Having grown up during the Super Nintendo Era, I’ve played my share of old school JRPG’s. With Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy games as true favorites, I’ve played most of the JRPG’s since then. While the golden age for JRPG’s has passed, that didn’t stop Sabotage Studios from trying their hand at one with Sea of Stars. Will Sea of Stars succeed in etching a place in between fan favorites? Read all about it in our Sea of Stars review.
Rise Solstice Warriors!
After seeing the first announcement trailer for Sea of Stars, I immediately fell in love with it. Sea of Stars is clearly a love letter to decades old JRPG’s. Inspired by classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, Sea of Stars takes us to a high fantasy filled with interesting locations and characters. The story revolves around the twins called Valere and Zarl. At the start of the game, you get to choose which of the two you mainly control. It doesn’t really matter a lot, apart from who leads the conversations.
Valere and Zarl are two youngsters who are raised to become Solstice Warriors. Solstice Warriors are a chosen few with magical abilities, either Lunar or Solar, with the power to defeat Dwellers. Demonic entities which, if left unchecked, will consume and destroy the world. Almost all of them are defeated with one remaining, and they have been training all their life to defeat them. This is where your adventure starts, going through your final trial in order to become true Solstice Warriors.
A story with twists
At the start of the game and for most of the first part, it seems like a cliché story told in most RPG’s. You’re the chosen ones, out to defeat a world threatening enemy because no one else can. I accepted it for what it is, because of the terrific gameplay (More on that later). However, I was pleasantly surprised a bit further in as suddenly the story took a few surprising turns. This kept me on my guard and started getting me invested in the story again. Throughout the story you’ll at times meet characters who will make a joke about JRPG tropes. Which I really enjoyed as a fan of the genre!
Along the way you’ll meet a few companions to go with you on your travels. At the start of the game, your childhood friend Garl joins your party. Throughout the game, you’ll get a few new companions. Another great sign of great writing is that not every playable character is as predictable as they often are. One of them is a character I was sure to be a side character just there for the plot. It’s not often a game manages to surprise me like this in terms of playable characters.
Interrupt all you like
Every playable character in the game has their own weapon type and skill sets. Skills each have their own affinity, such as solar, lunar, poison etc. Both weapon types and skill sets are critical in this game. Because, in combat, when an enemy wants to perform a skill, you have a chance to interrupt them. You’ll see a row of icons hovering above them, indicating what you need to hit them with in order to interrupt them. If you succeed in hitting them with the required attacks, their attack is interrupted and their turn ends. This applies to both minions and bosses. If you failed the interrupt but did get half of the icons knocked down, you’ll still reduce an attack’s power, which can make all the difference.
During the fight, you’ll see a countdown above enemies, indicating how many turns before they actually attack. This allows you to carefully plan who to hit. Do you finish off a low health enemy who attacks right after your turn? Or do you use your attack to interrupt that powerful skill which will hit you otherwise? And this isn’t everything yet. Timing is key. If you press A (or X) when your attack is about to hit, you attack twice. The same applies to blocking an opponent’s attacks. The combat system is unique and simply amazing in terms of tactical thinking. You constantly need to make decisions and think about the flow of combat.
Truly unique combat
When you get further in the game and more skills open up, you get combos. When you build up enough combo points by blocking and attacking, you get to use them to do very damaging attacks, heal yourself or all kinds of special moves. There’s even ultimate moves in the game, which are devastating attacks you can pull off every so often. The combat system is truly deep.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about combat in Sea of Stars is because at its core, it’s very different from what we know. Combat in RPG’s almost always means you have to get the enemy to 0 HP while keeping your own party alive. Death of a party member is always an “Ah crap” moment, because you’re down a man or woman. And it usually takes expensive items to revive them away from a checkpoint. Sea of Stars takes a completely different approach.
Down but not out
On reaching 0 HP, your character is downed or unconscious. From that point on, you see a number of stars circling their head, like in a cartoon. The number of stars means how many turns are left before they get back up. The more that character in a specific combat is downed, the longer it takes. This means being knocked out is a temporary setback. Additionally, enemies hit hard especially with their skill to match this special mechanic. Interrupting becomes key, before you’re overwhelmed.
Now, if you add up all of the above things, you’ll see why I mean it’s a truly unique combat system. Every battle, including boss battles, become some sort of combat puzzle. You need to plan out your attacks, interrupts and heals to stay alive. Adding one minion to a certain composition of enemies can completely change the battlefield. Sometimes, certain minion compositions are harder than boss battles because you haven’t got the proper tactics of dealing with them. And once you’ve got six playable characters, each with their own affinity and weapon type, there’s an insane amount of depth to combat. It’s perhaps the greatest combat system in a JRPG I’ve ever seen!
Old school Zelda vibes
But combat isn’t the only aspect where Sea of Stars shines. Its exploration is great as well. It’s been decades since we’ve had the classics which inspired an entire genre, such as Final Fantasy IV. But, with technology advancing as it is, most 2D pixelated RPGs still utilize linear maps with straightforward progression. In Sea of Stars, you’ll quickly notice you can climb ledges, shimmy across them, swim and so on. This may seem trivial, as this is standard in 3D RPG’s but this is rarely utilized properly in 2D RPG’s. Traversel and exploration is absolutely great in this game.
Combined with great level design, you’ll find shortcuts and hidden paths on every map. They’ll often lead to treasure chests filled with items, collectibles or hidden skills. It offers that true adventurous spirit of searching every nook and cranny. Something where the latest Final Fantasy installment failed miserably. Throughout the game, you’ll often encounter locations which made me think of old school Zelda dungeons. Locations filled with puzzles to solve including slight metroidvania aspects. You’ll unlock new items or skills in them, needed to solve the puzzles. Which you can also use to reach new places in the overworld. It nailed that Link To The Past feel.
Customize your party
When you level up your party members, which doesn’t happen very often, your stats improve as expected. However, for every individual party member, you are given a choice between four random attributes to increase it even further. This allows you to customize each character and tailor them to a specific role. Additionally, you get items called relics at the start of the game to lower or increase the difficulty as you want. You can turn them on to have enemies do less damage or other accessibility options. A very nice addition.
If you’re tired of exploring the Sea of Stars story or world, you can also do some side activities. There’s fishing in the game in certain areas, where you can use a mini game to capture fish and other creatures. And you can also use fish and other ingredients to cook some meals. These meals serve as items used for healing. There’s also an entire in-game board game called Wheels. You use a device similar to a fruit machine to build your troops and attack your opponent. A well done mini game which made me hit the tavern in every new town.
Visually sets a new bar
Sea of Stars is an incredibly beautiful game. With its pixelated design, it still manages to create colorful environments which truly feel unique. Exploring through the world, there’s a lot of details you’ll find on every map, including hidden paths. In conversations, special animations truly display your characters actions or intents, apart from static animations which don’t show a lot. It sets a new bar for pixelated games. Accompanied by a great soundtrack, which can be changed in taverns, the game is visually and audibly stunning.
As a long time JRPG fan, Sea of Stars has stolen my heart. I can confidently say it’s in my top three JRPG games ever. While the plot for Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger are more epic, Sea of Stars is right up there with them. It sets a new bar in gameplay and visuals. While I loved Final Fantasy XVI for what it was, I wish Square Enix took notes from Sea of Stars from their next mainline Final Fantasy game, instead of the other way around. That is high praise for an indie developer new to the genre. It proves that sometimes, a breath of fresh air is all it takes. I’m giving it a 9,5, which is a grade I very rarely give. A must play for people who enjoy RPG’s!
- Unique and fun combat system
- Visually great
- Fun world to explore
- Classic Zelda like dungeons
- Story is good, but not epic