Sea of Stars review - A wholesome retro RPG adventure

Key art of Sea of Stars, showing main characters Zale and Valere.

Key art of Sea of Stars, showing main characters Zale and Valere.

Sea of Stars isn’t the sort of game I’d usually play. It’s a colourful, pixel-art RPG, heavily inspired by 90s classics such as Breath of Fire and Chrono Trigger - games that I’ve never touched, being born just a few years late to appreciate them. I didn’t really know what I was in for when I booted up Sea of Stars for the first time. To be honest, I was expecting something rather generic. A run-of-the-mill, no-frills fantasy adventure.

After a slightly slow first act, Sea of Stars proved to be anything but run-of-the-mill. In the 30-odd hours I’ve spent playing, I’ve saved a village of adorable mole people from an adorable mole wizard, helped out a pirate crew who also moonlight as a musical troupe, and baked the largest loaf of bread I’ve ever seen.

With Sea of Stars, developer Sabotage Studio has created a wholesome, if sometimes repetitive, RPG that is the polar opposite of the grimdark and overly serious tone of modern AAA games. The Witcher this is not.

Gameplay of Sea of Stars, showing Zale, Valere, and Garl climbing up a mountainside.
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A funny fantasy

In Sea of Stars, you play as Zale and Valere, two Solstice Warriors who can use and harness the power of the sun and the moon. Together they can perform Eclipse Magic, the only force capable of defeating the evil alchemist known as The Fleshmancer. Early on in their adventure, they’re joined by their best friend Garl, a self-titled warrior cook. Garl is the Samwise Gamgee of this story, and he quickly becomes the heart at the centre of the narrative. More characters are introduced as you play, such as Seraï, an assassin who makes use of portals and daggers. There are six playable characters in all, but for the sake of spoilers, we won’t be going into detail.

Talking of spoilers, it’s hard to comment on the narrative and plot because there are some genuine surprises that caught me off-guard. Again, I won’t be going into detail as you’ll want to experience these moments for yourself, but I’ll say this: the third act goes to some unexpected and rather crazy places that elevate Sea of Stars beyond the realm of conventional fantasy narratives.

The writing is pretty great across the board. The dialogue is frequently hilarious and a lot of the characters you come across are wacky and memorable, the aforementioned mole wizard being a prime example. And it’s just… nice? It might sound like a weird thing to pick up on, but for someone who spends most of his time playing Dark Souls, it’s strange to play a game this wholesome. The friendship between Zale, Valere, and Garl is genuinely touching and there’s rarely any conflict between them. This isn’t to say there aren’t any heavy or emotional moments, but the game never strays far from its upbeat and charming attitude.

Sea of Stars Gameplay, showing a combat.
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Break the locks

Initially, the combat mechanics in Sea of Stars might seem like your typical turn-based experience. However, there are a couple of interesting mechanics that add some more depth.

Firstly, the game gives you the ability to time button presses with attacks and blocks, which increases damage dealt and damage reduced. These timed hits reward players who pay attention to enemies’ attack animations, though honestly I struggled to consistently block attacks as the animations sometimes seemed delayed. Secondly, some characters have skills with interactive elements. Take Valere’s Moonerang skill, where she throws a lunar projectile at her enemy and can then deflect it back repeatedly at other enemies by pressing the correct key/button.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the “lock” system. Enemies will charge up special attacks, signalled by a row of icons, or locks, above their head. Each lock has a corresponding damage type, be it blunt, sharp, lunar, poison, etc. When an enemy is hit by a damage type that pairs with one of their locks, the lock will break, lowering the effect of their attack, or if all locks are broken, cancelling it completely.

The lock system is where most of the depth lies within Sea of Stars' combat mechanics. Characters can only dish out certain damage types; for example, Valere can only inflict blunt and lunar damage. Therefore, figuring out the best combinations for destroying an enemy’s locks takes a bit of strategy and patience.

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On top of all this, you have combo and ultimate attacks. The former are moves that combine two characters’ skills and damage types, inflicting massive damage on enemies and helping break their locks even quicker. The latter, as the name would suggest, are some of the most powerful attacks in the game and come with a fully animated cutscene every time you activate them. These are super cool to watch and do a great job of getting across the power of these attacks. Serai’s ultimate, in particular, was a highlight for me. This has her creating a portal to an ocean, where a pirate ship unleashes a full broadside bombardment, dealing an insane amount of damage against all enemies.

While all this sounds like a lot to get to grips with, the mechanics are explained gradually across the first five hours or so, meaning that it never feels like you’re thrown in at the deep end.

It’s a shame then, that I never felt like Sea of Stars’s combat offered me a proper challenge. I only died half a dozen times, and rarely to the same enemy twice. I didn’t go into it expecting a super difficult game or anything, but I was surprised just how easy I found the combat - and this coming from someone who doesn’t play turn-based RPGs that often. By the halfway point I felt like I had a solid grasp of the game’s mechanics, and despite a wide variety of enemy types, the combat started to feel a bit stale and repetitive. As I entered the third act, combat felt more like a chore than anything else, as I spammed the same attacks again and again.

This issue isn't helped by a cooking system that makes healing your characters rather trivial. You can use ingredients that you've scavenged or purchased to make dishes at campfires. These can have different effects on your characters, but mostly they heal or replenish magic points. There's an abundance of ingredients to be found while exploring, so I never had any difficulty cooking up stews or sandwiches. By the end of the game, I had enough ingredients in my inventory that I never had to worry about running out.

Pixel perfect

Although the combat may become somewhat monotonous in the second half, the consistently stunning artwork of Sea of Stars more than makes up for it. The pixel art is some of the best I’ve ever seen, with vibrant and intricately designed environments. Every inch of brightly coloured wilderness feels alive. This is helped by a super impressive dynamic lighting system, with day and night cycles occurring seamlessly. I was constantly hitting the screenshot key as I traversed the game's many locations, as I kept thinking that this would make a great desktop wallpaper.

Along with its beautiful art style, it would be a crime not to mention the absolutely fantastic soundtrack composed by Eric W. Brown and Yasunori Mitsuda, known for Chrono Trigger. The music of Sea of Stars was the highlight of my time spent playing, with each area having its own carefully crafted music tracks that match the atmosphere and visuals of the environment.

Sea of Stars gameplay, showing the main party in an Inn
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Summing up

Sea of Stars takes players on an unexpectedly wholesome journey through a colourful pixel-art RPG world. Despite a slow start, the game quickly reveals its charm and uniqueness and provides a refreshing departure from the darker tones of many contemporary games. While the combat may lack substantial challenge, the exquisite pixel art and dynamic lighting system more than make up for it. Paired with a remarkable soundtrack, the game's artistic elements make Sea of Stars worth your time.

Sea of Stars review
Despite some repetitive combat mechanics that can start to feel stale during its final act, Sea of Stars manages to be an extremely wholesome and gorgeous retro RPG that is bound to keep you smiling all throughout its 30-hour campaign.
8 out of 10

Reviewed on PC. A code provided by the publisher.

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