Sea of Stars review — A solstice celebration

Solstice Warriors have battled the Fleshmancer’s minions for generations, using the power of an eclipse to defeat Dwellers before they become World Eaters. Having just finished their training, Valare and Zale set off to defeat the final Dweller by the next eclipse. Joined by their best friend and Warrior Cook Garl, they’ll find themselves on a globe-trotting adventure filled with mysterious friends and foes to discover the truth behind their world.

Sea of Stars is a throwback to classic SNES RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Illusion of Gaia. While it does wear those inspirations on its sleeves, it doesn’t feel derivative and becomes something uniquely its own. It’s absolutely captivating from start to finish, and while it does come up short in some areas Sea of Stars is a worthy successor to the classics.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, because there’s just so much good here. I can appreciate the story not taking itself too seriously, making for a much more lighthearted adventure, but it does cause the plot to feel forgettable. There are some very interesting concepts and ideas here, particularly with the Fleshmancer and the Immortal Alchemist, but they’re not fleshed out enough to be satisfying. The writing can also leave much to be desired, with awkward language and phrasing popping up pretty consistently. There are some emotional moments, but they can feel undercut by this.

Likewise, while I love the characters (especially Garl), they fall flat in the literary sense – the characters are the same from start to finish with no real arcs. The Valare and Zale you start the game with are the exact same people you end the game with, making choices you would expect them to and never really challenging their beliefs or making difficult decisions. The game does have a second ending, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do everything necessary to access it (I’m just missing the Rainbow Conches). It’s possible this extra content will give me some insight or revelations about the story and characters, but I feel that doesn’t excuse the 99% of the game that doesn’t.

What really kept me playing were the world and battles. I’ve complained about how bland dungeons in RPGs like Soul Hackers 2 or early Final Fantasy titles are, and Sea of Stars completely solves that problem. Dungeons feel more like Zelda than typical RPGs, with puzzles and new items to find on your way to the boss. In particular, I loved using the Graplou to hook onto parts of the environment and cross gaps, though I am a sucker for a good grappling hook in games.

Traversal overall in Sea of Stars is just so engaging. The simple act of pressing ‘A’ to jump over a small gap, climb up a ledge, or sidle along a cliff keeps me looking for paths and secrets everywhere, something these actions being automatic wouldn’t do. There are some cute quirks to this too, like being able to jump over the end of a tight rope once you’re close enough to the other side.

The same idea applies to combat as well, with timed hits for just about every action you can take – though they serve more as small bonuses rather than requirements to master fights. Battles are turn-based, with three characters from your party taking part at once. On your turn, you can choose which character will act first, with a timer next to enemies displaying how many actions you have until they attack. Once a character has taken an action, the rest of the active party needs to go before they’re all refreshed in the next round. Once you have more than three party members, you can also swap anyone out on their turn for free, adding yet another layer of strategy.

Figuring out who to use and when is already fun, but it becomes much more interesting when you add the Lock system on top. When preparing for an attack, sometimes an enemy will have elemental or weapon symbols next to their timer. Hitting them with a move of those properties will break those Locks, and breaking all the Locks will cancel the attack and delay their next turn. Early on in the game, simply landing the timed hits of your normal attacks will do the job, but by the end of the game you’ll need to strategically swap your party around and use Combo attacks (accrued by fighting well) and Ultimates (gained by using Combo attacks) to stop some of the more devastating moves bosses can use. There’s a particular superboss that can reduce the active party’s HP to 1, so you’ll want to stop that at every turn.

You won’t always be in a position to break all of an enemy’s locks, but just breaking a few of them will reduce the effectiveness of their move. Normal attacks restore MP regardless, so you will want to bust out your skills regularly. These moves usually come with special timed hits of their own, such as holding ‘A’ for Zale’s Fireball and releasing the button when it’s biggest and brightest, or reflecting Valare’s Moonerang to repeatedly hit enemies until you miss the button prompt. Even some healing spells use timed hits to increase their effectiveness, so while there’s a small pool of skills they’re consistently fun to use and master.

The final thing you need to consider for battles is your equipment. Keeping up to date with weapons and armor for sheer stats is important, but equally so are your accessories. Some of these can simply boost stats, but others can have attacks that restore HP, even more MP, or allow grappling into an enemy to start a battle and generate more free magic you can use to boost your attacks. Likewise, toggleable Artifacts can greatly change your experience with everything from becoming invincible or automatically hitting timed hits to more clearly showing the timing and even greatly increasing the difficulty. You do have to find and/purchase these, but they carry over into New Game Plus, allowing you to fully customize your experience the second time around.

While you will spend about 30 hours watching the same animations over and over, it never really gets old because of how good the pixel art is. I am constantly impressed by how good the art and animations look not just for the main characters but for all the enemies and some NPCs as well. Teaks is your resident historian, offering stories on artifacts you find, and she doesn’t get a ton of screen time but she’s always fun to watch. The lighting is also incredible, with dynamic shadows that make each area feel alive. I’ve been obsessed with this aesthetic since implementing it in my own game (shameless plug), and it’s immaculate here.

No doubt you’ve heard that Yasunori Mitsuda (Xeno series, Chrono Trigger/Cross, MegaMan Legends 2) is a guest composer here. In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you which tracks are his aside from Coral Cascades, but that’s because most of the music is excellent. It’s very whimsical in tone, with a bouncy battle theme, but still has room for more serious or epic tracks like The Archivist’s room or the boss theme. In particular, I adore the “bardcore” covers of songs you can listen to in bars performed by your pirate allies. There’s a ton of music here, and it doesn’t all hit, but remains something I will occasionally seek out and listen to outside of the game.

David is the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve. He can find positives in anything, like this is a person who loved Star Fox Zero to death. You’ll see him playing all kinds of games: AAAs, Indies, game jam games, games of all genres, and writing about them! Here. On this website. When not writing or playing games, you can find David making music, games, or enjoying a good book.
David’s favorite games include NieR: Automata, Mother 3, and Gravity Rush.

Sea of Stars review — A solstice celebration


Sea of Stars

Review Guidelines

Sea of Stars shows modern RPGs how it's done in this incredible throwback to SNES classics. It’s an absolute joy to play from start to finish, though the story, writing, and flat characters leave some potential untapped. Even so, this is a gorgeous adventure that you won’t want to miss.

David Flynn

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