Five years ago, Sabotage Studio released The Messenger and showed us that they had the chops to create a modern classic that deftly paid homage to adventure games of the 80s and 90s while utilizing contemporary sensibilities about game design. Now they’ve returned with a prequel story set in the same universe and using a different genre, the classic turn-based (J)RPG. With one huge success under their belt and several years of time and effort poured into it, can Sea of Stars pull off the same feat?
Following the path of two young Solstice Warriors, the game’s introduction serves as both back story and tutorial for the journey that lies ahead of its heroes. You’ll choose to play as either Valere or Zale, who utilize lunar and solar elemental magic respectively; regardless of who you pick as your main, both will be controllable in your party as the pair is central to the story; two halves of a whole that is dependent upon their linked abilities and fates.
From the outset, Sea of Stars is full of pluck and heart, offering up strong and endearing characters that are easy to root for and who bring brightness to every step of their adventure. Stealing the show early is Valere and Zale’s dear friend, Garl, who isn’t a chosen member of a dynamic duo but is a great cook and whose overwhelming optimism and positivity helps the party through several situations. The characters are written uniquely in that they aren’t simply aping the blind optimism of JRPG characters from the 90s, but rather find their positivity and strength from a strong sense of self and confidence each of them has developed and can draw from with authenticity.
Perhaps most immediately striking about Sea of Stars though are its incredible visuals. This is a game that pushes pixel art into some really fantastic places, going far beyond what 16-bit systems and games could ever hope to achieve with a virtually unlimited color palette to use, a level of detail that takes advantage of modern displays, and lighting that absolutely stuns on many occasions. There is beautiful subtlety and depth to the animations of background elements like bushes and cloths swaying in the breeze, or water cascading down cliffs and spraying mist into pools below. Characters are richly animated and expressive, featuring both excellent field sprites and higher fidelity portraits for dialog scenes that really give you a sense of their personalities.
The real-time lighting system is truly remarkable, and the team has not shied away from finding ways to show it off. Watching as character’s faces are bathed in the warm glow of a campfire as they approach, how their shadows dance in its flames against the nearby foliage, how environmental elements like fireflies or torches or crystals or motes can cast light on surrounding surfaces and characters as they move around, and how all of these things interact with one another is really amazing and it totally surpasses anything I’ve seen in a game using this art style. What really hammers things home, though, is an ability you get early on that allows you to move the sun and moon to shift the time of day; activating that and watching the scene’s lighting change and shadows move is an incredibly special moment every time it happens.
Playing Sea of Stars feels in so many ways like dipping into Chrono Trigger or The Secret of Mana for the first time (two very clear inspirations that Sea of Stars draws from); vibrant scenes full of colorful characters, intricate overlapping pathways to traverse, and an unmistakable sense of grand adventure around every corner. I particularly appreciate that Sea of Stars has opted for a format where enemies are visible on the field and fights are avoidable if you so choose, completely removing the tedium of random battles from the equation and allowing you to decide how much fighting you actually care to do at any point.
The game uses a rubber banding system that dynamically prevents you from grinding out too far ahead of where you should be, and catches you up if you’ve been skipping fights for a while, so that you’re always just about at the right level for the content you’re playing. It’s a great system that puts fun and enjoyment first, and while it has implications on other design decisions, it’s a system I’d love to see more games implement.
Combat plays out similarly to what you’re used to with turn-based RPGs of the SNES era. You take turns issuing commands to your party members in whatever order you want, and enemies have visible turn counters of varying length depending on what skill or attack they’ve chosen to use. An enemy’s most powerful attacks will display two to four icons next to the turn counters called “locks”, representing different elements or attack types; solar, lunar, blunt, sharp, and others. Landing an attack a each lock on that enemy reduces the damage their attack will do, and closing all locks stuns the enemy and prevents it from taking an action. Each action performed by one of your party members counts as a turn so there’s some strategy involved in planning your moves out to close as many of their locks as possible without allowing them to unleash their high damage skills.
Sea of Stars‘ combat system has a few more tricks for keeping you engaged during fights. Pressing the “A” button at the precise moment an attack connects will boost your own attack power, and doing the same for enemy attacks defends against them and reduces their damage. Attacking and defending boosts your combo meter, and filling charges allows you to unleash higher damage attacks and other special abilities between two characters, and different sets of characters can perform different combos. There is also a system in which using regular physical attacks leaves charges of energy on the ground, and those charges can be absorbed by your party members during their turns to add elemental damage to their physical attacks, or boost the damage of their magic skills. All put together, the combat feels dynamic and layered, giving you significantly more agency and strategic options than traditional turn-based combat allows for.
This notion of depth and layering on top of traditional systems is a theme that exists across the game’s mechanics, its art, and its storytelling. It pushes beyond the ambitions of its forbears and creates something nuanced and exciting and centered totally on fun. There’s a fishing minigame that’s quick to pick up and easy to get hooked on, and rather than being arbitrarily difficult or requiring near inhuman levels of button mashing or reel management to bring in the biggest or rarest catch, it’s all down to your ability to observe and execute, making it a fun and relaxing diversion rather than a potential frustration.
Fishing spots are scattered around the world map, usually placed in a perfect spot to break up the pacing of a journey between points of interest. Each location is a multi-screen, large scale location to visit with plenty of side paths and secret items and gear to collect, some of which is locked behind additional abilities you’ll get as you progress through the story, giving you reasons to come back and revisit locations later if you want. The areas feel distinct and the interpretations of classic environments like “forest” or “mountains” or “lake” are imaginative and in some cases untethered by pesky notions of realism, which allows more room for creativity in the environmental design. Traversal is thankfully extremely open, allowing you to climb and swim right from the beginning, which can in fact allow you to find multiple paths through an area.
For all of the design choices the game makes in service of player enjoyment, it also uses a system of Relics you can enable to adjust aspects of the game’s difficulty to tailor it to your own preferences, and in some cases to accommodate differently abled players. Not interested in having to get the timing perfect on attacks and defends? You can automate that. Are you mostly just here for the story? You get double health and full heals after combat to keep you moving, and you can reduce damage taken too. Want combat to be easier in general, or need better feedback on your button press timing? There are Relics you can turn on for those scenarios too. It’s so evident that a guiding principle for designing Sea of Stars was enabling as many people as possible to experience and enjoy the game, and it’s a commendable one.
There’s a moment that happens a couple hours in that really stuck with me, as I’ve never seen anything like it in a game before. In the aftermath of defeating a boss, your party speaks with the character they fought and learns that the conflict they unknowingly brought to the local village was the result of, surprise, miscommunication and misunderstanding! A common enough trope in games, but what struck me was how the conversation was handled; not only were the characters understanding of their no-longer-adversary’s position, they actually engaged in validating their perspective and emotions without contradicting them or explaining why they were wrong, and it was through this approach to understanding that they brought the accidental villain around to making amends of their own accord, without coercion or condescension. Seeing a video game modeling the kind of skills I try to teach my kids absolutely floored me, and it set the tone early for how Sea of Stars handles conflict and relationships. I said this game has heart and I meant it; the writers are clearly looking to tell a better kind of story than we’re used to seeing, or a more emotionally intelligent one, and I’m all for it.
For as much as I love all of the nods and the throwbacks to games I grew up playing in the 90s, and for as much nostalgia as I have for JRPGs of that era, there are still certain bits of baggage that are hard to shake. I love what’s been done to make the turn-based combat more fun and interesting, but I often feel limited in which skills I can actually use for a given fight so as to remain ready for a variety of scenarios. The result for me is sometimes an illusion of choice, which results in many encounters boiling down to more traditional turn-based combat.
Many of the characters are wonderfully explored and delightful, like Garl and Teaks, but the two main characters Valere and Zale feel strangely flat and perhaps too archetypical. Perhaps that’s a me issue, and it may be the authorial intent that they aren’t as overtly characterized so as to allow the player to embody them, but for such an otherwise character-driven game it spends surprisingly little time by comparison developing the two primary characters’ personalities. You get a sense of who they are, but not enough of what makes them distinct, particularly from each other, which is a shame to see.
Modernizing beloved genres of the past is a tricky business; you’ve got to successfully play to the nostalgia of a core audience who grew up on the titles you’re drawing inspiration from by weaving in elements of familiarity and recreating an experience that feels authentic without being too pedantically accurate to the source material so that the rough edges and artificial difficulty don’t wear out the game’s welcome. Be faithful, but not derivative. Be evocative, but not a blatant ripoff. Build on old ideas, but don’t break the formula. Be like the thing I remember, but also better in every way. Now do all of that twice in a row without missing a beat.
Overall, Sea of Stars handles the task extremely well, and it delights more often than not. I love so much about what they’ve done with it, and it really is a love letter to classic 16-bit era JRPGs. I love that this genre is seeing more great games in the past few years, and in many ways this may be the best one of the bunch. It’s an easy recommendation as a fun romp with approachable mechanics and gorgeous art and an amazing soundtrack where almost every track is an absolute bop. In many ways it’s the turn-based RPG I’ve been wanting to play for years, and whether you were raised playing the classics like me or you’re just excited for a new RPG, Sea of Stars is absolutely worth diving into.
A Steam code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes