They say the best things in life are free… could they be wrong? Find out in our Sea of Stars review!
Indie developer Sabotage Studio burst onto the scene in 2018 with the smash hit side-scrolling action platformer ‘The Messenger‘. Excellent writing and an outstanding soundtrack supported the tight gameplay mechanics to give us one of the best indie titles in a stacked year for quality indie releases including Celeste, Gris, Dead Cells, Return of the Obra Dinn, CrossCode and Into the Breach.
What better way to follow up a successful action platformer than with… wait… is that a retro-inspired turn-based JRPG on the horizon?
I’ve been waiting and waiting for a great retro JRPG. I guess I’ll wish upon the, uh… moon?
First announcing Sea of Stars though a Kickstarter program, the team won a massive amount of support with almost USD$1.2 million raised! Outstanding pixel art and the promise of a game leaning on genre classics like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario had a lot of gamers waiting eagerly for release (do I look like a waiter?). Because of the success of the Kickstarter, the team were able to surprise gamers with a dual GamePass and PSN Extra tier FREE release of the game on 29 August 2023!
These pirates aren’t playing around!
Did the team at Sabotage give us something that deserves a place amongst the stars? Or should they all be forced to walk the plank? Buckle up buccaneers as we review Sea of Stars!
Sea of Stars Review – Story
The heart of any great RPG lies in its storytelling, and Sea of Stars doesn’t disappoint in this department. The game introduces players to a rich, immersive narrative that effortlessly blends magic, mystery, and endearing characters. Its heartfelt tale pays homage to classic coming-of-age stories while forging its own unique path with some truly unexpected twists and turns. The story can be broken up into three acts with significant events in the story ending Acts 1 and 2. You will laugh and you will cry – tears will be shed unless you have the coldest of hearts.
Sea of Stars presents a classic hero’s journey narrative where Valere and Zale, two children with unique powers, set out on an epic adventure to save the world from an ancient evil known as the Dweller. However, as is typical for a JRPG, the true evil force is hiding just below the surface.
Beyond the central storyline, Sea of Stars offers a plethora of side quests that dive deep into the lives of secondary characters. These tales, while not directly related to the main plot, contribute to the world-building and offer a diverse range of experiences. The writing in Sea of Stars is impeccable, with engaging dialogue and world-building that really push the player to experience all of the lore that is on offer.
Sea of Stars is definitely full of stylish settings
Major story moments occur with almost frightening regularity and make it almost impossible to put the controller down – except when you need to reach for the tissues.
I don’t even know what to say for this one. It is gory and gross, and I’m here for it!
Sea of Stars Review – Gameplay
A JRPG will live or die based on its most important element – the battle system. One of the standout features of Sea of Stars is its turn-based combat system. The battles are beautifully choreographed and strategic, combining the best elements of genre classics like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG.
Each character has their own unique abilities and charging up the ‘combo’ meter with timed attacks and dodges allows execution of more powerful combination attacks where two or three characters join forces to dish out massive damage. That’s right, the old ‘timed button presses’ mechanic from Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy VIII and the Paper Mario series is implemented to full effect here.
Every single attack in battle can be strengthened (or in the case of the enemies’ attacks – weakened) by pressing a button at the correct time. Some attacks require the player to continually press the same button over and over again to extract maximum damage.
The ‘lock’ system further expands battles. Here some enemies will have a series of symbols appear above their head – signifying certain element or weapon types. If you do not attack the enemy with that specific series of attacks (in any order) before the number of turns runs out, that enemy will let off a stronger attack or magic spell. In boss fights it is essential to keep track of these as the results can be devastating if the lock is not broken.
One sword attack and three moon strikes coming right up!
Sea of Stars introduces two young protagonists, Valere and Zale, whose powers intertwine in innovative ways during gameplay. Valere and Zale’s control over the day and night cycle create dynamic puzzle-solving opportunities. The numerous puzzles available throughout this game reminded me of Lufia (another classic SNES-era RPG).
Pushing boxes, flicking switches and utilization of the day/night mechanic have never felt more rewarding and fit seamlessly into the story and world-building, echoing classic games where exploration was not just about battles but also about discovery.
Navigating the charming world of Sea of Stars is an absolute joy. The overworld encourages exploration and it is packed with side quests, and vibrant NPCs. This world is a lovingly crafted homage to the 16-bit era, with beautiful landscapes and towns, all begging to be scoured for secrets.
Traversal is made easier through removal of pesky random battles. Yes, you will still need to engage in battle regularly to progress through a number of rooms, but there are also many fights that can be avoided if desired which keeps the pacing of the game fluid.
Sea of Stars Review – Presentation
The presentation in Sea of Stars is an absolute marvel. Each scene, character, and environment is a work of art that seamlessly melds classic 2D sprite work with modern sensibilities. The attention to detail is awe-inspiring, and the game’s visuals are certain to elicit fond memories of classic 16-bit (SNES era) RPGs.
That bird looks like it flew right in from Truce kingdom
Character animations during traversal and battles are smooth and captivating. This is where Sea of Stars shows its commitment to capturing the essence of turn-based RPGs from the past whilst also using the power of modern technology to push the boundaries of was pixel art can really do.
At times, it really feels like the characters have been plucked right out of a classic SNES game. Personally, I loved the numerous Chrono Trigger references – the game developers clearly have love for the classics in the genre.
Pictured: Valere and Zale NOT entering Magus’ castle
The beautiful pixel art has been expertly crafted using modern techniques to deliver a world full of engaging characters and landscapes. The pixel art pays homage to classic games but does so with a level of detail and vibrancy that easily surpasses the limitations of the 16-bit era.
Why do the mushrooms have faces?
Zale and Valere’s ability to alter the day-and-night cycle is beautifully implemented, affecting not only the world’s aesthetics but also the gameplay itself. The gradual transitions not only tie into puzzle-solving but are also animated with fully moving light sources and shadows.
Sea of Stars also features a series of well-crafted animated cinematic cutscenes that enhance storytelling and add to the epic feel of the game. These alluring scenes are expertly directed to maintain the visual continuity of the game world and expand on the already amazing story.
I dunno what they are doing, but it can’t be good for our magnificent marauders.
The user interface in Sea of Stars is simple and intuitive. It enhances the overall experience by offering a streamlined way to access character stats, inventory, abilities and the detailed tutorials (in case you skipped over them and need a reminder). It allows players to engage with the game without unnecessary hindrances.
Simple AND effective.
Sea of Stars Review – Audio
In my mind, the real Star of the show is the sparkling soundtrack. Eric Brown (also known as Rainbowdragoneyes) returns from his outstanding effort in The Messenger with a series of tracks in Sea of Stars that put simply – blow his previous effort out of the water. Not only do we have a masterful display of 16-bit style music from Mr Brown, but the team was able to bring in the best ringer available – Yasunori Mitsuda’s (of Chrono Trigger fame) also provides 10 tracks to further elevates the music to another level.
“Glacial Peak” is a banger of a track.
“Volcanic Pursuit” brings Chrono Trigger vibes in all the right ways.
These two corsairs of the chord have created a captivating atmosphere that perfectly complements the visuals and story. The melodies are unforgettable and capture the essence of a grand adventure.
Toss a coin to your floating octopus thing
This is an Indie title, so you won’t find any voice-over work at any stage in the game. However, the outstanding soundtrack is well supported by an immersive soundscape. From the gentle rustling of leaves in the forests to the powerful roars of elemental beings in battles, the sound design is impeccable. It pulls players deeper into the game world, enhancing the overall immersion.
This stunning tree looks amazing and sounds great too!
Sea of Stars Review – Stability
As always, I need to comment on the quality of the game’s production from a development and stability perspective. I’m pleased to call out that this game has been expertly produced – I came across zero bugs, framerate issues or soft locks throughout my 30 hour playthrough on the PS5 version of the game.
That is the face of a man who never needed to reset his game
In an industry where innovation often takes the front seat, Sea of Stars sits atop the flagpole as a remarkable tribute to the golden age of JRPGs. It is a heart-warming yet bittersweet love-letter to the past simply brimming with nostalgia. Sea of Stars respectfully pays homage to the legendary JRPGs of the past whilst simultaneously forging its own path with a total package that is simply beautiful.
Jaw dropping scenes such as this one are commonplace in Sea of Stars
Sea of Stars sails above the competition as a game that is perfect for both old-salt fans of the JRPG genre fondly reminiscing the 16-bit days, in addition to landlubbers looking to embark on their first JRPG adventure.
I see big things on the horizon for the team at Sabotage Studio after this adventure!
I urge you to dive into the wonderous world of Sea of Stars and let the magic of Valere and Zale’s adventure wash over you in waves of joy and nostalgia. Simply put – this game blew me away. Make no mistake, this is a serious contender for not just the best Indie game of 2023, but the actual Game of the Year!
So, why should you play Sea of Stars?
- If you are a fan of classic JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG or Lufia, this is a game that simply cannot be missed
- Newbies to the genre will find this an engaging adventure that is an excellent entry point/gateway to the best genre in video games
But, why shouldn’t you play Sea of Stars?
- Only the most hardened JRPG hater should avoid this game, and even then – this might be the title that changes your mind especially at the low, low investment of $0 (if you have GamePass or PS Extra tier)
Want to check out some of our other JRPG content? Check out our reviews for Final Fantasy VI Pixel Remaster and Octopath Traveller II. Do you agree with me that this is one of the games of the year? Come and join the discussion on the Qualbert Discord Server.