REVIEW – Two heroes fight to the very end, their last reserves of strength dedicated to their desperate fight for survival. As the Fleshmancer’s demonic horde attacks, bloodthirsty and menacing, the heroes are bathed in the silvery light of the watchful moon. A surge of energy awakens within them; radiant fireballs and shimmering lunar spears burst from their fingers, vanquishing the malevolent beings that attack them. Fueled by the power of the sun and moon, they make their way to the lair of the Mysterious Entity.
Sea of Stars is a neo-retro masterpiece reminiscent of iconic ’90s titles like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. It’s a modern take on turn-based RPGs, and fans of 2018’s The Messenger will be happy to know that “Sea of Stars” serves as its prequel. Known for its “retro-inspired indie games,” Canada’s Sabotage Studio has shifted from a Metroidvania-style game to a turn-based RPG with this Kickstarter-backed project. Set centuries earlier, this standalone adventure draws from the original The Messenger universe to deliver an entirely new narrative. The result is a remarkable homage to classic game design while offering a fresh, mechanically refined RPG adventure.
Choose from two heroes
Born just six months apart on the solar and lunar solstices, Valere and Zale are trained as Solstice Warriors to defend their world from the sinister Fleshmancer and his terrifying Dwellers. Separated from their best friend, Garl, since childhood, they are instructed in warfare and magic by their gruff mentor, Moraine. They soon discover that the Dwellers slumber beneath the earth and are growing increasingly powerful. The duo’s mission is to vanquish these creatures before they awaken and wreak havoc on the world.
“Sea of Stars embodies the essence of a classic RPG. Explore worlds, discover villages and caves, solve simple navigation puzzles, collect equipment and treasures, and battle beasts. Players can choose to control either Zale or Valere and can switch between them at any time while learning new mobility skills. The environments are rendered in stunning isometric pixel art, accompanied by a nostalgic musical score. From its quiet underwater moments to short animated scenes that introduce new areas, Sea of Stars never fails to captivate, whether you’re sailing the high seas or venturing through flesh-colored caverns.
A sea of combat
The combat system in Sea of Stars is turn-based, allowing you to assign actions to any of the three active team members in any order. Choose from basic physical attacks that partially replenish mana, the use of skills that deplete mana but have special effects, combos and ultimate attacks that must be pre-charged as you progress through the story, or the use of healing items. Each action affects enemy cooldown timers, and enemies attack when the timer reaches zero.
The game integrates a real-time component with a time window, similar to the early Paper Mario titles. Pressing the A Button during an attack increases damage, while timing your defense minimizes damage. Different skills add layers to these interactions. For example, Zale’s special attack can be amplified by holding down ‘A’, while Valere’s ‘Moonerang’ attack can bounce multiple times with well-timed strikes.
The tutorial makes it clear that these timed actions are bonuses and are not critical if missed. However, as enemies evolve with dangerous abilities, mastering the timing of each team skill becomes essential.
The key to Sea of Stars combat is the Locks mechanic. Icons will occasionally float next to enemies that correspond to different attack types or elements, such as Smash, Sun, or Poison. Hitting an enemy with the appropriate element will break their lock, reducing the strength of their next attack and increasing your combo meter. Breaking all locks causes the enemy to lose their next turn – a crucial strategy in boss fights where hidden abilities can devastate your team.
Not to be overlooked are basic attacks, which generate power orbs that can be used to boost attacks or add elements. Healing items, though limited to ten per trip, are invaluable. You will regularly find recipes and ingredients throughout the game that can be used between battles for team health and mana regeneration.
The combat system in Sea of Stars is both engaging and refined. It achieves a harmonious blend of intuitive controls and complex mechanics without sacrificing depth for simplicity. Varied enemy types make every encounter exciting, and the game features numerous unique and challenging bosses. The need for grinding is eliminated by a clever “rubber banding” mechanism in the background that keeps challenges appropriately hard, but never insurmountable.
Relic items also appear in the game, providing various difficulty modifiers such as continuous team defense boosts or free post-battle healing. Each combat element is thoughtfully designed and seamlessly integrated into a rhythmic, addictive gameplay experience that recalls the ambience of classics like Secret of Mana and Golden Sun without their minor annoyances.
A familiar yet intriguing story
The narrative arc of Sea of Stars is reminiscent of basic role-playing games. After a quaint village introduction, events escalate at a breakneck pace and become increasingly serious as the game progresses. Initially tasked with defeating a creature that has enslaved an entire island community, the Solstice Warriors soon find themselves wrestling with themes of compassion, revenge, and destiny against a backdrop of unimaginable evil.
The protagonists have individual motives, but a common goal unites them, allowing for different paths as the story unfolds. Among them, Garl, the warrior cook, stands out for her impressive character development – she’s one of the most delightfully optimistic characters I’ve seen in an RPG in a long time. Main characters Zale and Valere are not overly complex, but gain depth through their friendship with Garl and their responsibilities as Solstice Warriors.
As a prequel, “Sea of Stars” largely succeeds without relying too heavily on prior knowledge of “The Messenger”. Towards the end, however, the game features episodes that lack original dramatic thrust and cohesion. The pacing is a bit off, and last-minute characters are thrown into key events without much explanation. Somewhat frustratingly, some narrative threads seem to hint at a yet-to-be-played sequel. Nevertheless, the game contains several emotionally resonant and dramatic moments that are skillfully executed, making the overarching story both engaging and personal.
Gameplay highlights and lowlights
“Sea of Stars” tries to balance its otherwise serious story with light-hearted, humorous elements, and for the most part it succeeds. For example, one of the giants that serves as a fast-travel method is named “Y’eet,” which elicited a genuine chuckle from me. The game sometimes misses the mark with its pop culture references; a pirate character constantly breaks the fourth wall to poke fun at RPG stereotypes, and you can encounter a character blatantly based on YouTuber The Completionist. This Ed Sheeran-in-Game of Thrones level of referential humor either works or feels out of place, alienating those not in the know.
For RPG enthusiasts, Sea of Stars is a must-play adventure that blends modern style with classic elements in a neo-retro RPG that dresses up the basic experience of the Dragon Quest series. With approximately thirty hours of gameplay, there are still many unexplored areas and unfinished side quests. These include collecting rainbow shells to aid in village development, acquiring the fish species available in various lakes, and a tabletop mini-game called “Wheels” that can be played in various taverns. The compelling story and dynamic combat system combine to provide a complex and satisfying experience for RPG fans.
All in all, Sea of Stars is an extremely enjoyable experience. I finished the game in about thirty hours and still have a plethora of side content to complete. These optional quests include collecting rainbow shells to unlock new building materials for the village, acquiring fish from various lakes, and the tavern-playable mini-game “Wheels”. These features, combined with a compelling storyline and an exciting combat system, provide a rich and satisfying experience for RPG fans.
+ A thoughtful, innovative approach to the turn-based RPG
+ Beautifully designed world and environment
+ Fascinating story with unique, lovable characters
– A couple of poorly thought out design decisions
– The pace of the narrative becomes a bit confusing in the last few hours
– Some of the jokes don’t fit the basic style of the game
Publisher: Sabotage Studio
Developer: Sabotage Studio
Release: August 29, 2023.