Developed By: Sabotage Studio
Published By: Sabotage Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and PC
Reviewed On: PS5
Are turn-based RPGs combat dead or as fun with the times? I’ve always wondered if we ever see a classic pixelated JRPG that stands up on its own without borrowing/relying on the fame of other major franchises such as Final Fantasy, Grandia, or Star Ocean as a sequel, remake, or reboot. And there we have a few indie titles such as Sea Of Stars, bringing along its own narrative, charming pieces of music, and some characters as well as engaging gameplay in both combat and exploration. It feels like playing and rediscovering a new classic such as Grandia, Legend Of Legaia, or Lunar Silver Star Story for the very first time.
Cheers to a good year as this game is considered one of those RPG games that really redefine engaging combat but also warms up the audience with its storytelling and music.
Graphics And Level Design | Refined With Expressions
Ay players who first see the word “pixelated,” might conjure up an old spriteful image of old-school simplicity, with limited characters and expressions alongside limited level designs in details. Yet, Sea Of Stars defies that form expectation with a bit more delivery to the said expectation – brimming with more diverse casts, expressions, and well-crafted level designs with expressive lighting to define the mood of the place; pretty neat stuff. As mentioned, primarily, the level designs are equally impressive, employing brilliant/dimming lighting to infuse each locale to portray distinctive characters in place. Besides character designs, there are multiple enemy designs and bosses to boot in this game however I wish there was a bit more expressions to the enemies as well to bring more personality besides being rather one-dimensional, embodying the standard cold and stern villain archetype.
Back to level design, to me, the levels are delightfully made with intricate pixel art bringing foliage, rocks, and background details to life. The presence of controlled, soft lighting on the fray, bathes these landscapes in a fairytale-like ambiance,with some lighting being dim at the right places with the characters themselves having their own lighting aura around them to be the main focal points of the game.
Overall it makes it feel like I am exploring through a set of pages of a storybook.
Level designs on the other hand are really detailed and spriteful pixels of foliage or plants, rocks, and details of the background are being carefully brought out by soft lighting as if peering through a fairytale book. The lighting aspect is dim at the right places with the characters having their own illuminated lighting aura around them to be the main focal points of the screen. Moreover, the levels are leveled or layered with nooks and crannies to discover, especially early in the game when loot boxes tantalizingly appear at road ends, tempting you to explore further or backtrack to find the hidden passages. However, as the game progresses further near the end of the game, these opportunities tend to dwindle and explorations tend to be a linear affair.
Occasionally, though, the level design of ledges and higher platforms could benefit from more depth in design – making it easier to discern between platforms at different heights and pushable blocks.
Writing | Needs To Let Loose Once In A While
In Sea of Stars, the world is set as a fully crafted realized world with its own variety set of unique classes, characters, towns, worlds with their own unique classes, and even some intriguing villains like the enigmatic Fleshmancer. Seemingly fitting into this vibrant designed world. That being said, despite the bright enchanting worlds and towns, the overarching narrative often focusly leans toward a gloomy tone sipped into the storytelling and world-building. The term sipped in the sense that the story is told at a slow pace throughout, fully in texts. Focusing more on just one aspect of the story without any form of diversity more/sidequest/something on the side, to portray the other side of glimpse of hopefulness or even lighter aspects in the storytelling of the world. The only thing that shines throughout the story is mainly on one of the side characters named Garl aka the Cooking Warrior as he is the real warm reason why the story matters and shines throughout. Garl is the only one who portrays a sense of openness, positivity, and care throughout the journey that makes everyone else care about him, including myself to the point that he is the endgame of it. Hence all other characters, main characters, NPC, and villains included; take the backseat of focusing more on a linear portrayal of storytelling focusing more on the missions at hand, unlike Garl. I wish there were more reasons I would care more about the other characters as much as Garl. This in return may create a deeper emotional connection with these other characters, including villains, and motivate players like myself to care about them in their unique struggles and motivations.
As mentioned, the villains seem to be pretty mindlessly leaning on playing with people’s lives and causing harm because they can or they want to, which can feel somewhat superficial. It would be more compelling if these antagonists had more well-defined goals and motivations, to fill that gap on what is wrong with the world in the first place, aka the dark side of the current world order. At times, some villains just suddenly vanish or transform into something else without a more satisfying follow-up on their side of the story, which can make them less memorable and impactful on the story, making them less relevant and substantial.
While the narrative of the whole premise is linear based, the exploration aspect to every corner of the world is pretty interesting as you explore not just the caverns or the underwater levels of the game, it pushes you narratively to another world, opening up like how the first Grandia started when they passed through the big walls.
Music | I Hear The Stars Shine
This is the most amazing experience in the game, the music always tends to focus on the upbeat retro electronic vibes of instrumental ringtones ringing in my ears yet focuses mostly on hitting me with shimmering stars segments and its sound effects before or after entering a place. A lot of star-like sounds hit the tunes of the music before shimmering with electric tunes that tinge your ears with the expectation of another tinge of star tickle and continue on and on with multiple retunes renditions of different places. The beautiful thing is, not only it mix well with the places such as the dark caverns, towns, or even the cybernetic places, but the music at times turns itself darker or more undertone based on how deep you go to the levels and this reflects into the combat of the game as well. Pretty remarkably crafted with care, to be honest.
This is what stands out the most in the game, consistently delivering an electric retro upbeat when in combat and sending a soft chill instrumental retro-like ringtones when exploring that truly captivates my ears with its shimmering stars segment pieces- making me see stars in the process. The music at times frequently rehashes/evolves itself per different locations and segments as a cascade of starry tunes electric tunes that tinge your ears with the expectation of another tinge of star tickle and continues on – building anticipation before or after transitioning to new locations. To sum it up, it’s almost as if starry sound effects infuse the tunes with an electric sparkle, creating a sense of wonder akin to being tickled by stars.
As mentioned earlier, the music seamlessly evolves but remains somewhat consistent, offering diverse renditions that match the distinct atmospheres of locations, whether it’s the dark caverns, bustling towns, or futuristic cybernetic realms. Even more impressive is the level of music adapts to the level of tone in the depths of the current game levels, as well as the game’s combat music although upbeat, still retains the heat of the tune in combat and yet still mirrors the shifts in the game’s level music dynamics overall. Bringing that consistent sense of level of attention to crafting the soundtrack throughout is truly commendable.
Combat And Gameplay | Pretty Engaging Stuff
One thing I hate about turn-based RPGs, in general, is the traditional combat at times, upon making a choice via a simple tapping of the button. I will wait in anticipation that the characters will deliver a fatal critical blow in return for adding more luck stats or dodging enemies’ attacks with agility stats. But Sea Of Stars eliminates that waiting and see gaps by following the turn-based troupes of selecting an attack or skills, but players are still able to press x again upon attack animation to do a follow-up attack or more damage attacks depending on the skills while enemies including bosses attacking have their own animation to follow through by pressing x to block at the point of hit and lowering down the damage received. Each enemy attack animation varies and there are a plethora of enemy types and their attack skill patterns to follow through, which is a plus to keep a watchful eye on. Adding on your character’s skills and attacks can act as utilities to delay/stop enemies as enemies have symbols popping up on their heads like a slot machine upon charging up a skill to be used.
Outside combat, the explorations aspect is mostly filled with puzzle elements which are mostly simple to follow through and also have a grapple hook as not only a means to go over a seemingly large gap by hooking onto tree stumps or hooks but also catch enemies by surprise too. On a side note, I didn’t try most of the side activities because its something that have to be manually engaged to get used to the mechanics rather than be part of the game or story, which is a shame, and the fishing game is as fun and as fast as my favorite JRPG Breath Of Fire. But other than getting cooking materials, there were no other incentives to keep playing the fishing game without leader scoreboards, competition, sidequests, or prizes to keep me on the hook so to speak. Adding on, cooking should also be the main core of gameplay as the story does get entangled on how important Garl, the cooking warrior is by adding more stats and a cooking competition to boost more treasures to incentivize players to keep it wholesome.
One thing I hate about turn-based RPGs, in general, is the traditional combat at times, upon making a choice via a simple tapping of the button. On the other hand, Sea Of Stars reimagines turn-based RPG combat in a refreshing way. While players traditionally select an attack and wait to see the outcome, the game empowers players to actively engage during combat by pressing ‘X’ during the attack animation to execute a follow-up at the right time or unleash more potent strikes based on the skills available. Additionally, enemies including the formidable bosses, launch their own attack patterns and animations that can be blocked to lower their damage by pressing the ‘X’ button at the right moment to block. This dynamic approach keeps me alert on both attacking and defending the front while combating various enemies with their own distinct attack patterns including their skills. Enemies skills, as well as magical attacks from bosses, are charged up before unleashed, with a slot machine-like symbol on their head corresponding to the type of attacks your characters can deal with. Dealing the right type of attacks before the enemies charge up their skills can in return cancel those charged up skills during that turn entirely which adds a more tactical advantage during combat.
Outside combat, the exploration aspects of Sea Of Stars incorporate mostly the simple yet engaging puzzle elements engaging in the environment. A later acquired skill such as a grappling hook introduces not only a solution to navigating large gaps by latching onto tree stumps and hooks but also as a strategic tool to catch enemies off guard, surprising them in combat while also crossing across large gaps. However, in towns, the side activities such as the Wheels minigame in bars were not something taught along the way but something offered on the side that is not part of the story and gameplay. This requires manual initiation to play and doesn’t feel fully integrated. Fishing minigames on the other hand were purely enjoyable and reminiscent of classics like Breath Of Fire but were shortlived because they lacked the leaderboards, competitions, side quests, NPC, or rewards to keep players hooked. The fishing games are mostly leaning towards rewarding players with cooking materials in the camp as added means to use during combat to survive better but since Garl is in a way important to the storytelling, there should be more culinary experiences such as cooking for depressed NPC’s or cooking competitions to know more about the townfolks and their hopeful struggles more. This would not only add to the other parts of the storyline and worldbuilding but also provide additional reasons to explore its culinary experiences.
What I Liked About Sea Of Stars
- Gameplay – Engaging combat and exploration
- Level Designs – Colorful and beautiful lighting
- Enemies and character designs- There are many and varied, like out of a sketchbook
- Music and Sounds – Sounds like retro-like shimmering stars
What I Wished Was Better
- Level Design – At times, the designs lack depths between different layered levels, making it hard to visually see the climbable ledges and platforms you can drop to.
- Exploration – At later stages, exploration felt linear in general rather than having secret loot in every nook and cranny.
- Writing – With many characters and villains available, the story is written as such which tends to make me care more about just one character (Garl) in general compared to others including the main characters.
- Sidequests and Fishing – Feel somewhat lackluster, either don’t feature prominently in towns, lack engaging competitions, or miss the chance to contribute more to the world-building aspect.
Verdict | A Good Start
Overall, Sea Of Stars mostly delivered what it was supposed to with an enjoyable experience with its combat, exploration, and captivating music. However, there is room for improvement in terms of other aspects, especially if there is consideration of a sequel or a new IP. Also, it’s an essential formula for other developers to take inspiration from games like this, as they have the potential to enhance the JRPG genre creatively and elevate the overall experience further. As a result, back to my answer to my top question, RPGs with turn-based combat are far from obsolete, and Sea Of Stars proves that they can be as engaging and intriguing if they are creatively explored more. Kudos to the developers, and if I were to rate Sea Of Stars, it would receive a…