Sea of Stars Review – The Sky Calls Me

    Title: Sea of Stars
    Developer: Sabotage Studio
    Release Date: August 29, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Sabotage Studio
    Genre: Turn-Based RPG

How do you craft a gaming experience so clearly inspired by past successes without letting them define it? It’s a specific query with no correct answer, as it depends on the mentality of the development team at the helm. Still, I believe one general consensus holds true for every success: to find and pursue a story or gameplay journey you wish to impart.

In an age where countless throwback games are announced, it’s grown understandably common to become concerned with the authenticity of the hearts bolstering these projects, and the Sabotage Studio-developed Sea of Stars is no exception. While I’ve always been pretty excited about it, there’s always a sensation in the back of one’s mind with these highly anticipated releases where you’re unconsciously bracing yourself for disappointment, partially due to hype concocting unrealistic expectations.

Thankfully, after finally experiencing Sea of Stars in all of its gorgeous glory, I was relieved to see it thrive, even if some pacing and writing decisions left me wanting more.

Sea of Stars tells the story of two Children of the Solstice, Valere and Zale, alongside the numerous allies and acquaintances they make on their journey to defeat a treacherous monstrosity, The Fleshmancer. Delving into narrative particulars is especially tricky with this title since the apparent status quo isn’t as cut and dry or constant as the opening hours imply. It’s ever-shifting and mildly unpredictable, tending to keep you on your toes.

The duty of ridding the world of the Fleshmancer and its spawn is the initial motivation for Valere and Zale, as they spend years of their lives training for this very purpose. People of their kind dedicate the entirety of their beings to this seemingly lifelong burden, but it’s a mantle neither of them is reluctant to bear. After all, the efforts of their elders, Brugraves and Erlina, have significantly inspired them to pursue this path with reckless abandon. Eventually, Valere and Zale set off from their residence of training to defeat the last summoned creature from The Fleshmancer, resulting in a journey that inherently challenges their preconceptions.

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The premise of this story is intriguing enough on its own, but the cast is what really elevates it. Zale and Valere’s childhood friend, Garl, joins in the early hours, and it’s no exaggeration to describe him as the heart of this journey. He’s a cheesy, warm-hearted cook who sees the best in others, a positive, uplifting force. The other party members also stand out, making each encounter immensely memorable.

Even the supporting cast gets the job done nicely, with a neat mix of eccentric and well-meaning NPCs that help liven up the world. However, not every major player gets the necessary limelight. One of the few issues I had with Sea of Stars is how, despite being the protagonists, Zale and Valere felt lacking in the first half. You get the choice to pick who you’d like to be the leader right as the game starts, and this doesn’t change the course of the game or anything, but in hindsight, I feel like this may have limited the writing freedom.

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To elaborate, the first half or so of the story especially treated Zale and Valere as almost the same type of character without much distinction separating them. Their few moments of individuality didn’t shine as much as they should have. Admittedly, the second half handles these two more effectively, but it contrasts the rest of the party, who felt more active and compelling the whole way through. Regardless, all of this is in hindsight, and I still had an undeniably delightful time with these characters and interactions. Each relationship and its basis felt authentic, which is vital for any character-driven storyline. I can promise the story picks up, so it’s worth witnessing in all its splendor.

Regarding gameplay, Sea of Stars excels in almost every way imaginable. Combat is turn-based, with players able to get more out of attacks if they time their collisions correctly. Guarding can also occur if you time a button press right before a hit. These implementations alone give each turn far more weight than a typical turn-based system, bolstered by the addition of Boosts. As regular hits land, they generate a resource that a party member can absorb. These Boosts can occur consecutively up to a maximum of three times per turn, meaning that it’s always best to ensure that you’re not progressing past turns when the maximum amount of Boost leverage is available.

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As for what Boosts actually do, they simply amplify the efficacy of what action you perform at the time, like dealing more raw damage output with an attack. When throwing character skills and combo maneuvers into the mix, there’s a decent bit to keep track of across each turn, but it never felt even close to overwhelming. Sea of Stars, for all intents and purposes, is a more compact RPG experience than your usual one. Characters only have a handful of skills, and the equipment you acquire tends to solely comprise numeric enhancements. The accessories can be played around with more, but those are supplemental.

There is definitely some player freedom in approaching battles, mainly in the later hours when more party members join, and how you can swap them mid-battle. Still, you must understand attack and defense timings, MP usage, Boosts, and your other tools first and foremost. This isn’t merely a higher-numbers game. Keeping up to date on gear is essential, certainly, but that’s all secondary to knowing how to get the most out of each turn in battle.

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Due to this design philosophy, Sea of Stars’ combat feels almost entirely skill-based. No victory or failure arose from lucky happenstance, making each feat all the more satisfying and worthwhile. The only points of luck were rooted in the lock system. In combat, enemies can produce locks near their UI denoting the types and number of affinities they must be struck with to prevent an incoming special attack. You’re always told how many turns each foe has before they attack, and the locks are no exception, but there are points where an enemy can have a whole slew of locks for just one turn that are impossible to clear.

This isn’t a dealbreaker by any means, as you can still reduce the power of these powerful skills depending on how many locks you destroy, but it does feel needless. However, the challenge level feels meticulously crafted to be just right. Sea of Stars never incentivizes grinding. As long as you do battles as they appear, you’ll be golden.

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If you know what you’re doing, you’ll hit a continuous gameplay loop that feels like the perfect degree of challenge, where resource management is needed but never abhorrently strict. Aside from a few skills, the only access to healing you have is cooked dishes, of which you can only hold a limited number of. This further bolsters the skill-based progression Sea of Stars boasts. You have some leeway, yet never enough where you can only rely on it.

For those yearning for accessibility features, Relics are your best friends. Some offer boons at a compromise, while others make the overall gameplay experience easier. The Amutlet of Storytelling, in particular, is ideal for, as its name implies, solely wanting to see the narrative to its end with as little challenge as possible. Still, I highly recommend trying the game without the overly helpful Relics since the combat is balanced exceptionally well in its default state.

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Dungeon design is an area where Sea of Stars excels to a staggering degree. It’s rare when an RPG manages to perfectly interweave puzzles and exploration, so neither overtakes the other, and that’s precisely what happens here. Every dungeon in this game is a delight to complete. None of them overstayed their welcome, and they all have varying aesthetics and memorable puzzles that hit, at least personally, the ideal middle ground of complexity and non-intrusiveness that made me feel accomplished across each succeeded feat. You’ll never get stuck for more than a few minutes, which may happen occasionally because some thought is required for a few puzzles.

Aside from a ring that can push objects and activate mechanisms via blasts of wind, you eventually obtain a hookshot-esque device that requires one to pay close attention to their environment. Add a few mildly thought-provoking side paths here and there, and you have a genuinely delightful series of areas that never grew old.

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Sea of Stars also has a few side tasks you can spend a good chunk of time on, depending on how into them you get. For one, there’s fishing, which is super simple. There are select fishing spots throughout the world with their own unique creatures to catch, and the process merely makes you pay attention to an easily noticeable altered hue of water that you should reel in fish from. It’s a rather addictive practice.

Additionally, there’s Wheels, a minigame playable in towns that can be summed up as needing to match appropriate icons to empower your own game pieces so they can defeat the opponents. You get a few unlockables, like different classes of pieces, that offer more choice, but it’s all approachable.

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Yet another area of Sea of Stars that’s terrific is its presentation. The character models, portraits, environments, and enemies are all superb. Just looking at the game for a few minutes gives you a good idea of what to expect in this department, and it’s retained throughout the entire experience. Further, you can anticipate a few stellarly animated cutscenes that play at crucial story moments and Ultimate skills, so you’ll undoubtedly constantly remain captivated.

The soundtrack, partially composed by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger and Xenogears fame, is utterly spectacular, too. Managing to be simultaneously distinct yet nostalgic is an impressive feat captured here. The town themes and battle tracks will blow away those who have histories with SNES-era RPGs, as this soundtrack feels like it was ripped straight from that time with its own renewed charm. On an offhanded note, if there’s one other critique I have for Sea of Stars, I wish there was a text log. I skipped past a few lines of dialogue by accident, so having that feature in would be nice.

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Sea of Stars has lived up to the hype and then some. The masterful turn-based combat system that’s almost entirely reliant on skill, the endlessly enchanting presentation that gives the world an unparalleled vibrancy, the enthralling soundtrack that never fails to move you, and the emotional story strengthened by an endearing cast merge to make this an unforgettable RPG of the decade.

Even the few critiques I had, namely the not-as-strong handling of the two protagonists in the early hours, do little to impede the evident care poured into this title that has been communicated so well. Regardless of your love for classic RPGs or those that pay tribute to those eras, every general fan of the genre should play Sea of Stars.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual.