Sea of Stars aims to do for turn-based RPGs what The Messenger did for side-scrolling action platformers — modernise a classic gaming genre while honouring its traditions. From where we're sitting, that's mission accomplished for Sabotage Studio. The developer's second game pays homage to numerous classic RPGs of the 90s, but some up-to-date touches help it stand on its own.
Taking place thousands of years before The Messenger, Sea of Stars very much tells its own story, though if you have played the Ninja Gaiden-esque action title, you'll certainly appreciate some callbacks when they happen. It centres around Zale and Valere, able to wield solar and lunar magic respectively. After training to become Solstice Warriors, they — along with their optimistic best friend Garl — embark on an adventure that quickly grows beyond their inaugural mission. With a lot of characters coming and going, bringing with them a surprisingly layered narrative, it's an adventure that gets you onboard early and keeps you engaged throughout. Naturally in a game with a lengthy runtime, there are lulls, but overall, the story packs in many memorable moments, going places you won't expect.
One of our favourite aspects of the game is its eclectic cast of characters. Zale and Valere's stoic headmaster, Moraine; the mysterious assassin, Seraï; Teaks, a spirited and inquisitive researcher; a merry band of pirates; a race of sea-dwelling fish people — the game is packed with imaginative character designs, and like The Messenger, is written with a twist of humour, affording a lot of charm to the cast. If anything, the heroes feel a little clichéd — righteous and focused on their mission — though they're not totally without personality.
It's told mostly from the perspective of the protagonist pair as they traipse across an archipelago, each island introducing new locations, enemies, and lore. Exploration is a big part of the game. Presented from an isometric viewpoint, there's a huge variety in the environments; the settings themselves are often beautiful, and they're all multi-layered with optional paths and hidden areas. The good news is that you're rewarded for rooting around — whether it's a collectible, a treasure chest, or some cooking ingredients, you'll almost never find nothing. Occasionally the perspective can play tricks on you, with depth proving tough to judge at times. This can trip you up during platforming moments, though it's never too big a problem.
Peppering every landscape are handfuls of enemies. Fights are not randomly triggered, but we'd advise to engage each group as you come to them. This is largely to get some practice in, because the turn-based combat is relatively complex. Up to three party members can be in battle at once (you can swap them around at will), and each has a standard attack as well as Skills, which cost MP. You get MP back by using standard attacks, giving you good reason to vary up your onslaught. Almost every attack can be enhanced by correctly timing a press of X — think Super Mario RPG. The same goes for blocking enemy offences; pushing X at the point of impact will reduce the damage you take. On top of that, most battle actions build a Combo meter, and once you've done so enough, two of your group can pull off powerful tandem attacks.
That's not all, though. Key to combat in Sea of Stars is the lock system. Enemies will often have a series of symbols next to them as they gear up for an attack. These are damage types, like sun, moon, blade, or blunt. Hitting the enemy with the appropriate types of attack will deactivate these locks, which will weaken the enemy's attack or nullify it altogether if you clear them all. It's a really neat system that necessitates using all your party members, and their abilities, effectively. At first, combat can be pretty tricky, as it feels as though there's a lot going on, but after a while it'll click. What's nice is that fights maintain a steady level of challenge throughout, thanks to pretty perfect balancing and nicely spaced out additions. And, pleasingly, there's no need to grind whatsoever. We never repeated a fight and the difficulty felt spot on from beginning to end. If you're struggling, though, there comes a point in the game you can purchase special Relics, which alter the difficulty in certain ways.
While the combat can feel complicated at times, it's very rewarding when you're on a roll, and mastering the timing on your party's attacks and blocks becomes an engaging meta. It can be make or break, especially when fighting the many bosses. Enemy design overall is good, but some of the boss fights in particular are excellent. Along with the environments, they're often highlights of the game's retro presentation; the pixel art here is seriously good, with impressive dynamic lighting lending some realism to the setting. Meanwhile, the 16-bit era soundtrack features some great tunes, some of which you will be humming long after you've stopped playing.
Not that you'll stop playing very soon. We reached the credits at roughly 35 hours, which included a lot of optional content as well as the main adventure. As mentioned, there are collectibles to find, which can be traded in for valuable rewards. However, there's much more than that. Side quests big and small can be found, some focusing on your party members while others are uncovered simply by exploring settlements and talking to their citizens. Eventually you'll encounter optional bosses, puzzles, and locations — the world of Sea of Stars grows as you meander through it, packing in lots of stuff to see and do. Importantly, it's all worth your time, rewarding your curiosity in one way or another.
In fact, there's almost too much stuff. While nothing is missable, there are areas of the game that are a pain to navigate back to, and exploring the fairly large environments for one last collectible can get a little tiresome when you're wrapping things up.
There's plenty we haven't mentioned. A minigame entitled Wheels can be played inside inns across the map. Its rules can be confusing at first but it all starts to fall into place after a few matches. Of course, there's rewards for finding and beating each champion, so it's worth learning. On top of that, you can cook recipes you've unlocked at campfires. You'll use these meals in combat to replenish HP and MP, so it's always worth ensuring you've plenty to hand. Because this is a modern video game, there's a fishing minigame, with the watery beasts you catch put to use in certain dishes. There's even more to discover throughout the journey, and while much of it isn't entirely necessary, it all serves a purpose, feeding back into gameplay or bolstering the narrative.
Overall, Sea of Stars is immensely enjoyable from start to finish. While it's been inspired by various classic RPGs, it sets itself apart with an engaging story, some brilliant characters, and surprisingly deep lore. On top of that, the combat is great fun thanks to its involving, strategic mechanics, and exploring the gorgeous pixelated world is rewarding. It isn't perfect, but it overcomes any flaws with its charming presentation, a world ripe with things to see and do, and no shortage of personality.