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Sea Of Stars Review: Retro-flavoured perfection with a modern twist

Ewan Moore

Published 
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Sea Of Stars Review: Retro-flavoured perfection with a modern twist

Featured Image Credit: Sabotage Studio

It’s 1am and I’m sitting up in bed hunched over my Switch like a pasty white goblin muttering to myself that I’ll play just one more round of Wheels, the bizarre roulette minigame favoured by the various tavern owners in Sea Of Stars. Now I understand its rules, I can't seem to stop. The fate of the world is in my hands, of course, but that can wait. I have to spin that wheel and earn a new figurine so I can… well, I’m not sure what they’re all for yet, but it compels me all the same. My wife is sobbing silently next to me. I’m frightening her. But that’s okay. I have Wheels now. Wheels is everything.

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I think we can all agree that any great RPG must by law require a minigame that you can lose hours to, and Sea Of Stars delivers. This is because Sea Of Stars is a truly great RPG - a stunning love letter to the grand SNES adventures of yesteryear - an epic tale that gleefully borrows from the classics while undeniably carving out its own place in history as one of the greats.

Yes, I regret to inform you all that 2023 has been hit by yet another banger of a video game.

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In a year already groaning under the weight of some of the best video games of the last decade - The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom, Resident Evil 4, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Street Fighter VI could all reasonably be crowned Game Of The Year before we even get to Starfield - it would be all-too easy for Sea Of Stars to get lost in the noise of the AAAs vying for your free time. Trust me though, this is one voyage you won’t want to miss.

Sea Of Stars is the child of Sabotage Studio, the same developer responsible for 2018’s excellent The Messenger. In the same way that The Messenger remixed the best elements of classic NES-era action platformers and SNES-era Metroidvanias to create something wholly original, Sea Of Stars wears its influences on its sleeve. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario RPG - the DNA of all these beloved adventures is present, but with more than enough modern flourishes and new ideas to make it feel fresh.

Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios
Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios
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Sea Of Stars centres around the adventures of Valere and Zale, two Children Of The Solstice: powerful warriors who are taken in and trained at a young age to fight the forces of evil and look good doing it. Chosen heroes, prophecies, interwoven fates, worlds hang in the balance. You’ve heard this kind of thing before. The broader story is, for the most part, standard RPG fare. But it’s the characters and individual story beats that really make Sea Of Stars sing.

Like The Messenger, there are plenty of self-aware gags and meta humour, but it never really goes overboard on the nudge-wink-look-we-know-you’re-playing-a-video-game-aren’t-we-clever jokes. It’s also capable of hitting the emotional beats when it needs to, and isn’t afraid of going to some really dark places (sometimes literally). Beneath the gorgeous, vibrant pixel-art world is a grim tale of overwhelming evil and seemingly insurmountable odds.

Over the course of the 30-hour adventure, you’ll assemble a party of heroes that you’ll truly come to care about. There’s a lovable cook with a heart of gold, a mysterious ninja assassin who can leap in and out of portals in combat, and more still who I can’t really name here for the sake of spoilers.

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This eclectic cast of misfits only serves to heighten the stakes as you’re thrown headfirst into a relentless - and genuinely surprising - final act that serves to nudge the game over the line from incredible to unmissable. As much as I’d love to dive it into here, this is a tale best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Just know that certain characters will tear your heart out more than once before the credits have rolled.

Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios
Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios

Sea Of Stars also happens to take place in the same universe as The Messenger, although you really don’t need to have played Sabotage’s 2018 game to understand what’s going on (you should anyway, though, because it’s quite brilliant). There are, however, plenty of fun Easter eggs and callbacks to the studio’s previous game that fans will be happy to see.

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Of course, an RPG can have the best characters and writing in the world, but it wouldn’t be worth a damn if the game was an absolute slog to play. Thankfully Sea Of Stars is a complete and utter joy, and very possibly the best attempt at modernising the classic RPG formula I’ve ever played. Whether you’re smashing through hordes of regular bad guys or in fate-of-the-universe showdowns with eldritch ambitions from other worlds, combat is rarely anything other than a blast.

Time-poor fans desperate for an RPG fix will be thrilled to learn Sabotage has completely done away with random encounters and separate battle screens. Fights take place exactly where you run into enemies, making for an all-round smoother, more efficient experience. If you’ve played a Mario RPG in the last few years, you’ll be right at home with Sea Of Stars’ rhythm-based combat, which rewards bonus hits and reduced damage for your party based on your timing. There’s no grind, either. At the game’s standard difficulty, I rarely found myself in a position where I bumped into an enemy that could completely flatten me, and if I ever did run up against a particularly tricky boss, areas are designed in such a way that it’s not hard to get up to the relevant level by taking on a few extra encounters.

Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios
Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios

By the same token, it’s also incredibly difficult to roll into a new area and find yourself completely overpowered, meaning you never have to worry about the level of challenge wildly fluctuating in one direction or the other. Oh, and if you do want a more hardcore experience and enjoy grinding like some kind of pervert or would rather sail on through with minimal challenge, there are a range of options that can be tweaked at any time.

The way the game’s turn-based fights are designed also ensures you’ll never get bored, or find yourself spamming the same few OP moves without any real thought. Each encounter is built to encourage you to play around with different moves, strategies, and party lineups, thanks to a system in which you can interrupt or weaken powerful enemy attacks with the right combination of careful planning and well-timed button presses.

For example, a boss might be winding up to perform a devastating blow that can be completely stopped if you activate Zale’s solar powers and then follow up with a swipe from Valere’s lunar magic. As you gain more party members these fights get increasingly complex, and you’ll find yourself swapping out characters on the fly as you work to counter moves and do serious damage. This being an RPG, there are also plenty of devastating combo attacks and ultimate moves that completely fill the screen, my favourite of which summons a boat from the depths of hell to blast enemies to smithereens.

When you’re not engaged in excellent turn-based fun, you'll be delving into Sea Of Stars’ Zelda-inspired dungeons and solving puzzles, or otherwise exploring its larger world, which is honest to god so beautiful I want to cry just thinking about it. The Messenger really took things up a notch with its pixel art, but here Sabotage has well and truly outdone itself. Sea Of Stars is a ridiculously good-looking game, an absolute explosion of colour and detail that reaches into your brain, takes your memory of how SNES games looked, and places it on the screen in front of you. Modern lighting and reflection effects really help the game pop, too, whether you’re sitting by a campfire at the end of a long hike or engaging in a spot of fishing (yes, there is a fishing minigame). I’ve been playing on my OLED Switch and I have been tempted to lick the screen on more than one occasion. I must stress I have not licked the screen, though. Not yet.

Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios
Sea Of Stars / Credit: Sabotage Studios

As you sail across the world map and discover new areas you’ll stumble across cascading waterfalls of deep blue, clockwork towers built on great shifting cogs, the rotting demon-infested bowels of an ancient mountain, and a late-game area that is not only completely massive but violently veers away from everything you’ve seen up till that point. The sheer, dizzying variety and imagination on display in Sea Of Stars left me breathless on more than one occasion. It’s rare that I’m happy to see a game continue on after I think I’ve reached the end, but truly, I was gutted to reach the credits on this one. I can think of no higher compliment to give a 30-hour RPG.

It’s at this point I have to mention the incredible score from composer Eric W. Brown, who brings the same level of thunder he delivered on The Messenger. There are actually a lot of musical references to Sabotage’s last game in Sea Of Stars, but these aren’t just reused tracks. From the pulse-pounding battle theme to the sedate rhythms that flow across the ocean with you as you sail between islands, Sea Of Stars’ soundtrack is consistently phenomenal, and I suspect it’ll be on heavy rotation for me for the rest of the year.

Sea Of Stars may come across to some as little more than a tribute act to the classics, but I hold no truck with such sniffy dismissiveness. If it is a tribute act, it’s definitely more UK Pink Floyd Experience than your mate’s crappy pub band that plays Arctic Monkeys covers. Sabotage Studios has created an unforgettable, essential RPG that stands on the shoulders of giants and boldly looks ahead to the future. Sea Of Stars is damn-near perfect, and more than deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the titles that inspired it.

Pros: Stunning visuals, brilliant combat, huge world to explore, soundtrack that slaps so hard I got whiplash

Cons: Slight backtracking, not the most original story

For fans of: Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past

9/10: Exceptional

Sea Of Stars is out August 29 on Nintendo Switch (version tested) PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles and PC. A review code was provided by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.

Topics: Indie Games, PlayStation, Xbox, Playstation Plus

Ewan Moore
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