Admittedly, I’m a very modern gamer, and while I didn’t grow up with old school JRPG classics like Dragon Warriors or Legend of Zelda, ports to modern consoles have allowed me to fall in love with them decades after they were first released. There’s something special about those pixelated adventures that just draws you in, a feeling that even big-budget blockbusters often fail to replicate. Sabotage Studio’s Sea of Stars recreates that magic perfectly.
Sea of Stars is a turn-based RPG centering around Zale and Valere, two people who’ve trained to become Solstice Warriors for the last ten years. They’re locked away in Zenith Academy until the day finally comes for them to be sent into the world to stop the evil Fleshmancer. Their journey reunites them with Garl, a childhood friend who may not have magical powers but makes up for it in heart and cooking skills. The three make their way from island to island, battling monsters and helping townspeople as they make their way to their destiny.
Turn-based combat is a major part of the gameplay, and I’ll say it outright. It’s amazing. Some games like this become repetitive because they don’t have anything to keep you involved in the battle while it’s not your turn, but Sea of Stars makes sure to keep you in the moment by allowing you to block attacks – but only at the exact moment of impact. Similarly, it doesn’t want you to just click your action and sit back while it plays out. When attacking, you have the chance to hit twice if you time things correctly. It may seem like a pretty minor or unimportant thing, but I enjoyed that addition to the combat. It made it a bit more engaging.
Combat is also kept fresh by introducing new enemies in each area that have unique abilities. A good example is the necromancer’s island, where you’re introduced to strange zombies that have unpredictable powers. Sometimes they’ll hit you with lightning. Sometimes they’ll heal themselves. Sometimes they attack the other enemies for you. These are all abilities you see in other monsters and characters throughout the game, so there’s a good mix of offensive and defensive enemies to keep you on your toes.
It wouldn’t be a true JRPG without a myriad of minigames and puzzles, and Sea of Stars covers those bases just as well as it does combat. You can fish, forage for food to cook tasty meals that replenish mana and HP, and explore areas to find treasure and secrets, such as a pick a chest game – which I’m terrible at, I always picked an empty one – and caves of mushrooms (which were great, until I realized Zale’s favorite food was tomato clubs and I wanted to cook nothing else. I had to feed my boy).
Of course, you can also talk to townspeople and go on a few errands for them to earn some extra gold to get that sword you really want or a special item. These are mostly “go fetch” errands that’ll ask you to find and return items.
All of these minigames and side-quests pale in comparison to Wheels, though, a mix of a slot machine and TTRPG found in most of the taverns throughout the game, with you choosing two characters – a knight and a mage or a rogue and an archer – to battle against your opponent. I won’t lie, I’m obsessed with it. You get three spins of the seven wheels each turn, the goal is to match at least two of the symbols. Hammers will strengthen your defense, blue diamonds will charge the attack of the character on the right, and orange diamonds the one on the left. You’re able to lock wheels in place on each spin to hold onto symbols you want.
It’s very addictive, honestly, and I spent hours just playing Wheels because it was such a good time. I also appreciate that it was relatively easy to understand, even without reading through the rules.
Puzzles are common in the dungeons, but they do appear here and there as you’re walking about. The common ones involve the use of light. Early on, you’ll get the ability to change the time of day while standing on solstice stones. Usually these stones are accompanied by others that need to be charged in order to open a door or reveal a path. They aren’t difficult, and I found myself playing with them a lot just to see if I could charge the stones from a different side first.
Other puzzles include moving blocks through paths to get them onto platforms, changing water levels to reach new areas and find items, and moving mirrors to make lasers hit a certain point. They’re all pretty standard and won’t take more than one of two tries to solve usually. While the puzzles can sometimes be a bit disappointing in terms of difficulty, I don’t actually think this is a bad thing. It’s nice to have small, easily overcome challenges that keep you playing but don’t frustrate you too much. It keeps you invested and able to pay attention to the story, and makes the puzzles that are rather tricky more fun to solve. The emphasis on these kinds of puzzles helps to give Sea of Stars a steady pace.
This pace extends to the story, which is another incredible strength for the game. Sea of Stars is absolutely inspired by classic JRPGs that came before it with a focus on mythic heroes in a fantasy world filled with dragons and magic, but it manages to modernize and individualize this time-tested plot to provide a story full of intrigue, humor, and heart. There’s so much to appreciate in the story, such as the conflicting feelings Zale and Valere have about Garl joining them on their quest, the curious words of the Elder Mist (especially in regards to Zale), and the mystery behind the strange cloaked figures that appear as you hop between islands. All of these things create a game that has an amazing ambiance and interesting characters and development.
However, I particularly liked Zale and Valere’s personalities, and I think they show the strength of the game’s writers. The two heroes were hidden away from the outside world for a decade training with only each other, and I appreciate that this was taken into consideration as the game continues after their graduation. Zale and Valere are both rather socially awkward, with the cheerful Garl often taking the lead and showing more eagerness to help and empathy.
It’s nice to see heroes that do want to help and are willing to jump into action recklessly at times, but that also have to juggle their important duties, try to understand outsiders, and struggle with their emotional competence with outsiders. It may seem like a small detail, but it makes Zale and Valere feel more real and gives Garl a more prominent role in a party where it would have been easy to let him fall to the wayside.
Sea of Stars is also fantastic in terms of visuals and sound with an incredibly realized world rendered in a 2D pixel style that extends to the designs of the characters as well as landscapes. The dynamic lighting adds so much to the design of the landscapes and was clearly a huge focal point to the developers. When eclipses and blood moons occur, colors and shadows of the landscape change as they’re supposed to.
The music really shines, too, with a soundtrack by by Eric W. Brown and the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda (Xenogears, Chrono Cross). Roughly 9 hours long, every track is perfectly used. I can also appreciate how it seemed like the team had fun composing and naming the tracks. I saw “Panic! At The Outpost” as a title and laughed. I think the soundtrack was a healthy mix of retro JRPG and modern sound that fit Sea of Stars like a glove. I’m listening to it as I write this.
Sea of Stars takes everything magical and wonderful about retro JRPGs and combines them with fresh perspectives, updated mechanics, dynamic visuals, and a fantastic soundtrack to create a truly enjoyable adventure that’s hard to put down. A plethora of minigames and puzzles provide just enough of an obstacle to make you feel triumphant when you make it through. The story is funny, heartfelt, and mysterious, and there’s even a gameplay mode that lets you focus less on combat and more on plot. All of this makes Sea of Stars an amazing journey you won’t want to miss.