|Platforms||Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Steam [reviewed]|
|Release Date||August 29, 2023|
Sabotage Studios, an indie game company based in Quebec City, Canada, is a self-proclaimed group of gamers who miss the charm of many retro games and want to recreate the magic they felt as kids. In August 2018, their heart and hard work struck a chord with the community, and their debut title, a retro action-platformer called The Messenger, became an award-winning best seller (which we gave a 9.5/10 in our review).
Sabotage’s next project, however, was not simply The Messenger 2. They had bigger dreams. Fans were surprised when, in 2020, in the midst of COVID, Sabotage announced via a Kickstarter campaign that their next game would be a retro-inspired JRPG called Sea of Stars. The community was optimistic, but hesitant. Sabotage had proven they could make an action-platformer, but an RPG is a completely different beast. It turns out that an RPG was Sabotage’s goal all along. Thierry Boulanger, the founder and president of Sabotage, has said “The plan after The Messenger was always to make Sea of Stars; actually the kind of…the prize for us was we get to make an RPG together if we pull this off, if we make it work” [The Making of Sea of Stars | Escapist Documentary]. The Kickstarter was wildly successful, raising over $1.1 million across more than 25,000 backers, and Sabotage got to work. In the time since, the studio has slowly teased art, gameplay, and features, and the hype has grown.
Sabotage Studios is unashamed in the fact that Sea of Stars is an amalgamation of themes and mechanics from games the developers enjoyed as children, whether it be influences from Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy, or Secret of Mana. Sabotage set out to make a JRPG that combines everything they loved as kids and still love as adults, but to do it with a modern engine and a fresh coat of paint. “Our motto is…we want to do the memory of an old game, not the actual old game.”
Now that release is here, it’s time for judgment. Is Sea of Stars just another Kickstarter flop, or is it proof that Sabotage Studios was not a one-hit wonder? Does it live up to community expectations, and does it deliver what the developers promise? And most importantly, does it have a fishing minigame?
Sea of Stars deserves the hype it has received. Thanks to its masterful, insightful, heart-warming writing, incredible animation, and memorable soundtrack, Sea of Stars will leave a lasting impression. It checks every single box for “what makes a good JRPG,” and while it might not be the best at everything it tries to do, it still does everything very well, and it pays homage to its genre ancestors with style. Sea of Stars is a nearly perfect game and is absolutely one of the must-play JRPGs of 2023.
Sea of Stars is a wholesome, family-friendly game in almost every aspect. Finding anything to write about in the content guide was honestly one of the hardest parts of this review. The game’s tone throughout is upbeat, wholesome, and positive, even in the midst of hardship and pain, and the story is one of friendship, perseverance, and fighting for what is right.
One item that could be cause for concern is the game’s use of imagery and terminology that some might consider occult. The game includes alchemists, necromancers, and wizards, and lots of magic is used throughout the game.
There are also some imagery and themes in the game that might be too dark or to heavy for kids, such as mild body mutilation, betrayal, and grieving. Potentially disturbing/gross imagery gets much more prevalent as the player approaches the later stages of the game, and are where the most concern would be.
Violent content is very minor. In combat, enemies and allies flash when hit with attacks, and enemies simply pixelate away to nothingness when defeated. I did not see any blood or gore at any point in the game. However, there are two locations in the game that seem to be made of flesh and internal organs.
Sea of Stars is the journey of two young adults, Valere and Zale, to prove themselves as Solstice Warriors. Born on the summer and winter solstices respectively, Zale, the Solar Blade Dancer, and Valere, the Lunar Monk, have innate magical abilities that they must hone in order to keep their world safe. Dwellers, evil beings of vast power, inhabit the land and, if left un-checked, will grow into World Eaters and destroy the fabric of reality. They are only susceptible to magical attacks, and only during total solar eclipses. So it has ever been the duty of Solstice Warriors to train for one or two intense, deadly fights every single year. Valere and Zale, at the end of a long line of Solstice Warriors, finally have the opportunity to defeat the last known Dweller and bring peace to the land.
I don’t even know where to begin praising the writing in Sea of Stars. This game repeatedly subverts expectations and changes your perception of what is happening. The story is reminiscent of a work of Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson, in that the writers slowly peel back layers of the world; as soon as you think you understand what is happening, a plot twist makes you realize that you didn’t understand anything. One gigantic plot twist near the 20-hour point made me question if I should even keep writing this review, because it shakes up your fundamental understanding of what is happening THAT much. The story is a journey of epic proportions, and it’s a beautiful, wild ride, with emotional highs that will make you laugh and emotional lows that will feel like gut punches.
The fantastic writing isn’t exclusive to the story, either: the character writing in Sea of Stars is just as good. None of the main characters remain static; as the story unfolds and the characters experience more, there is introspection, growth, and change. Characters have real complexity and depth, revealing hidden motives and subverting your expectation of how they will act in a given situation. You grow to care for these characters in unexpected ways, and the sense of investment in these characters keeps growing as you progress.
Enormous effort was put into the writing in Sea of Stars, and it produced a story that is one of the best I have ever experienced in a video game. If all you do is play the game on Easy Mode to experience the story, it would be worth the price of admission.
The visuals in Sea of Stars are one of the best examples of the developer’s aim to “do the memory of an old game, not the actual old game.” It’s got the heart of a retro pixel-art game, but in a 32-bit aesthetic, in a modern engine, with modern lighting and shading. The visuals were heavily reminiscent of Cosmic Star Heroine, except in a medieval fantasy world. The characters, enemies, and levels are all incredibly detailed, unique, and attention-drawing. If you’re an art fan, you’ll definitely find yourself pausing to admire the scenery often.
Sea of Stars’ soundtrack is also a great modern take on classic JRPG concepts. Some of them are simple yet effective and memorable, and others are complex tapestries of emotion to set the stage for an epic boss fight or a character development moment of the game. As is fitting of any good JRPG, I constantly found myself humming one of Sea of Stars’ themes as I was at work or at home. The highest honor I can give the soundtrack is that it will be added to my Spotify playlist of banger JRPG OSTs.
The combat in Sea of Stars is turn-based combat with timed inputs, like Paper Mario or Super Mario RPG. When your characters attack, you can time an input to get a special effect, whether it’s bonus damage, a second hit, or continuing a chain of magical attacks. You can also time inputs to block some incoming damage. The knowledge for timing inputs—both attacking and blocking—are gained over time, as you learn what the window is for each character and each attack. It’s another layer to combat that makes it more engaging turn-to-turn, and it also removes the need for buff/debuff abilities, which the game does not include. If the timed inputs in combat sound too hard or intimidating, the game tells you that these timings aren’t required at all to enjoy the game, and if you’d rather not worry about the mechanic, you don’t have to, and you won’t be punished for it.
Combat in Sea of Stars, like in any good JRPG, is about resource management. You’re constantly juggling what to do, and each turn in combat can have multiple decision points. The balance between trying to regain your dwindling health and mana or trying to set up a massive damage combo is sometimes on a knife’s edge. Each boss fight was a unique puzzle to solve before they crushed you.
While I can appreciate the design and the depth in Sea of Stars’ combat, I did not like parts of it. I’m not a fan of the timed inputs, and at times it decreased how much I was enjoying the game. The game tells you that the timed inputs don’t really matter, but I found this to be inaccurate at best. In boss fights particularly, an enemy attack would deal way more damage un-blocked than it would if the block was timed properly. I couldn’t fully enjoy the combat in Sea of Stars, but it’s not by any measurement bad. The combat served its purpose well, and it had good depth and player agency. Others will surely enjoy the combat, but it wasn’t made for me.
Despite my feelings about the combat in Sea of Stars, the game was fairly easy on Normal difficulty. I did get a few Game Over screens, but every single time it was due to “I’m dumb,” not “this game is hard.” The combat system and some of the game systems make Sea of Stars a fairly forgiving game. It does have an Easy mode toggle, too, if you just want to enjoy the story.
Exploring the world of Sea of Stars is a lot of fun, because the devs ensured that Sea of Stars doesn’t devolve into “walking in a straight line in between combat encounters.” Most levels and areas have some amount of verticality to them, and some have a LOT. You’ll find yourself constantly jumping gaps, climbing walls, balancing over tightropes, and doing your best Spider-Man impression as you grapple yourself around.
Level traversal is just one of many examples of something Sea of Stars does very well: breaking up the pace of the game. If you don’t enjoy endless combat encounters in JRPGs, you will love Sea of Stars. In between combat, you’re figuring out how to maneuver around the level, and you might find yourself solving puzzles to do it. Need a break, or want to slow the game down a bit? Sea of Stars has multiple options, including fishing! The fishing mechanic isn’t particularly deep or challenging, but I liked it for that reason. It’s a relaxing minigame that provides both a change of pace and decent rewards. However, my favorite pastime in Sea of Stars was chasing fame and fortune as a world-renowned Wheels player.
Yes, this minigame gets its own dedicated section, because I need to gush about it. When I started Sea of Stars, I was not expecting any kind of in-world minigame, so it was a fun surprise to find one waiting for me. What I was definitely not expecting was a fully-fledged game-within-a-game. Wheels is not a gimmick, it’s a lifestyle. Players might see the slot-machine-style rollers at their end of the Wheels table and immediately run away thinking it’s all chance, but they’d be very wrong. At its core, Wheels is partly luck, but like any game of chance, the better player who knows how to use the hand that is dealt to him will win. Most of the time.
[To alleviate potential content concerns, no, there is absolutely no gambling involved in Wheels.]
In the game of Wheels, each player has a Crown that they’re protecting. The Crown starts at 10 points, and the first player whose Crown drops to zero points loses the game. Each player also has two characters that they use to damage the other player’s Crown. There are six possible characters available to use, and each one has unique abilities and serves different purposes. Team composition is a huge part of learning to play Wheels and becoming a champion player.
How do you deal damage and vanquish your foolhardy opponent? That’s where the slots on your side of the table come in. Each character on the board has a certain number of points required to perform their action; you obtain action points by spinning the slots. Each round, you have three spins, and you have the option to (un-)lock individual cylinders after each spin. If you acquire enough symbols for a particular character, they earn an action point; once they acquire enough action points, they will perform their action and their action meter will reset.
Not only are you trying to get your characters to attack your opponent, but you’re also trying to upgrade them so they can do even more damage. Sprinkled into the slots are specially-colored symbols that give your characters experience if locked in; gain enough of these, and your character upgrades to the next level.
“But what about counter-play?” you might say. “This game just sounds like a race to do the most damage.” The counter-play is found in the ability to defend your Crown by building fortifications. The possible values for the slots on the board are a diamond for one of your characters, a square for your other character, and a hammer. The hammer symbols, if locked in, build a wall around your crown that will block one or multiple attacks, depending on how high the wall is.
However, there is also counter-play to just infinitely building walls and turtling your opponent to death, because certain characters have abilities that go over or around fortifications. In addition, each character does damage in different ways; some are better at destroying Crowns, some are better at destroying fortifications. There’s even one character whose entire job is to build fortifications of your own while destroying opposing fortifications!
In almost every large town in Sea of Stars, you can find a Wheels table with a Champion to best. You start out with a very basic Wheel and only two characters, but as you defeat Champions, you acquire better Wheels and more characters. Eventually, you gain the opportunity to challenge the very creator of the game of Wheels herself: the Clockmaker.
If you can’t tell, I’m obsessed with Wheels, and I played it every chance I got. It seems like mostly chance at first, but then you start to understand the strategy, and then the game just keeps getting increasingly more complex the more you play it and understand it. Wheels is a deep, strategic, well-designed game, and it has quickly become my favorite minigame of all time. Sabotage, if you’re reading this, please give me a stand-alone Wheels game, or a game in the Sea of Stars universe dedicated to the journey of a Wheels player. I need more games of Wheels.
Even just a mobile game. I’d play Wheels on my phone while consulting the porcelain throne.
Anything. I’m begging you.
I wanted to submit a quick note on Sea of Stars‘ performance before we’re done. I played Sea of Stars on Steam, and 85% of that playtime was on my Steam Deck. The game ran perfectly on my desktop and on the Steam Deck, and I didn’t encounter any technical issues or bugs. Sea of Stars was also very power-efficient. It sipped power on my Steam Deck, and I was consistently getting 5+ hours of playtime on the handheld. This is very promising for those looking to pick up the game on Switch. My one visual gripe with Sea of Stars is that the overworld map is NOT scaled well for smaller screens. Even on the Steam Deck, which has a larger-than-average screen for a handheld, people and objects on the overworld map looked TINY, and it was sometimes hard to parse what was on the screen. However, you’re in the overworld map maybe 5% of the time, so it’s a very minor gripe.
Sabotage Studios has released another gem of a game in Sea of Stars. The game exudes a sense of “we care very much, and we put every bit of effort we possibly could into every aspect of this game.” Sea of Stars deserves mention in Game of the Year discussion for its writing alone, and its animation and music are candy to the senses. And it has arguably one of the best minigames in video game history? The game is a 10/10 to me, except for its combat, and it pains me to say that, because it was almost perfect. Sea of Stars is a game that will garner lots of attention and praise over the coming years, and it deserves every bit of it. Sabotage Studios has proven they’re not a one-hit wonder, and I sincerely hope the success of Sea of Stars means we see a lot more of what they have to offer. They aimed to make the perfect JRPG, and they didn’t miss.
The Bottom Line
Sea of Stars is a game that will garner lots of attention and praise over the coming years, and it deserves every bit of it.