Sea Of Stars Review: Fantastic Voyage

Sabotage Studio continues to show it’s a master at crafting new experiences using retro influences. First, it created the renowned action platformer The Messenger, using games like Ninja Gaiden as a blueprint to make something original. The developer has now completed its second game, a prequel to The Messenger, set thousands of years in the past and in an entirely different genre. Sea of Stars is a throwback turn-based RPG heavily inspired by games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG, but like its predecessor, iterates on its influences and stands on its own next to the greats it aims to emulate.

Sea of Stars tells the tale of two warriors of destiny, Valere and Zale, who wield powers derived from the moon and sun, respectively. They’ve been trained from a young age to fight an ancient evil, with a clear, near-impossible task: to defeat the forces of a world-tormenting threat known as The Fleshmancer. Along with their best friend Garl, the solstice warriors scour the globe to hone their abilities to take down the dark entities bent on causing ruin and destruction.

Valere and Zale are unfortunately void of personality and often feel like they exist only to destroy the big bads. However, as dull as the solstice duo is, the immediate cast surrounding them is resoundingly vibrant. The presence of characters like the excessively kind and loyal Garl, the portal-warping assassin Seraï, the insatiably curious scholar Teaks, and more, are so endearing and interesting that the non-starters of that are the main characters aren’t such a debilitating negative to the experience.

Zale and Valere’s journey is exciting and joyful, even with a task as dire and near-impossible as taking the omnipotent Fleshmancer always looming. Beginning at a monastery in the skies above the small town of Mooncradle I soon traveled to a mining town occupied by a species of mole people crowning a coiled slumbering dragon. The world is whimsical and full of varied environments and civilizations to explore. Meeting its inhabitants is its own reward. I spent hours after credits rolled collecting hidden items in each area and checking boxes of sidequests because I simply wanted to spend more time with my crew and the world they inhabit. 

Talking about all of the twists and turns Sea of Stars holds beyond the first handful of hours would do a disservice to anyone who sets sail with Valere, Zale, and Garl, but it’s great and goes to wild and emotional places. It may not be doing anything exceptionally original, but the earnestness of the main cast and the revelatory story beats along the way are exceptional and unmissable.

Each zone is littered with fun little challenges to decrypt, secrets to seek out, and distinct creatures and constructs to contend with. I not only battled my way through new places but discovered new and cool powers like the ability to shift the time of day on a whim to solve quandaries in my path. My only gripe is that the world ends up feeling a little small when taken in totality, but there’s a healthy amount to do and see.

The retro pixel aesthetic Sabotage employs to realize the world is masterful. There’s a nostalgic quality to its aesthetic but with contemporary flair. It’s always unceasingly beautiful. It harnesses the charm of 2D sprites and injects lighting effects like ambient glows and shadows to enhance the already attractive scenery. Despite the old-school look, the scenery, creatures, and gargantuan bosses are exceptionally detailed and lovely to look at. There’s a late-game character I’m hesitant to talk about, but seeing them in motion is a constant joy, with surprising animations at every turn. You’ll know when you see them, and I’m positive they’ll impress you, too.

The visuals are matched by an equally stellar soundtrack that’s catchy and diverse in styles. The battle theme gets me amped every time I hear it, and the tracks backing up the action in each area set the vibe of locations extremely well. I’ll be humming bars of these songs for the foreseeable future.

At its core, combat is built on the backs of SNES-era RPG greats. However, what’s cribbed from the classics is great in execution and foundational for what’s built on top of it. Every attack and special character skill can be enhanced with a keenly timed button press, tacking on additional damage or healing, with each move requiring its own specific timing. My go-to skill is Valere’s Lunarang, where she throws out a lunar-infused boomerang that ricochets between her and the crowd of enemies, requiring somewhat precise timing to keep the projectile in play. It’s surprisingly fun to repeatedly attempt, as are plenty of other skills that give me the same dopamine drip whenever I land them effectively. 

Characters can also team up for combo attacks, melding their unique abilities together to prey upon an identified weakness of an enemy. The combinations are fun and sometimes surprising, but all necessary to survive a battle. They’re also used with great effect to interact with Sea of Star’s defining combat mechanic, the lock system. 

Locks add a spectacular layer to the traditional turn-based skirmishes, telegraphing the enemy’s skills and allowing for a chance to stop them in their tracks. Locks appear as a series of symbols above an enemy correlating with attack types the party can dish out. Some locks may need two hits from a blunt weapon and a move that deals solar damage, requiring attacks from separate characters or a combo that uses both. Locks can be incredibly simple, while some need multiple turns to chip away at, but at any point in that spectrum, they’re endlessly enthralling to solve.

Not every lock configuration has a perfect solution, especially when characters with the relevant abilities aren’t at the ready, but that’s where the combat truly shines. There’s almost always a necessity to weigh what oncoming attack in however many turns is the preeminent threat. I often wonder if I can deal with a lock entirely or merely mitigate the damage inflicted. I love every second of battles because of the constant need to reassess the situation. Do I need to use a skill or an elementally enhanced attack? Do I go for the kill on an enemy or focus on whittling down the locks on another? The actual math I’m processing isn’t complex, but the calculations are constantly changing and keeping me engaged in the moment. 

In the downtime between questing to saving the world, Sea of Stars has a handful of enjoyable side activities to partake in. Fishing holes are on just about every island complete with a checklist of every fish to collect from every new spot. Unfortunately, while I like the act of fishing, its rewards are sparse, only dishing out a handful of cooking reagents. On the other hand, Wheels, which can be found in just about every inn, is a hoot and a half that I hold in the pantheon of RPG novelties such as Triple Triad. Stick with me here: It’s a class-based micro RPG that incorporates slot machine mechanics and Yahtzee-like gameplay. It’s hard to explain, but very easy to grasp and a delight to sink time into. My only wish is that Wheels sported multiplayer mode, so I can test out fresh strategies and take on my friends.

Throughout the adventure, Sea of Stars stands on the shoulders of the giants that came before it, building on a grand lore set in motion by The Messenger and wonderful characters worthy of spending tens of hours with. Between finishing the game and writing this review, I’ve played another ten hours post-credits, attempting to see everything Sabotage put in the game. It’s not because I’m compelled to say I checked every box Sea of Stars has to offer, but I simply don’t want to say goodbye to this inviting world and my good friends in it just yet.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

One response to “Sea Of Stars Review: Fantastic Voyage”

  1. […] what we can expect to see at the the showcase. However, with past hits like Cocoon, Gunbrella, and Sea of Stars, Day of the Devs is always a must-watch […]

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