Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Drawing on the visual language of everyone’s favourite titles of yesteryear is one of the most surefire ways to capture an audience. Like food from your childhood, retro-inspired games just seem to offer a comforting sense of familiarity for many people. By the same token though, you can become blinded by nostalgia. Sometimes, you take a moment to properly examine the Lunchables you were so excited about as a child and you realise its sad, wet ham is pretty gross.
However, Sea of Stars is like Lunchables made with Wagyu. It manages to go so far beyond an empty pastiche of the titles that inspired it. Not only does it feel driven by a sincere attempt to recreate the joy of ‘90s 16-bit JPRGs, it also refines the form beautifully.
The game follows the chosen-one(s) story of Valere and Zale as they’re granted celestial magic at birth. These two Children of the Solstice spend years honing their unique abilities in order to tackle the world-eating monster creations of an immortal alchemist known as the Fleshmancer. Their final goal is to cleanse their realm of the Fleshmancer’s evil presence entirely.
At its core, it’s a recognisable ‘save-the-world’ tale. However, it’s only played with straightforward fantasy-epic gravitas in some parts. Sea of Stars isn’t afraid to explore goofy and self-referential humor. It doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to reflect on the crushing emotional weight of playing the hero, and it certainly won’t deny its players a wild plot twist or two.
Combat is classic turn-based with a couple of refreshing little quirks. Borrowing a mechanic from Super Mario RPG, you can carefully time hits and blocks to boost their effectiveness. Enemies’ special attacks can be weakened or altered by using a variety of attack types to destroy their ‘Locks’. Meanwhile, the Live Mana mechanic allows basic melee attacks to multiply special attack damage. All of these features incentivise and celebrate employing the full range of your party’s abilities.
There’s very little need for grinding or backtracking just to farm XP, as levelling moves in-step with your characters’ journey. There’s a definite level of difficulty to combat but thoughtful resource management and battle strategy make it reasonable. Enemies deal hefty amounts of damage from the beginning and only get more difficult to contend with as the game progresses. Parties of monsters have a great synergy in their attacks and continually working to deal punishing debuffs to you and your allies. One enemy type’s attack sees them entirely slurp up one of your party members, putting them entirely out of commission until you can free them from the monster’s guts. This threat can only be managed through careful blocks. So, even in between turns, you have to remain thoroughly on the ball. This makes for a far more engaged combat experience — there’s certainly no auto-battling here.
Beyond that, Relics offer a super customisable alternative to a strict difficulty system. From the outset, you’ll have access to a Relic of Storytelling giving you +100% HP and auto-heal after each enemy encounter. Other relics which are purchasable from merchants provide more fine-point tweaks like doubling the damage dealt by timed attacks. There’s plenty of room to experiment with Relics’ buff effects in order to find your personal difficulty sweet spot.
It’s not all action, though. There’s plenty of exploration to do in Sea of Stars. From new villages to new islands and beyond, each area is intricate and well-designed. Making your way around each of them feels natural and intuitive, as you’re afforded a wide range of traversal methods. Each dungeon puzzle is satisfying and operates on its own solid internal logic. Finding paths to hidden areas is an intriguing challenge that can be effectively overcome through sweet puzzle mechanics like manipulating sunlight through magic crystals, altering water levels, and destroying parts of the terrain.
If you ever do get stumped on a puzzle, Sea of Stars looks lovely enough to ease your frustration while you figure it out. Key cutscenes are represented in a delicately cel-shaded anime-tinged style which is gorgeous in its own right but the pixel art in this game is the main event. Every single piece of sprite art is incredibly endearing and filled with personality. Somehow, even the biggest and baddest of enemies look cute. The environments characters inhabit are stunning, vibrant, and exceptionally reactive. Minute details like fish that can be startled hint at how lovingly rendered this game world is.
Maybe what makes all of Sea of Stars’ art direction so effective is the way everything responds to its dynamic lighting system. The stunning way in which the 2D pixel art world is transformed by responsive shadow formation and bouncing luminescence proves that these rendering techniques are not just for see-every-pore AAA hyperrealism.
Visual polish aside, the game also sounds great. Battle music is a delightful mix of playfulness and hype. Meanwhile, the scoring of puzzle sections sounds gentle and curious. The SNES-flavoured musical contributions from Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda add an authentic retro flair.
While the story can be mainlined in around 30 hours, there’s so much more game packed into this game. Extras include: a fishing mini-game; Wheels, a Gwent-esque clockwork tabletop game you can play in taverns; a pirate band acting as your own personal jukebox of bardcore jams; and even some light base-building elements. And that’s not to mention all of the optional areas and collectibles you can get wrapped up with as well.
Given the way it so obviously wears its retro inspirations on its sleeve, Sea of Stars has a natural appeal for classic JRPG fans. That said, it’s equally worth checking out for those who’ve never been especially taken by the genre, as it has successfully eliminated its more tedious aspects, resulting in a combat system that is a consistently engaging mix of strategy and action.
A review code for Sea of Stars was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Sea of Stars is a love letter to classic 1990s JRPGs that transcends the genre and perfects the form.
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