Developed by the independent Sabotage Studio, the same people responsible for 2018’s genre and era-twisting Ninja sidescroller The Messenger, Sea of Stars takes place in the same universe but trades the action sidescroller gameplay for that of a golden era turn-based RPG in similar vein to classics like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Golden Sun.
Sea of Stars puts players in the shoes of Valere and Zale. Dubbed as Children of the Solstice, Valere and Zale are destined to become Solstice Warriors, who use their sun and moon powers to keep the evil Fleshmancer at bay. The game features a short prologue that sees very young versions of Valere, Zale, and their dear friend Garl investigate nearby ruins, only for them to get ambushed my monsters, with Garl losing his eye in the process. This instance ends up fast-tracking the process to get Valere and Zale to learn the ins and outs of what it takes to be Solstice Warriors. After 10 long years of training, they finally get there only to find out their new lives aren’t what they imagined them to be.
All that information about the plot is purposely vague, but in a nutshell it’s the story basically says it’s time to stop being a kid and start going on an adventure.
The prologue isn’t just about the plot either, as it’s here where you learn how to really play the game. So again, it looks and feels like your typical top-down game on the SNES where all you have to do is walk from point to point, but there’s more to it than that. Think of the classic Pokémon games, for example: In Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow, as you make your way up from Pallet Town to Viridian City, you’ll see a bunch of ledges that inhibit your progress and you have to go around them. When tackling these ledges from above, you can just jump off of them on your way back to Pallet, and it takes no time at all. So think of those ledges. In Sea of Stars, you can climb them assuming there’s nobody or nothing in the way. Not only that, but you can jump over gaps and swim too. While these are hardly a big deal, they essentially modernized a whole bunch of “house rules” when it comes to traversing in JRPGs, so it’s easy to appreciate this sort of innovation. One you get a feel for the environments, the game essentially feels like an isometric platformer, and it’s all a really nice touch.
Speaking of innovation, sometimes a necessary part of that is imitation. Sea of Stars borrows a lot of aspects from other games to modernize its traditional turn-based battle system. Off the bat, it’ll farm some comparisons to Chrono Trigger, as a lot of the battles can come up when you least expect them without so much as a notification thought they aren’t necessary random. They’re all scripted.
While the prologue did a solid job explaining how fights work, it still throws you into the fire too soon to give you a real understanding of what’s going on. For example, two of the most pivotal features in battle include the fact that you can see how many turns it would take before an enemy attacks along with the weakness locks that you need to purge to keep a powerful spell from coming. By using attacks of the same element as what’s shown on each lock, you’ll disable one and reduce your enemy’s output. If you successfully disable each lock before that enemy can act, you negate that user’s move entirely. The screenshot below shows the locks we’re referring to. So let’s use the screenshot to explain this situation: that fis enemy at the top is about to unload with a huge attack in two turns. If your party can inflict lunar damage, two units of sun damage, and a slice it before it attacks, it’ll no longer use it’s more powerful ability (and you’ll be able to land more hits while it thinks of something else to do).
This instance is very similar to how attacking weaknesses in Octopath Traveler works. As far as more comparisons go, every attack in the game can be timed with a button press that’ll inflict more damage on offense, or protect yourself from damage if you’re the person that’s being attacked. It’s a nod to the Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario games. There’s even a trophy tied to bouncing your Moonmerang 25 times. Again, it’s all about staying alert when playing this game, and this much is shown considering how reliant you learn to be on your items even early on. Sometimes you’ll even have to be okay with the decision of letting a party member die knowing they’ll be back with half their HP in a few turns.
Going back outside of battle and into traversal and exploration for a bit, one of the biggest focuses that sets Sea of Stars apart from a lot of entries in the genre is the commitment the game has to puzzle solving. I haven’t played a JRPG with this amount of brainteasing puzzles based on character’s abilities since Golden Sun (and I absolutely loved Golden Sun). I’m not just talking ice block puzzles either. Sometimes it’s about aligning platforms. Sometimes you have to rid a room of enemies to unlock the way to a lever to pull that unlocks another area in a garden. There’s a lot of things to do, and the game isn’t afraid to throw the kitchen sink at you early. It’s just up to you as to when and where you’ll really see if the juice is worth the squeeze.
While RPGs–especially turn-based ones–can scare people off because of their length, people should be relieved to know that it only takes around 30 hours to complete the main campaign. That said, with the amount of stuff there is to do outside of the story like solving hidden puzzles, cooking every meal, catching every fish, finish building a town the heroes started building a community for toward the middle of the game, or beat every village’s champion at an optional card game I didn’t even mention–it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for someone to do everything the game has to do for around 40-60 hours. Still, compared to what we’ve been playing lately, that isn’t too bad.
As for what’s actually bad and can be improved, I did mention that the prologue didn’t do the best job when it came to various strategies you can use in battle. To go along with that, when you do die, sometimes you end up spawning further back than you actually were when you died. There was one boss that I demolished my party more than once, but when I got back in the game I was put at a save point that was further back from where I was. It’s unclear if that’s a bug, but the old-school feeling of having to do everything over again to get to a boss is quite demeaning.
There also is no form of a map when you’re in a dungeon or town, which is unfortunate because this is literally 90 percent of the actual exploration you’ll be doing. It’s really easy to run around in circles with all the shortcuts you’ll be opening with everything looking the same and you not noticing, and if you’re looking to get that trophy for opening every chest, it’s not going to be simple. The game doesn’t tell you where you missed stuff either.
For those wondering if it’s necessary to finish The Messenger to play Sea of Stars: It’s not. I never actually finished The Messenger, but I did play it long enough to notice that one of my favorite songs in that game was also features in a later section of the game. So if you’re a fan of The Messenger and you like RPGs, this should be up your alley. There are moments that get pretty frustrating, but there are also relics you can equip to make the game easier. One of them, for example, allows your characters to replenish their health and magic after every battle.
Thanks in large part to its fun combat being just as enjoyable as puzzle solving, plus a plot that’s just as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking along with its fair share of crazy twists, Sea of Stars is nothing short of amazing and easily tops my list of indie games released this year. Despite some very tolerable shortcomings, Sea of Stars really feels like a special title and you shouldn’t miss it.