chrono Cross remains one of my favorites. With these two giants collaborating, you can expect music to your ears.

A Whole Retro World Made New

No RPG can be considered a genuine member of the genre without offering robust and rewarding exploration. Sea of Stars ticks this box with flying colors. My primary issue with many RPGs is that if you postpone completing a side quest when it’s introduced, the rewards often become obsolete as you progress further in the game. This demotivates me from backtracking and pursuing what seems inessential.

sea of stars map
Overworld map! We have an overworld map! – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

Sea of Stars manages to circumvent this issue almost flawlessly by offering side quests that are easy to complete, with rewards that scale as you acquire more of them, be it with the collectible Rainbow Conches or Combo Scrolls that teach new double attacks for the party. There is one caveat, however—and I don’t say this negatively—you’ll have to rely on NPCs’ guidance to fulfill the objectives.

Don’t expect an interface filled with markers and arrows pointing you in the right direction. You either figure it out on your own or consult a guide online. However, the satisfaction of solving most of Sea of Stars’ secrets is so gratifying that you’ll want to uncover everything on your own. I’m an RPG completionist, and my peers know how incredibly time-consuming that can be. Lately, I’ve been feeling fatigued because many games seem to include tedious side content merely to pad their playtime and justify the time investment relative to the price. Not Sea of Stars. I did it because I wanted to, not because I was chasing after trophies.

However, for the sake of this review, I must acknowledge that not everything is perfect. Minor spoiler ahead; please proceed with caution. Sea of Stars has two endings: the traditional one and a secret ending. The secret ending is considered the true ending, which made me frown at this decision. Achieving the true ending requires completing virtually all of the side content in the game, which was a joy for me. Rewarding dedicated players is an interesting design practice, and I support this idea.

sea of stars fishing
It isn’t a JRPG-inspired game without fishing – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

However, locking portions of the narrative, especially canon, behind side content might be demotivating for casual players. Yes, I know that games like Valkyrie Profile, Suikoden, and others also have hidden endings behind herculean deeds, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for, dare I say, the majority of players.

Close Alternatives

If you’re on the lookout for other RPGs similar to Sea of Stars that take you on a trip down memory lane, consider exploring these alternatives:

  • Ara Fell
  • CrossCode
  • Alterium Shift
  • Chained Echoes
  • Octopath Traveler
  • Cosmic Star Heroine

The Verdict

Score: 9/10

Sea of Stars provides us with a nostalgic visit to RPGs of the golden days. It pays homage to its inspirations without relying on them as a crutch for success. Quite the opposite, actually. Sea of Stars possesses a strong, unique identity that blooms as our gameplay hours unfold.

From the impeccably crafted pixel art to the standout soundtrack, the engaging battle system, and the iconic platforming that only Sabotage Studios can deliver, Sea of Stars stands as one of the best RPGs of the current era, wrapped in a retro visual aesthetic. If you’re tired of AAA titles or rehashed games that seem to merely replicate a formula, have no doubt—give Sea of Stars a chance, and I guarantee you’ll embark on a journey filled with surprises, mirth, and emotion.

Pros

  • Engaging overarching plot
  • Incredibly well-crafted pixel art world
  • Memorable and vibrant soundtrack
  • Top-notch turn-based combat
  • Side content enriches the game’s scope

Cons

  • Main protagonists lack depth and character development
  • Casual players might miss out on crucial content due to some demands

Play Log

Murillo played Sea of Stars for around 40 hours, experiencing both endings. He explored every dungeon and city and collected equipment, recipes, combo scrolls, and Rainbow Conches. All these efforts culminated in a hard-earned but satisfying platinum trophy.

sea of stars campfire
It isn’t a JRPG-inspired game without camping – Photo by Murillo Zerbinatto.

FAQ Section

Question: What is Sea of Stars about?

Answer: Sea of Stars tells the story of Valere and Zale, two Solstice Warriors qualified from a young age to defeat monsters that threaten the world. It’s a nostalgic RPG with solid influences from Super Nintendo games such as Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Illusion of Gaia.

Question: Is Sea of Stars a good RPG?

Answer: It’s one of the best RPGs released in 2023. Don’t let the pixel art fool you. Everything presented in the game is of high quality and created with great care and dedication. Like any game, its primary goal is to entertain the player, and Sea of Stars accomplishes this from the main title to the closing credits.

Question: Do I need to play The Messenger before Sea of Stars?

Answer: Not necessarily. I prepared for Sea of Stars by doing a full The Messenger playthrough. While grasping all the shared references between the two games was worth it, don’t feel obliged to play it. It won’t hinder your experience with Sea of Stars in any significant way.

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