In 2018, one of the most under-the-radar video games was launched. Sabotage Studios released The Messenger, an homage to classic Ninja Gaiden games from the NES era. I was impressed by how well the game played, how quirky and witty the premise was, and how, for the studio’s first outing, how complete the game felt. See, The Messenger was just a tribute; it was a game that exceed all expectations while doling out one surprise after another.
I had a lot of goodwill towards the studio after that and was excited to see what came next.
When Sabotage’s CEO and creative director, Thierry Boulanger, announced a Kickstarter for their next game, Sea of Stars, it was easy to pipe up and pay attention. For starters, the moment you mention Chrono Trigger, I’m all ears and will discuss a masterpiece like that any day of the week. Second, Sabotage’s goodwill with their previous outing made this an easy project to watch.
Sabotage Studio’s sophomore release is unique for a multitude of reasons — it’s the studio’s first self-published title made possible by the immensely generous donations made by Kickstarter backers, and two, the team working on it genuinely seem like great people who want to make good games.
Sea of Stars’ compelling world unites players with Valere and Zale, youths fated to become Solstice Warriors. Combining their Sun and Moon powers to perform Eclipse Magic, they are pledged to fight the monstrous creations of the evil alchemist, The Fleshmancer.
Sea of Stars will satisfy fans of classical RPGs
Since the studio’s inception, the team’s dream was to create a turn-based RPG. In terms of scope, the project is about four times the size of The Messenger in terms of team size and game length. The development team has ballooned to 25 people at the studio, having only had seven employees working on The Messenger.
In late 2018, Sabotage Studios began working on Sea of Stars with the team heading into the final year of production. The game features a retro-style aesthetic with modernized design mechanics and takes in the same universe as The Messenger. As a prequel, we’ll learn how the world came to be as it is.
“There had been a flood, there was only island left (in The Messenger), and then you were a ninja who had to cross that island, essentially,” says Thierry Boulanger. “So this time around, we’re going back to the past before that flood, and so there are many islands for you to explore. The world is an archipelago, so you’ll be, you know, sailing around and discovering tons of mysteries.”
The game offers up dual protagonists, so you can choose to be Zale, born on the Summer Solstice and wielding the sunblade. Or you can choose to be Valere, born on the Winter Solstice and wielding the lunar staff. Together, the duo is joined by their friend Garl, whose talent is cooking and being a defensive fighter while supporting his friends.
In this world, when you’re born on a solstice, either summer or winter, you get the power of the sun or moon. As children of the solstice, you were taken by the Great Eagle to a remote village called Moon Cradle, where you receive training to become Solstice Warriors. By combining their powers, they perform Eclipse magic, the only power that can fight off the creations of the evil alchemist known as the Fleshmancer.
You are the Sun and the Moon
The hands-off demo begins in the port town of Brist. We need a ship to travel to another island in time for the eclipse. We met a pirate crew, and the pirate captain will help, but he needs our help. You must go through the abandoned Wizard’s Lab, beat its illusions and secure a magical coin for the pirate captain. Each town is explorable, and you can even rummage through drawers and desks for items to equip or sell.
Thierry mentions that Sea of Stars has full-on dynamic lighting, and as a Solstice Warrior, you’ll eventually be able to gain complete control of the day and night cycle. This ends up playing into what the music track plays as there are two versions of each song based on the time of day, and it is all seamless. There’s also going to be your active angling mechanisms by driving some beams to crystals to charge up in dungeons to move forward.
In some missions, NPCs help with missions where you can head out into the world map. Before that, though, we saw Vale headed to a vendor to pick up items and vegetables for cooking. You can, of course, sell items you don’t need to the vendor.
Once our protagonists agreed to accept the pirate captain’s request, we head out to the world map. Our heroes are currently on Sleeper Island, and it is called that because of the massive serpent sleeping on the island. The world map is a classical RPG map on older games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI.
Thierry mentions that Yasunori Mitsuda is a guest composer and provides ten tracks for the game and many themes on the world map. Composer Eric W. Brown will score the rest of the game as he did with The Messenger.
Zale and Valere work with the recruited pirate crew and head together to the Wizard’s Abandoned Lab shown on the world map. The pirates assist by opening the front door by blowing it up. Characters like this are not active party members and essentially are stored as Cargo, supporting characters who help push the story forward.
The player would have stumbled upon this place earlier in the adventure and couldn’t find a way in. So we went back to the town to get help. That’s where the pirate crew comes in and can find even a door where the pirate crew has a wind mage. Keenathan is a wind mage, and on the ship, he keeps the sails full at all times. You can use his ability to find a crack in the door to make your way together with the pirate’s bombs making a makeshift entrance to the door’s weakness.
This is an old ruin, and it was impenetrable before the help of the pirates. The location is in a separate realm in a self-contained pocket realm, and you need to find an item within the ruins. You can find items around the level via treasure chests; however, you’re here for the magical coin. We see a green crystal item that is used to open a door in the level, there are two other colour crystals that lead to different areas.
Essential items are part of dungeon exploration. You would use the key by walking up to the area and selecting it from the list. Thierry shows us the green crystal that ties to the green portal. Heading into the new area leads us to an encounter.
Sabotage’s Biggest Game Yet
In Sea of Stars, combat isn’t an instance or a separate arena and is triggered by physical contact with the enemy or projectiles. Think of how Chrono Trigger handles enemy encounters, and you’ll understand the influence. Combat always happens directly in the play area. You always see the enemy moving around, and they have combat behaviours and then if you engage in a fight on the spot. It is stat-based and purely turn-based with no ATB bars. If you move and time, your attack and press at the right time can increase damage/same with defending attacks.
When it’s the player’s turn, any of your characters ready to act can act. You can cycle between, and there’s also an action layer when you move. Timing your attack and pressing at the right time will increase the damage output. You can boost in battle and add your damage type to your next move, allowing for bonus damage. Similarly, you can decrease incoming damage by timing your button press to when a hit lands.
Your party can generate a source of magic that can be used to boost your power. Boosting adds your specific damage type (sun or moon damage) and some of your magic attacks to your next move. This allows you to wipe out enemies faster than if you used a simple attack on them. It offers a fun new way to synergize your abilities in battle to make quick work of monsters and bosses.
Focusing on Garl, a friend of the Solstice Warriors, his role in battle is to displace enemies. You can pick up and hurl enemies around the battlefield and then use Zale or Valere’s abilities to defeat them. Zale can use a Sun Ball to attack one enemy, then splash damage will bounce off the others to deal less damage.
Regarding traversal, Thierry says that the team at Sabotage wants to modernize turn-based RPGs “by breaking free of the grid and not having a style-based movement, but instead of something where you can jump over and jump off of things and hoist up on ledges if something looks like you can touch or has immersion, you can interact with it. Think of how in Illusion of Gaia, you could jump off buildings and interact with the world.
Moving on, we look at how health restoration works — we’re all familiar with potions, hi-potions, etc. In Sea of Stars, food is how you’ll recover health. You can craft meals at your campsite or buy meals from vendors. Finding recipes and their ingredients is a significant component of Sea of Stars, and the team is working on adding the sounds of preparing a meal into the game and showing it to be prepared. Campfires are used to rest, and you can also trigger the campsite from the world map, and you can heal and rest up. Inns are also available, and when you pay to stay at an inn, you earn buffs that will last for several battles. Furthermore, the campsite is excellent for catching up on anything you missed. Characters will remind you where to go if you forget.
The last mechanic we saw during our preview regarded the damage types in battle. Zale can use regular attacks Sun damage, and the same goes for Valere. The idea Sabotage created is that instead of having your favourite heavy hitter is that each character has a different utility in battle.
An essential component of the gameplay is that when enemies mount a spell or a significantly more vital skill, we see that by a bar with locks over the enemy’s head telling you to get ready. When that happens, the locks have a damage type that they’re showing if you hit the associated per lock of each type you will cancel the attack.
In the image above, the enemy must be hit twice, followed by a sun skill. These blocks vary with each enemy so that you might have one physical attack, a magic attack, followed by a third physical attack. This is done to keep battles feeling engaging and to challenge the player. It’s usually worth going for these even if you can’t complete the three effects in time because if you can even remove two-thirds of the locks, it’ll deal one-third of the damage.
The final thing Sabotage showed to the press was the fishing minigame. Each island has its fish to find and capture, and you’ll be doing quite a bit of fishing to gain the achievement. The mechanic itself wasn’t shown in-depth, but it looks promising and fun for anyone who wants a bit more out of Sea of Stars.
Even with a hands-off demo, I’m excited to try Sea of Stars. Much of what was explained last week left me feeling impressed and eager to experience the prequel to The Messenger. Theirry answered questions from a handful of media attending the event, and he said that the game’s pacing will be familiar if you’ve played Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. The main story does enough heavy lifting, so you won’t need to waste time grinding out a few levels to overcome a boss.
While no release date has been given, Sabotage says Sea of Stars will launch around Holiday 2022.