Sea of Stars is a worthy pseudo-spiritual successor to some of the greatest JRPGs ever made. It improves on what made those games so special by modernizing their magic through balanced and engaging turn-based combat wrapped up in an enthralling world to explore.
Few Japanese role-playing games are as revered as 1995’s Chrono Trigger. Many have craved something similar in the decades since, and plenty of developers have tried – and often failed – to scratch that itch. Enter Sabotage Studio’s Sea of Stars, another indie-developed RPG inspired by Crono, Marle, and Lucca’s time-hopping quest, along with other classics such as Super Mario RPG. It only takes a glance to see how much classic JRPG DNA Stabogate threaded through its latest, and that’s before hearing any of the ten tracks Chrono Trigger’s primary composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, provided for the game, or seeing the many other nods to it throughout the lengthy adventure we experienced while preparing for our Sea of Stars review.
As a massive Chrono Trigger fan, I began Sea of Stars with cautious pessimism. I remembered other games that claimed 90s JRPGs as direct inspirations and failed to actualize what made them great. I also worried it might rely too heavily on Chrono Trigger as a crutch, doing little else other than feeding the insatiable nostalgia monster that lives inside every gamer who grew up during that era.
It doesn’t take long for Sea of Stars to shatter my pessimistic expectations.
The opening moments introduce Valere, Zale, and their friend Garl. Valere and Zale train as novice Solstice Warriors, destined to fight the Fleshmancer’s monstrous Dwellers. Luckily for them, only one Dweller remains, and two other experienced Solstice Warriors will help them take it down. As you can probably guess, the battle against the last Dweller does not go as planned, detaching Valere and Zale’s training wheels and sending them off on a dangerous quest.
Each screen of this quest is a work of vibrant, pixelated art. From coral that bejewels azure waterfalls to gears and clocks that adorn a sprawling castle, and more locations too awesome to spoil here, none look alike or even share similar color palettes. As I travel through my 30-hour adventure, I frequently stop to appreciate the artistic design. Along with a great soundtrack that rivals the best of the genre – I crank the volume up for the standard boss battle music each time it plays – every moment here is a treat for the senses.
While the two heroes have dialogue and interact with other characters, they are actually only a step above silent protagonists, virtually interchangeable with one another outside of the color of their hair. They don’t stand up to scrutiny when I compare them to Garl and the other companions, both the playable party members and a hilarious pirate crew that tags along, even if they do drive the plot. The others simply feature fuller characterization, with mysterious backgrounds and bittersweet story arcs.
Up until about the eight-hour mark when things go awry against the last Dweller, the narrative and the gameplay meanders with a lengthy opening followed by several tangentially related problems to solve. The remaining two-thirds, however, impress. Sea of Stars delves deep into intriguing lore, big-bads reveal themselves, the more interesting characters resolve their personal stories, and the adventure moves to surprising locales. All the while, the combat system blossoms as the motley crew gains more skills to fight a staggering number of expressively animated foes.
And what a combat system it is. If anyone tells you that turn-based battles are dead or archaic, smack them with a boxed copy of Sea of Stars for me. While Super Mario RPG-like timed button presses mitigate and increase damage, Sabotage’s own ‘lock’ and ‘live mana’ systems turn each round of every bout into mini-puzzles on top of a game of resource management.
To stop an undead pirate captain from summoning an equally undead sea monster, I hit him with certain damage types – such as blunt or lunar – to break his ‘lock’ and interrupt him. In order to make this easier, I decide to smack him with regular attacks instead of healing or using a skill to spawn live mana that then litters the ground, allowing me to draw it in to power up attacks and add an element to them, furthering my ability to interrupt. Every battle consists of plentiful moment-to-moment decisions like this, requiring forethought not only against climatic bosses but also regular encounters. Yes, run-of-the-mill zombies and birdmen pose a threat straight through to the end.
Being one of the most balanced and engaging turn-based systems I’ve experienced mitigates some weariness from the straightforward puzzles (pushing blocks, finding a key to raise a bridge, etc) that impede my progress. That said, each zone also features unique ways to traverse them: melting ice blocks by controlling the sun, hopping in fast-moving currents at the right place, and so on. While none of it is particularly unique or difficult to overcome, it keeps the pace fluid between battles, all leading up to an awesome final act that I can’t wait to see people discuss online.
A few small gripes aside, Sabotage Studios leaves me in awe of what it has achieved here. Not only is Sea of Stars a worthy pseudo-spiritual successor to some of the greatest JRPGs ever made, the team has managed to improve upon what made those games so special, modernizing their magic through balanced and engaging turn-based combat wrapped up in an enthralling world to explore. I cannot recommend it enough.