If you’re a 90s kid and an RPG fan, then you’ll likely be in the same boat as me. I’d wager you are always searching within the maelstrom of indie RPGs and AAA offerings in search of a title that will transport you back to those long-lost days spent sitting cross-legged, inches away from the TV, drinking in the chiptune soundtrack, and experiencing the golden era of RPG gaming. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone, and while we have seen some pretty remarkable RPG’s since, I was pretty much resigned to the idea that we would never see a truly masterful JRPG cut from the same cloth as Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG or Breath of Fire ever again. Then, like a phoenix from the ashes, we have a new challenger.
Sea of Stars is a love letter to all the JRPGs forged within this golden era, borrowing aspects of every single one, while still offering its own unique, modern spin on this antiquated format, leading to an experience that is like a reunion with an old friend, a welcome memory triggered by a familiar sight or sound, yet somehow completely fresh, new and full of wonder.
Sea of Stars manages to achieve everything that it sets out to do with aplomb, offering a modern meets retro JRPG that practically perfects the medium, making this the optimal way for veteran fans and traditional JRPG novices to engage with the genre. It’s, in my often cynical and downbeat opinion, a staggeringly beautiful, fully realized, and damn near perfect title, and if you want to find out why, then stick around, this is Indie Game Culture’s Sea of Stars Review, conducted on PS5.
The Secret Ingredient Is Love
Let’s jump into the overall presentation of this lovingly-made pixel romp. It’s very easy to think reductively about a game such as this, because to emulate graphical ideals of yesteryear can feel like a bit of a cop-out in some cases. However, you simply cannot level that at Sea of Stars, as every visual and auditory decision feels like a meticulous refinement of old methods to create a new modern version, without losing that nostalgia-inducing feel that caused so many to back this project on Kickstarter. Every single area feels wonderfully distinct, with assets that match the theme of the area, and pixel art that really puts the limits of the medium to the test.
However, the thing that probably stands out more than most things with regards to the art style is how dynamic the world feels, and how willing the developers are to change tact and try a completely different approach. The game will eventually expand into a fully explorable map where players can sail and eventually zoom around to their heart’s content, the game will, at certain points, inexplicably opt for a 3D approach to great effect, and the dynamic lighting is the cherry on top that makes this game feel like it’s own modern JRPG entity that employs the practices of today, embraces it and makes the final project better for it.
The visuals, boss designs, character models, and sublime settings are great, but even with that high level of quality, the musical score manages to one-up this pixel perfection with a laundry list of memorable tracks that will have you humming along every step of the way. The one track that was a real standout for me was the one employed in Coral Cascades, which is just one of several tracks composed by Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger fame. However, my favorites aside, every track compliments the setting, offers a range of sounds that hark back to the SNES era, and I don’t say this lightly. I believe this may be one of the finest indie soundtracks on record. It’s certainly going to play a big role in my Spotify Wrapped; I’ll tell you that for free.
Sensational Satirical Silliness
We now look at the story within Sea of Stars, which is really the only area of this game that I could really find any sort of fault with, and if you know me as a reviewer, I really thrive off being a hard-ass. The narrative of Sea of Stars revolves around two Children of the Solstice, Zale, and Valere, who must train to become Solstice Warriors, defeat the evil dweller of the realm, and bring peace to the world. All pretty boilerplate stuff. However, as things start to unravel, the game’s narrative will twist and turn, leading to a quintessentially JRPG crescendo where, through the power of friendship, you fight an almighty evil god of the realm.
It’s a title that doesn’t really re-invent the wheel in that regard, but this level of familiarity seems to work in the game’s favor, as with a unique brand of self-awareness, the game is able to take a step back, not take things too seriously, and in turn, this leads to some genuinely joyous scenes and exchanges, humor that’s actually funny, and a level of care-free silliness that makes exploring and absorbing the story so wonderous.
It’s rare that you get to see a game of this nature that can so seamlessly move through the gears, switching from 4th wall-breaking humor, to intense stakes akin to superhero movies, to fantasy novel antics, and then out of the blue hit you with a complete sucker punch leaving you emotionally deflated. I am a pretty hardened, cynical character, as most Irishmen are, so games tend not to evoke many intense emotions from me. My engagement is akin to people who write ‘LOL’ in a text. No one ever actually laughs in these exchanges.
Yet when playing Sea of Stars, I was transformed into a little kid on a Saturday morning with a big bowl of cereal watching cartoons. I smiled wide when silly things happened, I rooted for each character when they completed their respective arcs, and I found myself enthralled by the world around me. Usually, with games like this, I hit a wall, the enthusiasm turns to obligation, and I long for the finish line. Yet with this game, I was hooked from start to end, it kept offering me more than I could have ever asked for, and when all was said and done, I greedily wished I could have more.
I do have gripes, though, albeit small ones. Unlike games such as Final Fantasy VII, for example, where you get excited to return to this title again because bombing the reactor is such a killer opening, Sea of Stars starts slow, with an opening that has you learn systems, absorb necessary exposition, and it all feels a little limiting, as if you’re on a leash waiting to be unleashed into the world. I feel that the game could have benefited from a more dynamic opening, but when you are let off the leash, these issues fade into the background.
Then, there are also some issues regarding navigation when players want to backtrack. Due to an inability to exit to the map screen or fast-travel to areas until later in the game, the player does feel a little ‘on-rails’ which admittedly does work to the story’s benefit, but as someone that can often feel paralyzed if unable to get everything there is to get there and then in a game, this led to some needlessly long treks through previously visited areas.
All in all, though, Sea of Stars narrative is a joy to behold, with a wide cast of wonderful characters, a comical and cartoonish approach that is dialed back when needed, and an abundance of story content that far exceeds what most indie games can promise players, let alone some AAA story-driven titles.
For those unaware of the acronym K.I.S.S. It stands for ‘Keep it simple Stupid’, which is exactly the principle that seems to have been at the forefront of Sabotage Studio’s minds as they aimed to revive the 90’s JRPG for the modern gamer. The developers haven’t set out to outdo any of the heroes of the time, but instead, they have taken little chunks from each of them to masterfully weave a game that feels like a ‘Greatest Hits’ of the ’90s RPG era.
To showcase this, you need only look at the wonderful gameplay elements that they have taken and seamlessly implemented into their game with such style and grace that it feels like a newfangled idea, when, in fact, it’s always been there.
One of Chrono Trigger’s most iconic design ideas was to have enemies exist in the explorable world, and when encountered, battle sequences would switch seamlessly without the need for a battle theme to pulse and a fade to black.
Sea of Stars not only does this, but allows you to time your approach and even get a smack in beforehand. Then you have the battles themselves, which, in a lot of JRPG’s, can feel like rigid affairs where you pick your attack, and then it simply plays out before you. However, within Sea of Stars, the game employs battle tactics seen in Super Mario RPG, allowing players to get micro-bonuses from timed responses. It’s like pressing A to lock a Pokemon in a Pokeball, but this actually works.
There are so many of these old-school mechanics that are taken and given a fresh coat of paint to look flashy and new. However, Sea of Stars also has a lot of unique ideas of its own, which are stellar in their own right. Take the Locks and Live Mana systems. These systems allow you to stop enemy attacks through the careful use of certain attacks and the ability to look ahead and plan for the next phase. This system is so simplistic and accessible, yet as the game expands and progresses, this system becomes more complex, and only through engaging with it fully will you be able to beat the toughest bosses on offer. Yet, all the while, it never feels overwhelming to do so as the content is so well-paced.
However, the thing I want to focus on above all else is just how satisfying that every action feels in Sea of Stars. Whether you’re hopping down a ledge, tiptoeing across a tightrope, grappling across a gap, solving a puzzle, or even playing an obligatory fishing mini-game, everything feels like someone has taken the time to make sure that each action offers a little crumb of serotonin and this leads to a cohesive and collectively wonderful game across the board.
The only minute negatives I could level at the gameplay is that I would have personally liked a sprint feature to get through areas I had seen before, and I found that the platforming off of ledges could be a little temperamental in some areas.
Minimum Challenge, Maximum Fun
I have to give this its moment, as it will be a topic of discussion and why some may not get as much out of this as another gamer, but I’ll just lead with the fact that it’s not a ‘marks lost’ situation in my book. To put it plainly, Sea of Stars is an easy game, aside from a few pockets of challenge. The systems are designed to be fun to engage with; the game is paced in such a way that you incrementally gain competence without much need for player input to ensure that, and the puzzles are designed in such a way that they have you dust off the old cerebellum, before engaging auto-pilot once more.
Many will see this as a shortcoming for this game, and to that, I say, lighten up. For those that want a challenge, the game offers relics that players can equip to make things a little trickier, but overall, the game is about evoking joy, and giving the player constant little wins, rather than massive hurdles to clear, and I’m fully on board with that decision. It makes the game a much more accessible experience and cuts out the admin that a lot of people simply don’t want to engage with in JRPGs.
It keeps things simple with a few abilities, a need to upgrade weapons and armor, and you’ll need to master the combat mechanics, but all in all, this is a game to enjoy rather than struggle through. I’m a Soulsborne fan, too, I see the appeal of both, and I felt it was necessary to say this, because the game shouldn’t be criticized for embracing a more fun-led, player-rewarding approach.
My only small criticism is that some of the puzzles are arbitrary to the point that there needn’t be a puzzle at all, but again, a minor critique.
Bursting With Extras
Before we close things off, I need to also commend Sea of Stars for the sheer amount of content that it dared to produce as an indie project, and, what’s more, how incredible the side-content is for the most part. Like The Witcher 3’s Gwent, Sea of Stars adds a unique and genuinely fun in-game activity called Wheels which riffs on the mechanics of slot machines, making a turn-based combat game within a turn-based combat game, which was both novel and much appreciated. Then you have a ton of fish to collect, question packs to find, music sheets to locate, secret bosses to find, Rainbow Conches to uncover, and that isn’t even an exhaustive list.
The game boasts a frankly astonishing 30+ hours of main story content alone, but the additional stuff will keep you playing for an additional 10-15 hours easily, and considering this is an indie title, lest we forget, that is utterly remarkable.
I will concede that the game does a pretty poor job of hinting to the player on how to find these secrets and extras, and not to fight their corner, but I think I’m willing to let this one go too, because much like those games of old where we didn’t have the internet to call upon, and would need to hear through savvy gamers on the playground, this game gives you the option to explore and make discoveries that make you feel like you did back then.
Whether it’s making sense of the Cerulean Expanse, or figuring out where the hell a Turbo Cookie is, there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with not simply following a map marker, and I applaud that approach, no matter how irritated it initially made me.
Before we wrap things up, here is a list of games that you should absolutely try out if you liked what Sea of Stars had to offer:
- Chrono Trigger
- Wild Arms
- Super Mario RPG
- Final Fantasy 1-12
- Secrets of Mana
- The Messenger
The Verdict – 10/10
To give you all some scope, I’m quite confident that this is the first time in my career that I have ever handed out a perfect score for a video game, which goes some way to show you just how impeccably made I believe that Sea of Stars is. Does this mean that I wasn’t able to find a single fault with this game? No, not at all. The game does have some issues, such as a slow beginning, annoying navigation, and backtracking until you unlock additional mechanics, and it does have a pair of typical stoic hero archetypes as protagonists. However, I’m willing to overlook these frankly minor issues because holistically, Sea of Stars comes together to offer one of the finest turn-based RPG experiences ever.
The visuals are pixel-perfect bliss, with clear love and care poured into every asset. The soundtrack is like something lifted straight out of the SNES era, with some real standout tunes in there from the uber-talented Mitsuda. The story is a typical RPG storyline from the era it aims to emulate, but with a layer of satire and self-awareness that allows for silly antics and fun sequences. Yet when the game deems it appropriate, it can pull it all back and land an emotional sucker punch.
Then, as for the gameplay. It’s quintessential 90’s RPG bliss that borrows a lot of the standout mechanics of the titles of the era, then makes lots of QoL improvements to refine the overall experience. Not to mention, the game also employs some stellar combat systems and interactive attacks that make battles more than just ‘pick the action, watch the animation’.
Through a passionate team of individuals, and no corporate heads breathing down their neck, Sabotage Studios has repackaged the lightning in a bottle that was the golden era of RPGs, and we can now all uncork it one more time to experience the bliss, the nostalgia and the genuinely masterful gameplay one more time, with all new magical secrets to uncover along the way.
Much like an eclipse, a moment like this doesn’t come around all that often, so don’t pass up the opportunity to play this instant RPG classic!
- A masterclass in pixel art and chiptune sound design
- A compelling, quintessentially JRPG story
- A unique blend of old-school and new-school RPG mechanics
- A wealth of end-game content
- Early/mid-game navigation is irritating at times
- A quite lukewarm opening hour
- Typical hero archetype protagonists
Question: How Long is Sea of Stars?
Answer: If you want to complete the main story and nothing more, you’re talking about 25-30 hours, depending on how proficient you are. Whereas if you want to see all there is to see and unlock the secret ending, you’re talking closer to 40-50 hours.
Question: What Do Rainbow Conch Shells Do?
Answer: They are a commodity that can be exchanged for unique rewards from a merchant in Docarri Village, which you will find about 10 hours into the game, or thereabouts. Try to passively collect these along the way.
Question: Is Sea of Stars Free?
Answer: If you are a paying PS Premium subscriber or signed up for Xbox Game Pass, then you could consider this a free game. This title will be available from day one on both of these platforms.