Sabotage Studio struck gold when The Messengerlaunched in 2018, delivering an eclectic retro experience with a twist that left me grinning. Learning Sea of Stars is a prequel, which meant this world, one that I felt drawn to thanks to its lore and world-building, was being expanded upon and told the world to me. Hearing that it was also an RPG with influences from the 16-bit era was like music to my eyes. It wasn’t until I could sit down with the whole game that Sea of Stars finally felt real, a game that, from its initial Kickstarter, caught my eye thanks to its colourful aesthetic and reworked retro systems.
When Sabotage Studio was founded, the team had always wanted to work on a turn-based RPG, and when this opportunity presented itself, the team went for it.
I Gaze Out to The Sea of Stars
In The Messenger, the protagonist’s world is lonely, with only one island left from a flood that essentially destroyed everything. The prequel 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 pledge to fight the monstrous creations of the evil alchemist, The Fleshmancer, in a world not yet pulled underwater.
Sea of Stars offers dual protagonists so you can be Zale, born on the Summer Solstice and wielding the sunblade. Or you can choose to be Valere, held on the Winter Solstice and wielding the lunar staff. Together, the duo recruit their friend Garl, whose talent is cooking and being a defensive fighter while supporting his friends.
Lore indicates that if a child is born in the summer or winter solstices, they will be held with the powers of the sun or the moon, respectively. Children then begin to attune to their innate skills before the Great Eagle flies these children to the Moon Cradle.
Children of the Solstice
Having been quite the year for video games, filled with big-budget adventures that look and play like a dream, Sea of Stars provides one of the most colourful adventures I’ve seen. In a few words, the world is stunning. The pixel graphics are vivid and detailed but shine thanks to the dynamic light Sabotage thrown into the mix. You also have a night and day cycle that eventually shifts to the player’s control, allowing you to take full advantage of the environment. These same environments are thoughtful and far less constrained than their contemporaries, often filled with pathways to hidden treasures or equipment worth going off the beaten path for.
Doing away with conventions turn-based games have had for years, there is a lot of freedom available to the player. This autonomy allows you to move around and climb ledges, get around terrain drops, swim through bodies of water, and so on. Exploration is often rewarded by interacting with environments that are all varied and distinct, with several memorable places players will experience in their playthroughs. Additionally, campfires are available worldwide, where you can rest, cook meals, or chat with your party – all things reminiscent of games like Chrono Trigger.
In Sea of Stars, combat isn’t an instance or a separate arena 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.
While similar mechanics have been used in other titles, it has never been better. Valere and Zale are wonderful protagonists who behave differently when facing monsters; Valere is the damage-dealing warrior, while Zale excels at support skills and agile encounters.
Pick the Locks
A feature within Sea of Stars is the Lock system, which essentially signals how many turns an enemy has before they act. You’ll also find above an enemy’s head a series of skills or attacks needed to break the enemy, and each enemy type is different, so you’ll need to pay attention before striking enemies down. You want to break the Locks because each time you do, it lowers the power an enemy has, effectively weakening their damage output when they decide to strike. You can even break multiple locks in one attack by Boosting an attack and using the corresponding character for either Solar or Lunar damage.
Regular attacks generate Live Mana, which can be absorbed by the party and stacked up to three times. By boosting, you can amp up the damage while saving MP instead. Because of the Live Mana, Valere or Zale must Boost before striking, and it also depends on the enemy’s weakness. I had an early encounter with a boss that was weak to Lunar damage, but I had run out of MP to strike skillfully. Instead, I had three charges of Boost readily available, and that attack was potent, leaving the enemy to fall because of the ability.
There’s a low cap on magic, and you’ll notice it runs out frequently during the earlier hours. Sabotage’s system allows you to strike enemies to replenish magic as necessary, so don’t hesitate to use magic when pushed against a wall. It’ll save you in a pinch, and being able to unleash skills is always as satisfying as it looks. Also, timed hits make it so you must pay attention to battles to get the most out of your attacks. Pressing the button at the right time can increase damage output or block incoming damage when you’re on the receiving end of an attack.
Many systems in place build toward the Combo moves you’ll be able to perform. Timing your hits and blocks, make a Combo meter, and points are needed to fill it. Doing so can unlock powerful dual attacks that offer the best of two characters into one incredible move. It’s also best to use these points as they don’t carry between battles. Using a Combo against a boss is critical to inevitably turning the tide against them. You can, for example, use a healing skill that restores your entire party, then follow up with a dual strike with Valere and Zale to deal tremendous damage.
Throughout Sea of Stars, there are Relics you’ll find throughout the journey to make the experience fit your needs. My biggest struggle was getting the timing strikes down at the beginning, and you’re provided access to a few Relics to either dial down the challenge or dial it up. The one Relic I found most helpful added a visual indicator when successfully timing strikes.
The mechanics, the characters, the world, and the music come together beautifully to deliver something incredible. Sabotage Studio’s mantra was always about elevating games by redefining them on their terms. They’ve done just that as I’ve explored several memorable land masses, cities, and dungeons. Many cities and dungeons, let alone the world map, are brimming with details.
Dungeons are also filled with puzzles that relate to the current situation and do not feel overbearing to frustrate the player. Instead, I felt like I had enough wits about me to understand and apply myself to finding the solution.
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 the experience, and you’ll discover recipes on your journey in the wild. One thing I’m afraid I have to disagree with is that you can only craft ten dishes, so you’ll need to ensure you have the suitable dishes with you.
What surprised me is the score, composed by Eric Brown, who returns after writing for The Messenger and guest-composer Yasunori Mitsuda, who completed a dozen tracks. Together, the pair pull you into the world in a way many games today struggle to do. Listening to the music as I explored battles, even on the world map, I felt a nostalgic wave of emotion hit me, and it felt like a return to simpler times. Undoubtedly, the music is a standout character in its own right.
Sabotage Studio’s Sea of Stars is an instant classic. It is an engrossing story with beautiful characters bolstered with an exciting battle system that respects its predecessors while establishing its legacy. I had difficulty putting my Steam Deck down from the start screen to the credits roll. To say that Sea of Stars won’t be talked about for years in the upper echelon of its elk feels like a disservice to the genre.
[The publisher provided a copy of the game for review purposes.]
Reviewed on: PC
Sabotage Studio’s Sea of Stars is an instant classic. It is an engrossing story with beautiful characters bolstered with an exciting battle system that respects its predecessors while establishing its legacy.
Excellent gameplay, the battle system feels like an instant classic
A colourful and wonderful world filled with memorable locations
The music is an ode to the 16-bit era, guest composer Yoshinori Mitsuda is a gem
Some enemy's can be unfair, often infinitely respawing allies
Characters can be hit or miss, some supporting characters are wonderful