In what many call a golden year for RPGs, Sea of Stars is a retro-inspired adventure that launches amid some of 2023’s biggest games. After a successful Kickstarter back in 2020, Sabotage Studios pivoted to a turn-based RPG from their previous platformer-metroidvania hit The Messenger. And like the previous game, the 25-member team is channeling the best hits of the genre.
From Chrono Trigger’s seamless battles to Super Mario RPG’s timed inputs and old-style soundtrack contributions from Yasunori Nitsuda, they’ve got the entire menu. But unlike most inspired RPGs that look to the past, Sea of Stars pairs old ideas with new ones and mostly succeeds. Sabotage Studios understands the difference between drawing inspiration from Final Fantasy and flattering mimicry.
Sea of Stars tasks two teenagers Zale and Valere with saving the world from the evil Fleshmancer by using their Solstice powers. And while that does tread familiar ground, Sabotage Studios quickly takes off an eye patch as the true story begins to materialize. Its narrative threads move about in paths that start off predictable before veering into the bizarre. Much of its storytelling happens outside the game’s sparse cutscenes.
Without entering spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that your opinions of characters will change multiple times over the game’s revelations and betrayals. Garl’s kindness against unforgiving odds stirred my heart. The presence of a non-magic hero informs players of the scale of Sea of Stars’ key conflict. Despite that, there’s not much nuance in the morality department, with good and evil contesting well-defined borders. Sea of Stars doesn’t scale the peaks of its forefathers but it still does them proud.
The game’s worldbuilding slowly opens up to you, with heartfelt writing that works towards the party’s motivations. Occasional writing inconsistencies and iffy humor aside, there’s a lot to love across the many character arcs you will witness in Sea of Stars. After spending time at camp hearing tales of yore from the traveling bard, I was pleased to see those stories being referenced and even brought to life over the course of the 30-hour campaign. The game’s story takes place across islands split into zones that feature excellent level design built with immersion in mind. These zones also present the occasional puzzle between traversal and combat.
While moving blocks about or memorizing patterns did require some thought, I was grinning through the ones that let me play with the day-night cycle. Sea of Stars’ dynamic lighting is particularly potent here, changing the mood of the place in a matter of seconds. While this is restricted to standing on specific nodes at first, the game eventually lets you change the time of day at will. When some zones felt haunting and oppressive in Sea of Stars, I would bring in the sun to cheer me up. And that’s not something most games allow you to do.
Comparing Sea of Stars to its predecessors reveals two immediate wins in the visuals and combat departments. The game’s verticality and platformer-esque movement make its gorgeous 16-bit world a joy to traverse. Its fast travel system is also unique to the world, with imposing golems tossing you between them like a pinball. Shimmying across ledges, climbing vines, and even swimming felt incredible across Sea of Stars’ vibrant landscapes. And while Sea of Stars does give you a ship, you unlock more ‘efficient’ modes of travel later on.
Story progression also opens up previously inaccessible areas, offering up interesting side content that you can discover for yourself. One particular highlight is the Crypt, a homage to the game’s backers filled with commemorative stones, statues, and hand-crafted monuments. Journeying across Sea of Stars’ regions via ship or golems Y’eet and X’tol (sigh) added another layer of immersion to the game. The game openly acknowledges its tropes but I can’t fault the sincerity with which it follows through on its promises and payoffs.
Sea of Stars is at its best when you’re moving through a clockwork castle or cascading waterfalls complete with their own tunes and identity. The game’s settlements all have their own flavor and a table of Wheels, the ‘game within the game’ like Gwent from The Witcher. This mini-game reminded me of Arcomage from the Might and Magic series, with players taking turns to break an opponent’s walls and crown. As for the NPCs you meet, their one-liners are seldom interesting. Despite that, revisiting these areas while backtracking or doing side missions never felt monotonous. These carefully crafted environments keep you on the rails throughout the adventure, leading you from one battle to the next.
Speaking of combat, Sea of Stars does a brilliant job of breathing life into turn-based encounters with modern flourishes. It also accounts for players looking to evade enemy encounters with a generous leveling system that eliminates the need for grinding before a boss. The enemy sprite-work is phenomenal, with attack patterns that draw from the identity of their regions. Solar Blade Dancer Zale and Lunar Monk Valere’s elemental attacks are downright breathtaking thanks to the game’s obsession with dynamic lighting. The devs said they wouldn’t have done it any other way and I strongly agree. Combat segments in a particular zone with white flooring had me grinning like a kid eyeing ice cream. The characters’ screen-filling ultimates had a similar effect.
A lock-breaking system lets you weaken or interrupt special moves by using the right elemental attacks of your own. Staggering a boss with an expert mix of Solar, Lunar, Poison, and Arcane attacks felt invigorating. And with party members that specialize in certain domains, the second half of the game had me swapping them about as I thwarted enemy abilities. There were times when I’d pull off a sequence of moves only to realize that I could have done it better. And since basic attacks restore MP and release active mana that can be absorbed for elemental attacks, I had to switch between heavy hits and light taps as I danced with my foes. While new areas do offer up unique weapons, their simple stat boosts didn’t force me to min-max my build.
Timing attacks and blocks to boost or minimize damage meant that I was an active participant in combat. Unique time intervals for actions offered me an opportunity to learn all six character behaviors as I progressed through the game. This was especially important for abilities that kept attacks going as long as you nailed the timing. Tossing Serai’s poison darts or kicking Valere’s moonerang across the field dozens of times had every ounce of my attention. The game does its best to break the monotony by adding tweaks to the combat loop once every few hours. But by the end of Sea of Stars, combat fell into a predictable rhythm outside of boss battles.
I particularly liked Sea of Stars’ approach to healing. You can rest up at campsites scattered throughout the game, letting you cook dishes and heal before the next battle. While Warrior Cook Garl is decent in combat, he’s great at teaching you how to cook. I loved seeing mystical deities give this mortal an unhealthy amount of attention across the game. Recipes found across vendors feature unique cooking animations that add flavor to the old potion-concocting routine. While the 10-item limit does seem frustrating, it asks you to be mindful of your inventory. Sea of Stars also features a relic system that lets you tune the game’s difficulty with damage, timed input, and other modifiers.
Sea of Stars is an impressive retro-inspired ride that meets the expectations it set and then some. Fans of The Messenger will find returning enemies and subtle throwbacks across the game. Its story takes some interesting turns and while some of them are predictable, others reeled me in like a trout from the game’s fishing mini-game. But that’s why Sea of Stars’ ending left me wanting more and not in a good way.
I understand that some characters might return in the game’s DLC Throes of The Watchmaker. But storing a key villain that pestered you through the campaign for later use is quite a decision. And while the ending is filled with cosmic spectacle, I wish we had more than vignettes wrapping up plot threads after a climactic battle. On the bright side, the game does let you have a meaningful final conversation with your party members and other major characters before the final boss. It’s got a decent slab of post-game puzzles and side content too. And with a day-one Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus release, Sea of Stars is definitely worth your time.
Stunning vistas paired with a stirring soundtrack and refined combat shoulder Sea of Stars, one of 2023’s most charming RPGs. Old-school JRPG fans who enjoyed Chained Echoes and Octopath Traveler II are in for a good time. While there are heartfelt moments woven across its environmental storytelling, one-dimensional protagonists and iffy writing hold it back from greatness.
Reviewed on PC. Game provided by the publisher.