When it comes to the well-deserved indie hits of recent years, it’s hard to overlook The messenger. A blissful retro platformer with tight controls and that subgenre shift gained a legion of fans and had a wave of positive reviews upon release. Now developer Sabotage Studio is returning to the world of The messenger with Sea of starsbut it’s very much a different beast entirely.
Sea of stars takes place thousands of years before the events of The messenger, but that’s not the only change between the two games. Instead of an action platformer, Sea of stars is instead a turn-based RPG that takes reference points from the likes of Chrono Trigger. Such a genre shift was a big gamble, though Sea of stars cements the knowledge that Sabotage Studio can not only switch genres expertly, but can also use those genres thematically in storytelling.
A story for all time
Sea of stars is the story of Valere and Zale, two young Solstice Warriors tasked with saving the world from powerful creatures known as the Dwellers. Together with best friend Garl, they travel far and wide, meeting new allies along the way and growing their powers. Finally, they will come face to face with the greatest villain of them all, The Fleshmancer, and try to bring peace to the land.
From a narrative perspective, Sea of stars takes a stance in line with many of the archetypes of the turn-based RPG, taking cues from such genre promoters as the NES and SNES Final Fantasy game, which recently received some excellent remasters on Nintendo Switch. However, that’s not to say Sabotage Studio doesn’t know exactly what it’s doing, making small changes here and there to keep things fresh while giving a loving nod and wink to the audience.
Where Sea of stars really shines is with its characters, especially the utterly charming and pure-hearted Garl, the warrior chef who serves as the moral core of the group. By providing both literal and emotional nourishment, he helps Sea of stars maintain that sense of cartoonish Saturday morning positivity that is often a part of even the most gruesome adventure in the turn-based RPG world. Overall, the game has an atmosphere and story that longtime RPG fans will surely appreciate, and it’s one that doesn’t require the player to have beaten The messenger to understand, with instead less references for fans of the title to enjoy instead.
Turn based goodies
As enjoyable as the story Sea of stars is, where it really comes into its own as a must with its gameplay. Fixed at surface level Sea of stars looks to be a well thought out turn-based fighter, Sabotage Studio has made a number of tweaks to the generic design to really make it a joy to play. Much of this is due to the game’s lock system, which makes the game something completely different from many of its peers.
The lock system shows the number of turns until an enemy attacks, but more importantly also what actions the player can take to stop an enemy’s special attack from happening. The player will be able to see what type of attacks – such as sun, moon, blunt, or sharp – need to happen before the enemy’s special attack takes place, and knocking these out will cancel the attack altogether. This is absolutely necessary to keep an eye on in boss fights, and adds a strategic angle to proceedings beyond the war of attrition that can often become a staple of boss fights in turn-based RPGs.
However, it’s not just the player’s brain that needs to be engaged in battle. Sea of stars brings the player directly into combat as well, as interacting at the right moment when the player attacks can result in bonus damage or additional effects, or take less damage from an enemy swing. Again, it’s Sabotage Studio recognizing a flaw in the tropes of the genre and adding something to make it more interesting.
A refined genre
What this means is that Sea of stars is a turn-based RPG that has been truly refined for player enjoyment and engagement. Everything from its aforementioned combat to traversing the game’s locations makes the player actually play the game, rather than drifting along on autopilot. The player must use a grappling hook, change the time of day, and complete jumping puzzles to get through the world, rather than just walking until the next battle begins.
Perhaps the best example of Sea of stars concentrating the genre into its most enjoyable form is its approach to level progression and grinding. During this reviewer’s time with the game, grinding was never required, with the pace against the player’s level perfectly matched. If players find that things are out of sync, there are also relics to choose from from the options menu that can level the playing field, and it’s worth noting that some of these relics also provide some flexibility when it comes to making Sea of stars more accessible, such as removing QTEs from combat encounters.
It’s an approach that even gets down to the little things. It’s extremely refreshing that the player can equip (and even sell new unequipped items) from a shop menu, rather than having to go into their inventory and back to the shop menu again, a mechanic that was present in the sadly abandoned RPG franchise golden sun but underutilized by other titles. Even at a 30-hour driving time, Sea of stars respects the player’s time in a way that many AAA games simply don’t.
Our rating and final thoughts
Sea of stars is more than just an excellent turn-based RPG that celebrates the greats. The gameplay choices made make the game a must for fans of the genre, while the story is suitably charming for RPG lovers. This is much more than just another prequel The messengerand is a huge achievement in its own right.
Source: Sabotage Studio / YouTube
Sea of stars released August 29, 2023 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch. Screen Rant was provided with a Switch download code for this review.
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