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Sunday, July 16, 2023

Sea of Stars (Demo)

In an era that's become known for a resurgence of classic styled RPGs (with varying degrees of quality), Sea of Stars is another that seems to draw elements from several 16-bit era titles.  But does it manage to capture the magic of the greats from the mid-90s without becoming overly derivative, or is this just another cookie cutter job to be passed up?

Sabotage Studio is a name I know in passing from their sidescrolling platformer game "the Messenger", which also featured a bit of self-awareness in its design in that you'd travel between two time periods - a "past" resembling 8-bit games and a "future" resembling 16-bit ones, with the latter half of the game changing up format entirely into something like a metroidvania.  That, plus solid fundamental gameplay and a quirky sense of humor, earned it acclaim among retro action fans and metroidvania enthusiasts alike.

Sea of Stars, despite technically being a prequel to that game, doesn't play anything like it, instead opting for a turn-based RPG experience with a focus on puzzles and mid-battle minigames.  Graphically it bears a resemblance to Chrono Trigger with its expressively-animated characters, heavily detailed backdrops and a similar visual perspective, though with a much more bright, colorful and fanciful style overall.  Enemies are also visible on the map and can be avoided similar to that game, though they will actively chase you down and even fire attacks at range to drag you into battle; at one point one even shot me in the back from offscreen as I was hopping across platforms, dragging me back to the screen they were on to start a battle).  On that note, the game's map traversal is also a fair bit more involved, having you hop over gaps, climb up handholds and activate switch and platform puzzles to proceed (even going under terrain layers to progress on several occasions), so you're almost never just running through empty corridors.  Music in the game is passable though not especially memorable, though according to the developers the final product will also feature at least ten tracks by Yasunori Mitsuda, so we'll see how that pans out.

Combat in Sea of Stars also looks a bit like Chrono Trigger superficially, but plays out more similarly to Super Mario RPG, with timed hits, blocks and minigame-based special moves - deflecting a boomerang to hit multiple enemies potentially multiple times (getting faster with each hit), charging a fireball by holding down a button and releasing it (doing more damage if you release it at maximum size) being two shown off in the demo.  Simple timed button presses are also used to deal a second hit with the attack command for a bit of extra damage, or block an enemy's strike to reduce the damage you take.  Characters can take their turns in any order but cannot act more than once per round, allowing you to get a healing move in or break Locks accordingly (more on that in a bit).  One similarity to Chrono Trigger are Combination Moves, which, similar to Chrono Trigger's Dual Techs, have two characters combine their special attacks for greater effects - inflicting multiple types of damage in a single turn, healing the entire party, or other effects.  These run on "Combo Points" (built up by inflicting damage and breaking locks) and more can be learned by finding technique scrolls throughout the game.

A couple of relatively fresh mechanics do show themselves quickly, though.  One is that each enemy displays a stopwatch with a number next to it, showing how many actions you can take before they get their turn, which allows you to adjust your strategies accordingly.  When an enemy is preparing to use a particularly powerful move, they'll display anywhere from two to four "Locks" with icons pertaining to certain weapon damage types or special moves; using one of these moves removes a lock, and if you manage to break all the locks before the move executes, it will be canceled entirely.  Landing physical hits on enemies also knocks out gems, which you can hold R2 and press X to have your currently-selected character gather; these will power up your next move accordingly, with up to three charges being collectible at once.  MP management is also a major component of strategy - each character has a relatively small MP pool (with one spell able to take upwards of half of it), but normal attacks will regenerate 3 MP.  Downed characters also seem to automatically recover after a turn or two, regaining half HP, though this may just be a demo feature as there were no revival items in the demo that I could find.  Another small, but welcome feature is the fact that your party has a collective experience gauge rather than separate tallies so that you all stay on the same relative power level (and don't miss out on a big chunk of experience if you die during, say, a boss fight).  The pacing is also solid, with combat never becoming too overused, puzzles being well-designed without becoming overly tedious or frustrating, and battles lasting just the right amount of time, neither too long nor drawn-out to the point where boredom starts to set in.

The game also utilizes a fishing minigame somewhat reminiscent of the Breath of Fire series, though I don't know if it's a direct reference to that.  It's simple enough - drop the bobber near a fish, reel when they're in the light-blue "sweet spot" that shifts around the center of the lake, and maneuver them somewhat with the stick or d-pad to jigger them into said sweet spot (though once they get close to the dock they'll also start weaving around like crazy, resulting in a rather annoying trial of tapping the button to real in a tiny bit at a time until they finally give in).  Fish, as well as harvested plant materials in outside areas, culminate in a crafting element where you can visit a campfire and create food items to carry into battle for HP and MP recovery (of which you can carry up to 10 at a time).

Sea of Stars does contain a couple of accessibility options as well.  One is the "Amulet of Storytelling" , which eases combat with free heals after battle and gives all of your characters a significantly higher base HP value.  The other is "Sequent Flare", which provides greater visual feedback with timed hits and blocks - handy for getting the timing down.  Presumably there will be more (plenty of space left on that menu), but I'm not yet sure what they will entail.

As is standards for demos, Sea of Stars's is a short experience that you can finish in about an hour, so of course we're only getting a very small portion of the final product.  From what they're showing, though, I see solid effort from people who have a genuine passion and love for classic styled RPGs and sought to put their own spin on the format with considerable success - while clearly inspired by the style and humor games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG (with a bit of Lufia or Alundra style puzzle solving), it's not overly derivative of any one of them and has some quite charming identity of its own.  It also never tries to feel overly self-important or self-referential, which earns it a lot of points in my book; retro RPGs never had to give constant sly winks or cram in a sloppy pretentious 'artist's signature' to stand out, after all - they just got by on the merits of good storytelling and solid design, which Sea of Stars does too.  So, if you're a fan of retro RPGs and want a game in that format with a charm all its own, I also urge you to give the Sea of Stars demo a go and see for yourself what they have cooking.

Developer: Sabotage Studio
Publisher: Sabotage Studio
Released: 2023
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, Switch
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be identical as far as I can tell.