Everyone has experienced occasions when something unexpected appears on their screen while they are only partially watching a game show presentation or one of those seemingly unending streams of trailers. Suddenly, you’re paying close attention and grinning because, in contrast to everything else you’ve seen, which feels like more of the same, this is something unique and exceptional. At least, that’s how I felt when I first saw a Sea of Stars trailer. Sea of Stars, a retro-style action platformer developed by Sabotage Studio as a distant prequel to The Messenger, captured my attention right away with its vibrant 2D pixel graphics and classic RPG inspiration. I was excited for the complete release of Sea of Stars after a demo was released earlier this year, and now that it has arrived, I can state with certainty that it is just as exceptional as I had imagined.
The Fleshmancer, an evil, immortal alchemist, and his Dwellers, strong monsters, plague the planet of Sea of Stars. Solstice Warriors, children born on the summer or winter solstices who grow up learning how to use their respective solar and lunar magic, are the only ones who can combat these dreadful, nightmare-inducing bad guys. Here come Zale and Valere, two fresh-faced Solstice Warriors who embark on a quest with their creative chef best friend, Garl, to stop a strong Dweller. They encounter a charming array of characters as they travel the numerous islands in their universe, some of whom join their party and others of whom assist it. Sera, a mysterious assassin whose eventual past is revealed along with one of the game’s biggest storyline twists, ended up being my favorite character.
There are also a lot of twists. Despite having a traditional good vs evil plotline, the novel contains intriguing intricacies that occasionally lead in an unexpected way. I was happy with the experience I’d had and the universe I’d discovered, even though the finale is a little abrupt and not all narrative lines are addressed before the final credits. Due in large part to a traveling historian named Teaks who hangs out with you at campsites and shares the stories you discover as you go, the lore of the Sea of Stars realm is pretty fascinating. It was extremely cool to meet, for example, an opponent and then read a terrifying story about them thereafter. Each story is scheduled to be particularly appropriate to the region or individuals you’re dealing with. It’s undoubtedly a great method to develop the universe without taking away from the primary plot, which Sea of Stars manages admirably with its quick pacing and script.
Speaking of the world, Sea of Stars is breathtaking from beginning to end. The vivid, rich 2D environments and appealing hand-drawn animations are complemented by contemporary features like dynamic lighting and real-time reflections. Every area feels distinctive and carefully designed, and you can even stroll and eventually sail around a traditional world map as you move from place to place. Even NPC character designs are cute, and the pixel art pictures that go with the main characters are also gorgeous. Although some of the cinematics were added as a result of a stretch goal for the game’s Kickstarter campaign, they nevertheless feel like they were designed from scratch and go well with the character art and hand-crafted aesthetic of the game.
When you’re not sprinting, jumping, climbing, or swimming across areas, you’re not standing around marveling at the images (which I did far too often). Yes, Sea of Stars contains some platformer action, which adds to the game’s sense of originality. This gives you more freedom to explore your surroundings while also enabling the game’s creators to design more interesting environments with secret passageways and devious challenges. The gameplay also has a Metroidvania feel to it in that you eventually unlock weapons like a grappling line that let you explore new places and deal with obstacles in various ways. And then there’s the power to modify the time of day, which opens up even more opportunities. For example, huge mushrooms that expand into bouncing platforms at night or prisms that reflect sunlight to melt ice on your path are just a couple of the possibilities. All of these factors increase exploration’s appeal compared to Sabotage’s use of strictly traditional RPG level design.
The turn-based combat in Sea of Stars adheres to the same “retro but modern” design ethos. The Locks system governs combat, in which foes charging special attacks display a sequence of locks that specific attack types can unlock. When you unlock these locks, the power of the charged move is reduced; if you unlock all of them, the move is cancelled. However, enemies don’t make it simple for you to do this; for instance, there can be more locks than you can realistically shatter or the move’s countdown duration might not be long enough to hit all of the locks. Therefore, there is a strategic component and a prioritizing step where you may have to choose which attacks you can handle and which you really do not want to deal with. For instance, some foes summon teammates or erect barriers around their allies, so I typically tried to counter those maneuvers even if it meant other charged strikes would miss their targets.
Combat in Sea of Stars has other cool features than the Locks system as well. Additionally, there are timed strikes and blocks, similar to those in Super Mario RPG, where pressing a button just before you attack or block an oncoming attack can change the amount of damage that is dealt out. This works well with the Locks system because timing simple strikes and some skills correctly can result in extra hits, making it simpler to stun or stop an enemy’s motion. Although timing must be quite accurate, I discovered that I was usually able to pull it off. In-game assistance is also available if you run into problems. Live mana, where regular attacks leave behind tiny clumps of magical power that characters can use to increase their next attack, is another intriguing and strategic aspect of combat. This has an effect on the Locks system as well because boosting gives strikes an additional component that lets you open more locks with a single hit. Finally, there are ultimates, which are spectacular super techniques that essentially serve as limit breaches, and combos, which are strong dual strikes between two characters.
The combination of all of these factors makes Sea of Stars battles a lot of fun, although I do have a few complaints. First off, it can be occasionally challenging to determine which adversary a set of locks is tied to due to visibility issues. Similar to that, I occasionally had characters move around for skills in a way that made it challenging to see them so I could time the attack correctly. Second, sometimes in this game you have to go back and find things you missed or utilize new tools to find rewards that are concealed. While you can try to stay out of conflict in the old sections, if you do get drawn in, there is no way out. The game also features a culinary system where you can gather items from all over the planet and prepare healing meals over a campfire. The fact that you can only carry ten goods at once made it feel constricting, not because I needed more to keep my group alive, but rather because I didn’t utilize items all that frequently. My lunchbox was already packed, so I ended up with a ton of ingredients that I couldn’t use. Of course, all of these issues are small, so how much they affect your gameplay will depend on how much they bother you.
In Sea of Stars, there is also a substantial amount of side content to keep you from focusing on the main plot, such as NPCs who will assign you tasks, fishing locations just waiting to be explored, optional boss fights, boss riddles, some town-building, and even a covert quiz competition. Wheels, a clockwork board game where you spin — you guessed it — wheels to power up a pair of hero figures so they can topple your opponent’s throne, is my favorite side activity, too. As you battle opponents from around the world, there are a number of heroes to obtain, and each has a unique function that influences your playstyle. I would love to play more of this minigame and I can easily see it being turned into its own side game like Gwent from The Witcher 3.
Last but not least, Sea of Stars’ soundtrack is enjoyable to listen to. Eric Brown’s songs have a charmingly crunchy old soundtrack and are highly catchy, which fits the game’s history nicely. About ten tracks by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda were also included in the game. While some of his compositions stand out right away—Coral Cascades sounds like it may have been lifted directly from Chrono Cross—others mesh well with Brown’s. Many of the region themes, including the main combat theme, have day and night versions where the synths alter naturally based on the time of day. This is one of my favorite things about the soundtrack. It’s great, and the changes even relate to the UI and title screen. Certain late-game events also alter the sound of the fight music in ways that I can’t describe without major spoilers. The fact that you encounter a band of pirates who also play the game’s music is the coolest aspect of the soundtrack for Sea of Stars. I can’t wait to add these arrangements to my collection because they are excellent and cover the majority of the game’s soundtrack.
From the minute I first saw Sea of Stars, I had high hopes for it, and I’m happy to say that almost all of those hopes have been met. It’s beautiful, entertaining to play, has a stellar cast and plot, and the music is delightful to hear. Look no further than Sea of Stars if you want a nostalgic experience reminiscent of old-school role-playing games or just a fantastic RPG in and of itself.
Sea of Stars is both a nostalgic callback to classic RPGs and an instant classic in its own right.