Developer: Sabotage Studio
Publisher: Sabotage Studio
Available On: Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Review Console: PlayStation 5
A SEA OF…STARS! - Introduction
Years ago, I came across a Kickstarter for a nifty-looking JRPG. I was instantly captivated by how cosmetically alluring it was. Then, as I began reading about it, the plot synopsis had me firmly within its grasp - I was pumped. Probably the biggest surprise to me was that Sabotage Studio, the same people behind The Messenger, was developing it. The genres couldn’t be any more opposite, which piqued my intrigue. For the next month, I eagerly watched as it blew past the funding it initially needed, preceded by dismantling all stretch goals set for bonus content. Promises were made, but then silence followed for a year or so after. Thankfully, it resurfaced at a Nintendo Direct, and when it did, I flipped.
Sea of Stars had a ton of hype behind it, which worried me. So many games have been handicapped because of lofty expectations, resulting in failure. Yet, in lieu of the past, I remain optimistic. There’s nothing I’ve seen that I dislike, even a little. I’m confident it’ll be a blast, but am I destined to eat my words?
MEET THE CAST! - Writing
The friendship dynamic between Garl, Valere, and Zale is super realistic. Their jibes and jabs at each other felt authentic, but most importantly, I felt drawn to these three compadres. There was a connection festering as my session got longer. I grew empathetic towards them, which isn’t all too easy to achieve. I attribute its success to their exchanges always being so wholesome. The jokes they traded back and forth reminded me of the conversations I've had with my pals. I could sense the bond through their teasing and the way they chatted. If I had to grumble over something, those who joined the party later were a mixed bag. They weren’t terrible, but they were definitely not at parity - they didn’t feel as robust.
ARE YOU EXTROVERTED?! - Writing
Something I could see proving divisive is the need to talk to all the NPCs scattered about. I know it bores many, but doing so does unveil little quests to complete, like bringing jam to a painting or cookie to a ghostly figure. It’s also imperative to search for a secret or two, sometimes revealing kickass surprises for my efforts. Now, let me be transparent and say this dialogue will not be earth-shattering. If anything, it’s quaint and does a fantastic job of filling the towns with liveliness. I’ll say this, though: slightly more humor could’ve been thrown in. I recognize this complaint's nitpicky, but I’ll be frank: 90% of this review will be an endless stream of kudos. That said, I will try to fish for negatives, but I reckon I’ve got to be ridiculously critical just to pinpoint one.
If you read what I said above and wondered if silly antics were entirely off the table, let me alleviate those fears. The JRPG quirkiness is kicking, and the charm is evident. It expertly wields the funny energy of a bygone era. There were NPCs uttering quips that didn’t necessarily leave me in stitches, but I was cracking smiles. The self-awareness is refreshing, too, and includes a character going so far as to call out several tired tropes this genre is known to overuse. Sure, no one reacts to it, making it strictly for players, but I embraced it. It felt like Sabotage Studio were poking fun at the greats within the industry while simultaneously paying homage, and what a hell of a job they do - Sea of Stars fits that crowd snugly.
I’M FEELING SUCKED IN! - Writing
What won’t have illusions to reality is the story itself. As a nerd aroused by fantasy and world-building, I’m in heaven. Now, the lore won’t leave you astonished by the profound directions it takes. It’s a by-the-numbers affair and won’t be innovative in the sense of being unlike anything we’ve seen before. What it does manage, however, is create intrigue. I was thoroughly enthralled in the plot, glued to my TV screen as events happened. Probably what tickled my jimmies the most was the faithfulness to the old-school structure. As the narrative unravels, I stumble upon party members while rescuing their village. Then, after emerging victorious, they enter into my ranks. It’s a tried and true formula made famous by legendary JRPGs, and to see it here is, again, nostalgic.
Of course, I want to address the absence of voice acting and say I’m completely fine with it. It felt right reading everything on my own and giving these characters a cadence. Plus, the patterns in their dialogue do a superb job of translating precisely what their speech impediments are. Whether stuttering, pausing, tripping over their words, or whatever else, I never had trouble discerning when a particular emotion was being conveyed. The portraits accompanying each text box to note who’s speaking also did a fair share of heavy lifting. They were very expressive, diverting my mind directly to the desired reaction. It’s these two facets together that were key to immersing me, so I felt the impact of what was going on.
HOW ARE YOUR REFLEXES?!! - Gameplay
Sea of Stars is a love letter to the bygone era in which I grew up. It single-handedly teleports me to my younger days, thanks to several elements of it harkening to that age. One of those is a combat system straight from the 90s, although a couple of modern flourishes were added to spice it up. While yes, it’s turn-based, I’m not just mashing buttons to speed through a battle. Strategy plays an integral role, and I was absolutely engrossed with it. See, each foe has a counter indicating how soon they can strike. Periodically, a collection of symbols will also appear - a dagger, a fireball, a blunt object, etc. They happen to correspond with the spells or weapons I hold, and if I match those images before said counter reaches zero, I can weaken the incoming attack or outright cancel it.
Now, you’re likely thinking that while this is a feature, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be utilized. Lord knows I have played titles with mechanics I ignored, but with Sea of Stars, I recommend not to. Simply put, these monsters pack a hefty punch. It’s vital to pay attention and act accordingly because if you’re all willy-nilly with it, death is a hop, skip, and a jump away. It wants you to focus and make decisions that lead to victory. It was invigorating having to select the correct order of combatants and carefully plan my assault. I admit, the first hour or so saw me trying to brute force my way through the enemy, meeting the Grim Reaper for my efforts. I got frustrated and annoyed until I woke up, and afterward, it was fun as hell.
INSPIRATIONS & RELICS! - Gameplay
A common comparison made when Sea of Stars is brought up is how it resembles Chrono Trigger - that couldn’t be more on the money. From map traversal to how the location of an area appears, it’s evident where the inspiration lies. It’s not the only one, though, because Super Mario RPG is also a factor. A habit I’ve had since I was a kid is pressing the X button as my character strikes. In my head, doing so increases the damage. Well, that’s a fact now, but nailing the timing is finicky. It’s the same story when defending against the foe's attack, if not more so. Fortunately, I eventually unlock an item known as a relic that adds an obvious notification if done correctly, and that solves this slight niggle in terms of offense, but defense is still hit or miss. They also have other perks.
If, like me, you were finding it hard to shake your kamikaze tendencies or struggled to grasp encounters, well, I have great news. Those aforementioned relics double as a game-changing modifier. I can raise my health by 100% or earn 20% more experience points to streamline the grinding. Essentially, I can customize my whole session and infuse it with a further challenge or neuter difficulty to a whimper. Such a feature welcomes folks of varying skill levels, allowing them to indulge in this delightful romp. Here’s the caveat, though: I have to scour the many towns and locales I visit to acquire these trinkets. Yeah, I’ve got a handful by default, but the meaty options are hidden throughout the places I visit.
I want to acknowledge the leveling system. Think of it like a recipe with the typical ingredients, but there’s a desire to embellish, so it adds salt and pepper. See, when receiving a tick upwards, the usual stat buffs do occur, but, ripping another page from Super Mario RPG, I can also select an extra bonus to one of four options Sea of Stars chooses - Attack, Defence, Hit Points, and so on. Look at it like a loose variation of character building in that I can give birth to an absolute unit, a defensive powerhouse, or someone with peak magical prowess. It’s interesting, and it tries to incentivize replay value, which, I’ll be honest, your mileage will vary. There’s a New Game+ Mode, as well, if that’s to your fancy.
While we’re still on the subject of emulating JRPGs, let’s throw a third to that list. For the handful of people familiar with Wild Arms, well, the spirit lives on. There’s a key mechanic that helps traversal across the map that is directly lifted. I won’t go into much detail, but I’ll say that, unlike the PS1 goodie, the usage of it in this title never disrupts general play. It’s fluent and, thanks to responsive controls, delightful to harness. For as straightforward as it is, I did enjoy myself quite a lot. The best part is that it won’t feel haphazardly shoehorned in and instead blends flawlessly.
TAP, TAP, TAP! - Gameplay
Learning abilities can arguably be deemed half of the heart and soul of JRPGs. Sea of Stars knows this but approaches it with a rather distinctive twist. I’d typically be raising my level to a certain milestone before, boom, a new skill is taught. This methodology doesn’t fly here, however. See, at key plot points, a cutscene might trigger that teaches me one, or perhaps an NPC awakens my potential. It’s an intriguing change from tradition, and in a couple of cases, those moves can be power-boosted. It notifies me if I can hold down X or tap it for an allotted duration. If I adhere to the instructions, I’ll fall into a perpetual cycle of knife-throwing or deflecting magical projectiles until messing up. In other words, I can determine lethality so long as I don’t flub it.
Okay, from a completely subjective place, Sea of Stars has this innate capability to make me feel like a youngling. Whenever I found a secret chest or an isolated NPC, purposely separated from everyone, I was ecstatic to learn why. To soak in that childlike contentment, it brought within my heart was enchanting. It had me playing well into the late night, eager for the next chapter. That’s not an emotion you can fake. Yet, when a game can pull it off, that’s special. Throughout my session, I was amazed. It’s tough to articulate, but I’m glad this JRPG exists because it will become one that will stay with me for decades.
LOOKING GOOD, GARL! - Presentation
The visuals are astonishingly gorgeous. Period. The pixel art style is tight, giving it a vibrant aesthetic. I loved how the map is basically just Chrono Trigger but prettier and upscaled. The UI also didn’t cause my eyes to bleed, and I’m so giddy with excitement over the sporadic animated scenes that pop up at pivotal moments. If you’ve played Lunar, it’s the perfect comparison. My only gripe is that they’re agonizingly short. I was starving for them to last longer. Their hand-drawn nature, as well, is breathtaking. I’m a sucker for what’s on display, so perhaps I’m being biased, but God damn.
Alright, we’ve explored graphical fidelity, but we haven’t mauled over animations or, well, the fluidity of movement. From standing idle to facing encounters, I was exposed to the peanut butter smoothness we all know and want. There was a natural flow to weapon swings or arms circling before casting a devastating spell. It’s evident that a massive, no, enormous amount of passion was poured into polishing every nook and cranny to an almost OCD degree, and I respect it. It heightens the experience, bringing along the laud-after believability that can make or break a JRPG - I was immersed.
DO YOU HEAR THAT?! - Sound Design
First and foremost, Sabotage Studio slammed it right out of the park with ambiance. I’m the guy that loves the noise of thunderstorms. It’s why, with a gleeful heart, I can happily say the sounds are music to my ears. The burning question, however, is how the soundtrack and quality stack up. Again, I can happily say it’s stellar. It does a superb job mimicking the feel of the older JRPGs to a precise tee, a fact helped by the original composer of Chrono Trigger having composed it. Some of these tunes are exceptionally catchy. Hell, I sat in my car the last few days as I did errands and hummed the battle theme loudly to myself. Also, I need to point out this killer banjo riff that comes out of nowhere during the middle of the adventure. It’s brief, but I’ve got to admit, it’s kind of dope - and shout out to the toe-tapping musings of Glacier Peak.
AND THE SOLTRICE VERDICT IS…
Sea of Stars deserves the endless positive accolades that I anticipate it’ll get. Everything is meticulously crafted, and it’s poised to be a JRPG that future generations look back on as immaculate. I won’t sit here pretending there aren’t faults. I did notice a few, but they’re so terribly subjective and tiny, meaning that, objectively, this title is a well-oiled machine. All of the mechanics are tight, and nothing feels out of place with the established lore of this world - it gels seamlessly. I know it’s an oxymoron to say, but I could legitimately believe what was happening in the context of this fantasy setting. Despite the swell imagination, it’s grounded. When my penultimate qualm is that the journey ends, then that speaks volumes. I 100% recommend buying Sea of Stars, and I dare say it’s $5 below the actual market value.
SEA OF STARS IN HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Special thanks to Sabotage Studio for the PlayStation 5 code used for this coverage.