Review: Sea of Stars

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Sea of Stars has been the subject of a vast amount of hype. Whether it’s sincere or astroturfed, I can’t say. However, after watching a couple reviews from respected members of the JRPG community, I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did, but there’s a caveat I need to apply: I effectively had to force myself to finish the game and I have no desire to complete all of the achievements. Because underneath it all, Sea of Stars is a tragically flawed masterpiece.

Inspired Roots

First of all, what is Sea of Stars? It’s an RPG made by Sabotage Studios and is strongly inspired by Chrono Trigger, which holds a place as one of my favorite games of all time. The art style is definitively reminiscent of that pedigree, from the character design, to the battle system, music choices, how towns and the overland map works, battle combos, and much more besides. It’s a love letter of sorts, from people who clearly hold a deep respect for the role Chrono Trigger played in the industry.

There’s also a bit of Super Mario RPG in there as well, as the battle system integrates timed reactions to achieve better outcomes in all aspects of the fight. They also managed to cram in a bit of Octopath Traveler as enemy special attacks are telegraphed by lock symbols the player can “break” to diminish or outright cancel.

Sabotage Studios has strung together what they see as some of the best game design choices from a multitude of well-regarded games, and done so masterfully. I really can’t understate how naturally they integrated all of these disparate elements. Yet it’s also the first sign of cracks in the foundation. Their over-reliance on this magic combination undermined the full potential the game may have had. We’ll get to that later.

Weaving A Tale

The story features three primary characters in Valere, Zale, and Garl. Three childhood friends who just want to go on adventures. Valere and Zale were born as Solstice Warriors, special children born during the summer and winter solstice, and the only beings capable of destroying the Dwellers who seek to destroy the world, and the mysterious Fleshmancer who spawned them.

As is par for the course in most RPGs, this simple seed flourishes into a sweeping tale of triumph, loss, and sacrifice, full of twists and turns, and the eventual downfall of the antagonist. It’s honestly about what you might expect, and is split up into two endings that naturally flow into each other. The first is simply an end to the story: the world is saved, but a few loose ends could still be tied up. The second and “true” ending only happens once you tie up those loose ends, and I’ll admit that the events that transpired there put a smile on my face.

There’s a whole cast of supporting characters as per usual, including pirates, cyborgs, ghosts, monsters, and even Gods who help along the way. Nobody seems to like this Fleshmancer guy, it seems. Maybe it has something to do with all of that mancing of flesh.

The dialog is a bit stiff in places, and most of the characters speak with a very samey kind of affect that robs them of personality. I will note that this does not apply to Garl. Perhaps Sabotage considered him the crux of the game, so they put more effort into his lines. Still, it’s an engaging journey with a satisfying conclusion, and that’s all anyone can really ask.

A Visual Feast

Let’s just be upfront about this: for a pixel-graphic game, Sea of Stars is utterly stunning. They’ve twisted the Unity game engine to their whims into presenting a truly spectacular 2.5D RPG, and that’s no mean feat.

The entire game is a smorgasbord for the eyes, featuring widely varied environments populated by dynamic and interactive models. Everything is always cast against breathtaking and majestic layered backgrounds. Moreover, one major aspect of the game engine is controlling night and day cycles, so the models must reflect realistic lighting under transitional conditions as well. Sabotage did all of this under what must be the most underpaid art director in the history of gaming.

Here’s a great example of what I mean:

The Clockwork Castle Revealed

The Clockwork Castle Revealed

That scene looks entirely different under sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and the smooth transition states between them. The distant castle, even though it’s still at least one overland section away. Sweeping vistas like this frame most of the landscapes within the game.

Everything carries this attention to detail. The character models are dynamic and expressive, with unique animations and reactions under multiple scenarios for all of the main cast. There’s even specific idle animations for the campfire scenes. Garl of course sits there eating his latest concoction, while Valere or Zale are usually exercising.

There are essentially no palette-swapped enemies. Each and every one is lovingly crafted to annoy you, with unique attack and idle animations, body language, and more. Since you can see them milling around in the dungeon, they even have interactions with each other, much like they do in Chrono Trigger. The numerous bosses are even more bespoke, with outlandish designs, intricate effects that can transform the entire battle arena, and more.

It’s worth playing simply to experience this vision brought to life.

Aural Authority

The sound design of Sea of Stars is just as inspired as the art direction. Every event has its own associated clonk, tink, whir, bong, or characteristic attribute. Every one of the numerous environments has its own dedicated sound track. This music changes subtly between day and night, inside a cave or outside in the open.

It’s a lively mix of silly, foreboding, triumphant, gloomy, and even bouncy at times. One particular area known as the Songshroom Marsh is an ugly swamp populated by giant mushrooms and yet the music here is positively upbeat. And in a neat mix between the music and art teams, the mushrooms themselves occasionally contribute a vocal synth track.

Just look at those happy bastards!

Just look at those happy bastards!

It’s little details like that which betray the singular dedication the Sabotage team put into this labor of love. They didn’t have to put cute little singing mushrooms into this murky swamp stage, but they did it anyway. It’s a kind of childish glee missing from many modern games, and I admit I giggled a bit when I noticed it.

Puzzles Galore

One common aspect to RPGs like this is that they tend to integrate puzzles of some kind into the various dungeons. Sea of Stars is no different here, and their approach was never unfair, and they definitely erred on the easy side. It’s enough to introduce an impediment without sending players straight to an online guide.

One dungeon used three separate colored orbs to open dimensional portals where a boss was hiding. Each color opens up a different aspect of the dungeon, as do the combinations. These are presented in such a way that a naive player might simply add one orb after the other and get three results. But of course, there are two hidden rooms reached by combining the other two color combinations before tackling the boss. It’s easy to miss, but there nonetheless.

There’s quite a bit of this through the game. Water puzzles, ice puzzles, using solstice manipulation itself to solve platform sections. Tools such as grappling hooks, hammers, wind, and others are also available as the adventure progresses. Every dungeon has some kind of interactive obstacle or hidden area to reward the inquisitive.

They do all of this without making it annoying, which is a refreshing approach.

Mechanical Mindset

How Sabotage combines everything is one of the places where they stumble. It’s one thing to produce a happy medium from so many competing game designs, and it’s another to make deliberate decisions about mechanics merely to distinguish themselves from their predecessors.

Let’s begin with the previously mentioned battle system. During the early tutorials, the game itself claims that the timed button presses are “optional”, and that it’s a just a little extra. A bit more damage, or a slightly reduced effects from blocking. This is a lie. There is absolutely no way to play Sea of Stars without getting pretty good at the arbitrary attack and defense timing. Either enemy locks require multiple hits from the same attack or magic type, or failing a defense timing will result in instant death.

This becomes a particularly cruel problem when combined with the random nature of the locks themselves. They’re always randomly generated, and enemies have no predictable attack timers. Sometimes they use a special attack literally every round, or will wait three rounds at random. Each special attack requires breaking multiple locks from two or more characters, sometimes augmented by magic. Sometimes lock requirements make it outright impossible to fully cancel a special attack.

This may seem fair at first since the effect of the special attack is reduced, but this is also a misnomer. Some “special attacks” are status effects, or summoning another copy of the attacking enemy, or even instant death. The summons are particularly evil because summons can summon as well. And remember, special attacks may get triggered every round by every enemy in extreme cases. I was once caught in a battle for over 20 minutes thanks to this, with enemies being summoned faster than I could eliminate them or cancel the summon. This was the first time I died, and it happens fairly early in the game. The worst part of this is that the extra enemies don’t count toward the final enemy total, so there’s no difference between defeating 3 or 100 of such enemies.

Even this wouldn’t be too bad, except it’s not possible to run from enemies. If you run into a group of enemies, you must fight them. There is no menu option to escape, no smoke-bomb or other item to provide a cover, no special ability restricted to a particular team member. Nope, you just have to fight. Run into that group of enemies on accident and you’re low on health? Too bad.

In fact, the only items you can even carry are meals you cook at campfires, and even then the maximum is 10. Meals only heal HP or MP, and are really only useful during battle or between long stretches between rest spots. They don’t give you temporary extra stats, stronger abilities, or any other unique effect, just HP or MP. Rest spots themselves can be extremely sparse as well. Given these are the only places to save, even in the overland map, it gets extremely irritating very quickly. Since there’s no way to exit a dungeon except for literally trekking to one of the exits, there’s also an unnecessary element of tedium.

Leveling and stats are another confusingly designed aspect of Sea of Stars. Experience is shared among all characters, so everyone is always the same level. This alone is fine, but stats are distributed randomly every level, and it’s possible to “choose” one of four stats for each character as they advance. Yet all stats are paltry. It’s always +1 here, or +3 there, and the effects are so minimal it’s easy to miss. By the midpoint of the game, it’s still possible to require two rounds with enemies from the first dungeon. Even stranger is that leveling up does not heal party members to maximum as it would in basically every other RPG created in the last 40 years. It’s good to defy expectations on occasion, but many players rely on that mechanic. It’s possible to level up and still be near death in later dungeons, and I can’t see any good reason for this.

Equipment is equally flimsy. Weapons, armor, rings, all bestow enhancements to attack or defense, but again, the effect is so incremental it’s hard to notice until the endgame itself. By that point, it’s finally possible to go to early parts of the game and see the difference. Yet even in this case, with the best party at the highest levels with the best equipment against the weakest enemies, damage is in the high tens or maybe low hundreds.

This kind of slavish devotion to conservative stat influence is incredibly rare, and at least for myself, was a complete abrogation of how I’d come to approach RPGs. The more I played, the more frustrated and annoyed I became. “What do stats even do?” I asked toward the end. I became convinced they were just window dressing and conveyed no actual character enhancement at all.

The last insult was by withholding any kind of fast travel system until literally the final dungeon in the game. It’s not possible to open the map and visit past locations. It’s not possible to even travel between major map areas without literally traversing through dungeons early on, or with a ship later in the adventure. It’s needlessly tedious and time consuming, and probably added 5-10 hours to my playtime by itself due to backtracking.

A Flawed Masterpiece

In the end, it was the game mechanics that ruined Sea of Stars for me. The story was alright and I loved the graphics and music, but having to always have near perfect battle reactions for all the different enemy attacks eventually got annoying. Then the slow overland walking got old. Then having to backtrack over and over again, sometimes by repeatedly navigating through entire dungeons, took its toll. Then having to create a camp in the overworld to save started to annoy me.

It’s a death by a thousand cuts, all deliberate decisions by the game design team, and each one an incomprehensible departure from the very games which inspired them. There’s a New Game+ mode, but I couldn’t possibly care less. There are only two endings, and I’ve seen both of them. Why would I want to lose my newly won fast travel? Just to go through the same dungeons again after I’ve done so a dozen times already? So I can haul around 10 meals I won’t use?

It’s a tragedy, because it’s so obvious where the roots of Sea of Stars originated. I can see what they were trying to achieve, and the fact they came so close only to throw it all away is devastating. It’s possible I’m simply too impatient for these kinds of game mechanics, and I’ll readily admit that could be the case. But I’ve played Chrono Trigger a dozen times and loved every second. It succeeds where Sea of Stars fails because it retains several Quality of Life elements SoS ruthlessly eliminates.

Sea of Stars is a 7/10, which is perfectly acceptable. But it could have been a 10/10; the pieces were all there, had they been properly assembled.