Sea of Stars review: pure RPG comfort food once you push past its slow start

Sea of Stars is basically a modern-day SNES RPG. I had a sense that would be the case going in: it has pixel art clearly inspired by 16-bit classics, pits a ragtag group of adventurers against evil forces, uses a clever turn-based battle system, and is filled with stunning music (including a few tracks from Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda). But I was glad my hunch was right. I devoured Sea of Stars in a little over a week, and each time I booted it up, I felt like I was playing the type of old-school RPG I would have spent afternoons with as a kid.

A lot of that nostalgia came from Sea of Stars’ gorgeous pixel art, which looks similar to games like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger but with an incredible amount of modern-day detail. Leaves sway slightly as if moved by a real breeze. Water ripples as people run through it. When main characters talk, their text boxes have expressive faces that make each of them feel memorable. Hyper-detailed bosses can take up half the screen with their extra appendages or giant heads. Every time I got to a new area, I couldn’t wait to see what visual delights were ahead.

Seriously, the pixel art is so good.
Image: Sabotage Studio

Exploring those locations is a blast. The game’s areas and dungeons are intricately designed, with crisscrossing pathways, ladders, cliffs, and platforms that are stuffed with secrets, puzzles, and treasure chests. (There are also a bunch of block-pushing puzzles, but thankfully, I didn’t find them to be too grating.) There are no random encounters, meaning you’ll see your potential opponents as you’re walking around. While you can avoid some fights, you can’t dodge every battle; sometimes, enemies attacked just because I wandered into a new spot, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I never minded that very much, as fights were always fun thanks to the excellent battle system, which feels like a nice mix of Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG. Every turn, you can choose to use an attack, a skill (often magic or healing of some kind), a “combo” move (like a tech in Chrono Trigger), or an item. If you time your button presses correctly while using an attack, you’ll do a bit more damage, which is particularly enjoyable with a few attacks that can extend into multi-hit extravaganzas. (You’ll pull off better heals with timed button presses, too.) Since the game will tell you when enemies are about to strike with a countdown clock, you can be strategic about which baddies you attack when — and if you can reduce any damage with a well-timed button press, too.

Sea of Stars’ best fight mechanic is the game’s lock system. Occasionally, when an enemy winds up for a big move, boxes with icons for different types of attacks will appear next to their turn clock. If you hit that enemy with all of the right attacks before that clock gets to zero, you’ll stop them from that potentially powerful move. If you only get some of those boxes, you’ll at least make the attack weaker. It’s a clever system that regularly got me to pause and think about the order of my attacks instead of just mashing through every fight as quickly as possible.

Look out for the locks.
Image: Sabotage Studio

Backing everything is Sea of Stars’ outstanding soundtrack. I’ve had the main battle theme stuck in my head ever since I started playing. I looked forward to boss fights so I could hear the awesome music. Quieter tracks are lovely, too

But I almost didn’t experience all of that because of Sea of Stars’ story, which starts very slowly. You play as two chosen heroes training up their magic powers to try and combat a foreboding evil, and for the first half of the game, you’ll run through some generic story beats as you quest forward. Conversations often go on for far too long, meaning you’ll spend a lot of time mashing through text. I saw a bunch of grammatical errors that frequently took me out of the story. (A September 1st patch indicated that there have been some fixes on that front, but the patch notes had some grammar errors of their own: “reimported English texts to included latest corrections.”)

The story was so uninspiring for hours that I nearly gave up on Sea of Stars. But when I gave it one more shot to see if things would pick up, they actually did. The plot did go in some interesting directions in my 22-hour playthrough, but it’s a shame it took a long time to do so. And while Sea of Stars is a prequel to Sabotage’s The Messenger, you don’t need any knowledge from that game to understand it, though there are some fun connections between the two titles for people who have played both.

If Sea of Stars sounds remotely interesting to you, I can understand how you might be hesitant to fit it in between other RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield. It is the Year of the Big Game, after all. But unlike those sprawling epics, Sea of Stars offers a more focused experience that’s easy to settle into thanks to its nostalgic RPG trappings. It’s not a classic like Chrono Trigger, but it’s close enough.

Sea of Stars is available now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and on PC via Steam.

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