Zale and Valere are the newest generation of Solstice Warriors, gifted children born on the Summer and Winter Solstices and equipped with the powers of the Sun and the Moon respectively. As they prepare to take their place as the newest protectors of their world, an ancient evil will return that will plunge the duo and their companions into an adventure whose scope they never could have imagined in the turn-based fantasy RPG Sea of Stars, developed and published by Sabotage Studio (The Messenger).
Summer 2023 is the season of the RPG, with mammoth genre entries such as Final Fantasy XVI and Baldur’s Gate 3 already delivering incredibly crafted fantasy adventures to gamers. If those were the main course of this genre feast, Sabotage has prepared the perfect dessert for the fans with the sweet, fun, and retro-inspired adventure they have crafted in Sea of Stars.
The whirlwind journey that formed the roughly 30 hours of gameplay is one of the most perfectly paced fantasy journeys I’ve ever undertaken. From the opening mission that sees Valere and Zale completing their Solstice Warrior training to each arc of the story that follows, the narrative twists, changes and redirects at a pace that never allows any tiresome plot point. Even side elements that feel initially like filler to pad out the game’s run time become important as we move further into the story.
The narrative is populated by a memorable cast that further invests the player in the game’s world and struggles. From the stalwart pair of main protagonists to their childhood friend Garl who is always quick to provide a meal and a laugh along the many paths the group comes to tread, the personality of the cast brings charm to the Sea of Stars‘ adventure. As the group grows, the dynamic shifts multiple times, allowing new interactions to continue while keeping the personality of the group fresh for the player.
Beyond just the cast and core storyline, Sabotage has gone out of its way to make sure that fans have plenty of things to do and explore within this world. Stories are gained by finding certain items which the traveling historian Teaks will share with you that build out the lore of the world and some of its denizens. Side puzzles not required for the main story await discovery that will yield powerful prizes for the party as well. Or if you are looking for a deeper distraction, Sea of Stars offers a full side game called Wheels.
Wheels is a tabletop game played in bars throughout the land. Players bring two pieces from a range of fantasy classes like mages, knights, and assassins that each have their own special qualities. The player spins dials, making matches that either empower their characters or build a wall to protect their health. The first player to run out of health loses the game. While simple at a glance, there is a fair amount of skill mixed in with the luck of the dials that make this an enjoyable distraction that I’m sure many fans will lose plenty of time to. But while the side game is fun, it is the main gameplay of this fantasy RPG that truly shines by melding classic elements with new tricks.
When combat begins, the heroes and villains spring into action, scattering around the screen. Sometimes these setups recreate the classic all-on-one-side formations that most turn-based RPGs take, while other times enemies and heroes will be mixed up, creating a more chaotic battlefield. These placements can be important as area-of-effect spells can be hampered by enemy formations that are scattered across the screen, requiring a player to rethink strategies at times.
Sea of Stars maintains engagement as it employs an active, timing element for every attack and defense in the game. A well timed button press can both allow for more damage or provide additional hits.
The player’s party is the only one who adheres to the traditional structure where everyone goes each round. When it is the player’s turn, they can activate any character they wish, but may not activate one a second time until all have gone once. Enemies, on the other hand, have a count timer over their heads indicating how many activations the player has before they will take their action. Managing this timing structure is critical, especially when the enemy’s action has one or more keys attached to it.
Keys are represented over an enemy’s head, displaying a combination of attack types. If the enemy is struck with the indicated types of attack for the indicated number of times, the action will be canceled. Canceling the biggest attacks bosses and tougher enemies bring to battle is crucial to winning. Making sure that these conditions can be met requires the player to keep a sharp eye on their available mana.
Sea of Stars expects the player to use the special attacks of their party a lot. This may seem counter-intuitive given how small the mana pools are for characters. However, keeping mana available for critical key breaks during extended battles is possible thanks to your characters’ basic attacks. Performing basic attacks restores three mana to the attacker, making them just as critical an element of combat as their flashier cousins. This game goes a step further by giving basic attacks the ability to create a second type of mana for the player: live mana.
When an enemy is struck by a basic attack, live mana scatters around the battlefield. Before an action is taken, some of it can be gathered for added effects. When using live mana to augment an ability, the action becomes more potent, and if it’s an attack, it gains the character’s core element. This is seen with Valere whose core element is the Moon element, so a basic attack with live mana added to it gains the Moon element. This provides players a way to break element keys when special attacks aren’t available or the player needs to break both a basic attack type, like blunt weapons, along with an element.
Along with the standard attacks and special attacks, players also unlock the ability to perform combo and ultimate attacks as well. Combo attacks use a combo gauge that charges throughout a match and pairs two characters together to combine some of their strengths to form an even more impressive display of power.
Ultimate attacks start showing up about halfway through the game and these are amazing to watch. Preceded by short animation sequences, these attacks unleash truly impressive, pixilated power upon the player’s opponents.
In case all these combat elements feel daunting to new players, Sabotage has implemented a relics system that aids players by allowing them to customize their game experience to fit their needs. Options like full healing after combat and clear indicators of when button presses have been timed right are available to the player to unlock to help aid them in their journey.
As with all entries in the RPG genre, Sea of Stars’ many battles bestow experience on the player, seeing stat increases like gained health and improved attack and defense stats when thresholds are reached. Along with the automatic upgrades the characters get, the player is given a choice between four possible stats they want to give an extra boost to for each of their characters, giving the player agency over their character development, even if no new abilities are gained through leveling. The implementation of abilities encourages the player to explore areas for chests as well as lends weight to specific plot developments.
While errant treasure chests are among the biggest treats one may find while exploring Sea of Stars’ world, they are far from the only things that will claim the player’s attention. Both within dungeons and scattered throughout the overworld, players will come across loads of environmental puzzles to engage with. While these puzzles are plentiful they’re rarely challenging with Sabotage more focused on using them to create greater intrigue in traveling the world. Climbing, swimming, jumping, and other forms of traversal interaction come to be utilized by the player when solving the game’s numerous puzzles.
Accompanying the player through every step of their journey is a gorgeous soundtrack. Featuring the work of composer Yasunori Mitsuda ( Chrono Trigger, Xenoblade Chronicles 2), the game delivers a soundtrack that elevates every event and emotion of the narrative’s journey. Delivered in the 16-bit style of its inspirations, the music manages to pack gorgeous tracks that I deeply hope get the full orchestral treatment someday.
The final element of this game’s flawless presentation is its visuals. Pushing pixel art to its limits, the developers utilize dynamic lighting to showcase the shift in time of day. Every shadow and color changes to match the lighting of the hour with precise skill.
The world that the player explores is varied and gorgeous. Brisk, tropical beaches, undead-filled bogs, volcanoes, and far weirder locales make it so every new turn reveals something unique for the player to explore.
While the world the story travels through is rich and beautiful, the animations that depict the characters’ journeys and battles bring much of the personality of the cast to life. How each character shimmies along narrow ledges, balances on tight ropes, and leaps through the air builds up their personality. Every decision about the cast, every boisterous laugh or shoulder-shaking chuckle feels intentional and deliberate to further shape each personality in the game.
Sabotage has crafted a unique and engaging game that any fan of the genre will enjoy playing. Its polish and innovation make it not only a Game of the Year contender but also makes it deserving of being added to the pantheon of indie games’ greatest right up there with the likes of Celeste and Hades.
Sea of Stars is available August 29th on PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series S/X (day one on Game Pass), and PlayStation 5.
Sea of Stars
With Sea of Stars Sabotage has crafted a unique and engaging game that any fan of the genre will enjoy playing. Its polish and innovation make it not only a Game of the Year contender but also makes it deserving of being added to the pantheon of indie games’ greatest right up there with the likes of Celeste and Hades.