Sea of Stars is the sophomore effort from Sabotage Studios, a follow-up and loosely connected prequel to their critically acclaimed debut, The Messenger. Sea of Stars is a 2D JRPG that sets out to pay homage to the classics while tweaking the formula to leave their own stamp on the genre. The game starts you off in what I assume to be the present day with a person known as The Archivist providing the intro narration to our journey.
Now that the stage is set for this grand tale of “magic and deceit, of friendship and wonder.”, we are whisked away to ye olde times. The two main protagonists (of which you choose one as THE main protagonist, but this choice has no bearing on the story, and you can change later on. So far, it seems like it’s just which of the two characters do you want first in the processional line) are then introduced in media res as they, Valere the Lunar Monk and Zale the Solar Bladedancer, are taking a break from their training to be Solstice Warriors. These two characters were born on the Winter and Summer Solstices, respectively, which grants them magic powers and forces upon them a fantastic destiny. This provides a small tutorial to some of the game mechanics before going back even further in time to when Valere and Zale were young children, not yet accepted into Zenith Academy, the school for Solstice Warriors. This provides the base for the journey that the Archivist gave the overview of.
Now, while it seems I am rambling, I assure you, that’s entirely on me. There are some things that, in my opinion, when done well, can go unnoticed in the moment. With Sea of Stars, it’s the pacing. So, whereas I am talking as if it jumps all over the place, it actually lays a little groundwork with two time skips, but one of them really being more of a brief memory, and then from there, it’s just immaculately paced. The game keeps you moving forward at a pace that keeps you entertained without ever getting tired of where you are.
That applies to everything, really. You gain new abilities through certain character levels, story events, and finding hidden areas in dungeons, providing a steady but not overwhelming amount of combat options. The party also grows at a pace that allows you to familiarize yourself and really cook up some solid strategies with the party you have before introducing a new angle, which is also reflected in the enemies. The journey itself also echoes this mastery. The environments are varied, keeping the non-combat parts of the adventure fresh and engaging as no region or dungeon is so long to wear out that welcome, with the adventure moving along at a comfortably quick pace without ever even coming close to feeling rushed. The game keeps opening up to provide more and keep you entertained before the concept of stale even has a seed planted. It really is quite incredible just how well this game flows; it’s a testament to the strength of the both the writing team and the overall dev team’s cohesion to make it all work together.
So now that we’ve discussed how well Sabotage Studios have spread out this adventure, the next major question is if the gameplay makes it an adventure worth going on. I said earlier that this game is paying homage while tweaking the formula. It is not reinventing the wheel, it’s not fixing what’s not broken; and it really doesn’t need to be nor try to be. It has a scope and operates fantastically within it. The combat starts out as the usual turn-based that JRPG fans are oh so familiar with but adds some engaging flair to it. The two big tweaks are the timing mechanic and the lock mechanic. With every ability, offensive or otherwise, ally or enemy, there is a moment in which you can press the “Action” button (for lack of a better term) to enhance the ally ability or get some extra defense or deflect the enemy ability. This is especially useful as it turns regular attacks from 1 hit to 2 hits. Now, this obviously increases the damage (it does not double it, that’d be a bit much), but it works alongside the lock mechanic to add a tactical depth to combat encounters.
The lock system pops up whenever an enemy is channeling an ability of some sort. A certain and varying amount of symbols representing damage types of your party appear, and if you can break all the locks by attacking with a matching damage type, then the enemy is stunned for a few turns. These two mechanics mix and match for even more depth with the “live mana” mechanic. Normal attacks charge mana, which the characters have very small pools of, but also create a singular point of live mana, up to a max of 3. Characters can then absorb these points to power up their abilities or add their elemental power to their regular attacks. So, for example, Valere has a blunt weapon and the lunar element. Let’s say an enemy has two locks, one being blunt, and one being lunar. Zale has attacked earlier, leaving live mana on the field. Valere absorbs the live mana, so instead of using a skill that has both blunt and lunar elements, Valere saves the normal mana and breaks both locks with one empowered regular attack. This is a super simple example, but the game has a lot of variety when it comes to making these tactical decisions, with some of the decisions simply being how to minimize the incoming damage, as it will be impossible to prevent it all entirely.
The puzzles and traversing the world itself is similarly not breaking new ground but providing enough non-traditional elements to make the journey enjoyable and engaging, while etching out a spot in the rich history of the genre. I also feel it necessary to add that this game does have a grappling hook of sorts. I don’t use numerical scores but any game with a grappling hook is automatically a 6/10 at worst. Unless the developer screws up making grappling hooks fun, in which case it’s a -10/10 and that developer should feel bad. Plus, this grappling hook makes it easier to initiate combat with a little early damage and one point of live mana to start the encounter. Now, I cannot stress enough how much of a puzzle person I am not. I hate them, can’t stand them outside of detective games. The 5 minute dungeons in Breath of the Wild drove me crazy, that’s how intolerant I am of puzzles. Sea of Stars is cool though. This game gets a pass. The puzzles are simple but “nice”. They’re just nice. They aren’t there to make you wrack your brain or really figure anything out. They just add a little flavor, a little reprieve from “go here, oooh there’s a baddie, okay go there, ah another baddie, oh now a boss”. They work well and do provide a welcome extra gameplay aspect. So I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to Sabotage Studios for making puzzles I don’t hate. That’s a very small and exclusive club and not a compliment I throw around lightly.
Before I get into the depths of the presentation, I want to make sure I don’t bury the lede. There’s a boss whose battle music has ska influences. Do with that information what you will. For all the rest of it, the presentation reaches the highs that all the rest of the game meets. In my 30 hours in the game, I didn’t encounter a single bug. The only real detraction I have is once, literally just once, one of my character jumped behind a building to fire up her ability, which prevented me from seeing her character model, which really screwed up my ability to time the reflect. A little annoying, but it was once, so really, just an unfortunate happening than anything else. The graphics are crisp, the environment designs are great, I refuse to talk about the music other than the ska boss (I apologize to the composers that worked on this game; I appreciate you, but come on. You can’t expect me to talk about anything other than the ska boss here, you just can’t.) The controls are simple and pretty intuitive, with the load times on my 4-year old PC being pretty negligible outside loading into the game itself.
I also want to make a special mention to how this game incorporates its Kickstarter backers. They have a little 1-minute forced excursion to show you where they credit all their backers, and it just comes across as a cute little acknowledgment as opposed to an awkwardly forced “hey, look at these people who supported us early!” Credit where it’s due, and their creativity here deserves credit.
I can’t tell you if Sea of Stars has a fantastic marketing campaign, or it is genuinely widely hailed and looked forward to or if it just dominates my little niche spaces, but this game has been high on my list for a long, long time now and it has not disappointed for even a second. An incredibly well-done overall package but with definite standouts worthy of high praise. Looking at you, ska boss. Sabotage Studios have created a modern classic with Sea of Stars, worthy of being mentioned with some of the top games in the genre.