Among my “Murderer’s Row” of RPGs, you’ll find the usual suspects: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, Golden Sun. But often my favorite RPGs are deconstructions of the genre – the games that have twisted convention and made something novel in the process, turning it on its head. Games like Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga and Undertale have shaken up the standards we’ve come to expect of the genre. But RPG’s in the mainstream are rarer nowadays, having made the jump to ‘action games with stats attached’. So when a game is announced resembling these older classics, we expect certain mechanics to be present. Sea of Stars is a conventional turn-based RPG that has taken attentive, thorough notes on the issues with these older games, and has a satisfactory solution for each of them. It’s a shame the writing isn’t up to par with the games it homages.
Let’s start on a positive note though: this game really is a delight to play. It feels like it was made for me – all the gripes I’ve had with RPG’s in the past have been swept away in Sea of Stars. Item hoarding, spamming attack, reticence to use magic, lack of variety in battles…all these issues have been present in even the best RPG’s. The early games in the genre train you to be conservative, ‘cause when the going gets tough, the tough turtle up and cast heal every turn. But playing that way isn’t really fun. I’ll briefly explain how Sea of Stars manages each of these issues in a rather deft way.
To prevent item hoarding, only 10 items can be held at a time. There are no expansions to this. You cook all your items or loot them from treasure chests. If you want to loot a new picnic basket with better food, and your inventory is full, it’d behoove you to make some room. Attacks generate mana in this game, but mana is kept at a low level. (By the end of the game my max mana was around 22, with skills costing around 5-11.) That way you’ll use magic when your MP is full, because attacking would be a waste of your regeneration. Using skills fills up your combo meter, so you can use double-techs à la Chrono Trigger.
You can also charge your attacks to imbue them with more strength and magic. It would be easy at this point to call the system finished, but then it would just be a cycle of attacking instead of active decision making (a trap Chrono Cross fell into). At this point the lock system is introduced: when an enemy is casting a spell, locks will appear over their head. You’ll have X amount of turns to “unlock” them, which is done by dealing the damage type displayed on the locks. If you remove all the locks, the spellcasting is broken and the enemy loses their turn.
At no point do these mechanics feel overwhelming, nor does combat feel bogged down. The introduction of these mechanics is perfectly paced, giving you enough time to grasp one concept before the next is introduced. These examples and more all fly in the face of RPG conservatism, gently compelling you to engage with the mechanics you have. In Sea of Stars, you’re encouraged to use ALL the tools in your toolbox. Don’t turtle up; come out of your shell. Don’t just act; react to the situation as it changes. This is the best part of Sea of Stars, and I unironically encourage other RPG’s out there to take note about these systems. The music is very well done, though a bit heavy on the drums at times when a lesser touch would have had greater effect. Yasunori Mitsuda’s guest tracks are particularly good. The exploration also addresses issues I’ve had with retro RPG’s: there is more to traversing the wild than just running on flat surfaces and climbing the occasional ladder. You can hop up on ledges, swim in lakes, sidle along cliff sides…and yes, even a grappling hook makes an appearance. (No hang glider though!) This additional platforming adds a depth to the world. You’re exploring an environment, not just moving around a screen.
And you’ll want to explore these vistas! The art for the game is gorgeous, combining 3D lighting with meticulous pixel art. There is one minor exception to this though: the portrait art is often goofy. This really handicaps any emotionally heavy dialogue. In an RPG, the 3 ways you generally indicate emotion are animation, dialogue, and art. I attribute this more to the style – in the press art for the game they channel some early Final Fantasy designs. But instead of adapting that to 16-bit with changes for workability, they adhered to the art style too well. Sadly, it does not translate well to pixel art. It’s a disappointing blemish in a game that’s rather enjoyable to look at.
I almost feel bad for bagging on the writing in Sea of Stars, because the game is next to perfect mechanically. But the dialogue writing is not good. Most of it feels like a first draft, which might be the case considering the grammar and spelling errors. What’s worse though is the game doesn’t engage with the material enough. The plot is sufficient, with a really interesting cast of characters to explore, and they just…don’t dig into it. The main characters are inexplicably the most blank, least developed characters of the bunch. The side characters each have intriguing premises, and Garl, the best friend of the main characters, is a particular bright spot.
But these premises don’t mean a thing if the dialogue between all of these characters is lacking. It even fails to engage with the material on a spiritual or ethical level. Having a black and white morality system is perfectly ok, but conflict & complexity is much of what makes a story interesting, and I see none of that here. There’s nothing morally objectionable or portrayed misleadingly in the game – violence is mostly cartoony, evil is clearly labeled, and the content is rather inoffensive. The final level is a bit grotesque – the antagonist of the game is called the Fleshmancer, and his lair is about as meaty as you’d expect. As far as content goes, the game is uncontroversial.
This game does not give you much philosophically or theologically to chew on. There are higher beings, but no highest being. God is only referenced when wishing someone good luck. Despite these well-wishings, there’s no indication that there is a caring God watching over you, which makes these blessings rather hollow. It’s hard not to compare to Chrono Trigger here; the theology there is still rather scant, but late in that game there is a critical campfire scene. Suddenly everyone is debating providence and determinism, and the roles they’ve played so far. They settle on the idea there is someone who wanted you to see all these places in time, and to bring healing where you can. They leave that person unnamed – some speculate it’s the planet, but God is just as feasible an answer.
Sea of Stars has none of this soul-searching. You are Solstice Warriors; gifted with solar and lunar magic, you have trained since childhood to do this. No bitterness or anxiety causes these characters doubt: they are unswerving, but not in a way that feels admirable. I’m not saying doubt is necessary in a story, but some sort of ideological conflict or tension between party members would go a long way for developing these characters and the in-world theology. It has nothing more complicated to say than “be nice, and give everyone a chance.” Not a bad moral, but rather obvious, and not well expounded on in the game itself. Overall, this game has me divided. It’s certainly not an average game – whether it succeeds or fails, it does so spectacularly. After playing I’m mostly just left with frustration; if the writing were great, it’s possible it could have dethroned Chrono Trigger for me. But for now, the king remains on his throne.
Art – 4.5/5
Music – 4.5/5
Story & Writing – 1.5/5
Gameplay – 5/5
Design – 5/5
Sea of Stars is a turn-based RPG with cartoon violence. There is no depiction of blood in combat, though the final dungeon is relatively gory. There is some disturbing imagery, especially when the main antagonist is involved. He’s a fleshmancer, which is what it sounds like: he manipulates flesh to make grotesque abominations. There is no sexual content. Language is mostly inoffensive; “damn” and “hell” are used infrequently. There’s also one enemy called “Boulder Douche”. There are fortune tellers, witches, and other magic users. For once in a turn-based RPG, your goal isn’t to kill God. There is reference to the possibility of becoming a “guardian god”, but what this means aside from being more powerful is unclear. Ideologically there’s nothing I found glaringly problematic.