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Sunday, September 3, 2023

Sea of Stars

A game which makes no secret of its inspirations by a company who already has one acclaimed retro-style game under their belt, Sea of Stars has been heavily compared to mid-90s RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG.  But does it prove to be a legendary title like those games, or is this just another soon-to-be-forgotten game that mimics the visuals of the era and little else?

As tech in the world of games has gotten more and more focused on graphics and making huge, sprawling and beautiful but mostly empty worlds with only the barest basics of gameplay, there has been an increasing demand for games to go back to earlier times with "worse" graphics, shorter lengths, but retaining the polished design, quality writing and creative spark that made many older gamers fans of the medium in the first place.  

Naturally, many developers (mostly small indie studios) have answered the call, making their own "NES styled" or "SNES styled" or "classic styled" games to get a piece of that demand; sometimes quite successfully.  Personally I'm especially critical of games that mimic an 8 or 16 bit style of design, especially RPGs; the overwhelming majority of the time, studios just use that style as an easy in-road to peoples wallets while serving up an otherwise mediocre and uninteresting experience, their developers having no concern for the fact that retro games are almost universally remembered because they were cutting edge for their time, not because they looked and sounded a certain way but had no real substance beneath the hood.  Hell, when games from the '80s like Solomon's Key, Castlevania II, Montezuma's Revenge and Goonies II have leagues more depth than games of similar aesthetic made in the 2010's, there's some serious values disparity going on there.  But hey, if it looks the part and it sells enough copies to break even based just on that, who cares, right?

Obviously, there are outliers to any rule, and I think Sea of Stars is an excellent example of one.  When Sabotage Studio makes a game patterned after classic titles, it's because they love them and want to share their magic with a younger generation.  Not just because they want a bigger install base, but because they want to share the best of retro gaming's timeless charm, immaculate design and sense of fun with the world.  Case in point, while Sea of Stars has an overall similar aesthetic to Chrono Trigger and turn-based, minigame-driven combat not dissimilar to Mario RPG, it blends in enough of its own elements to not feel overly derivative of either one.

The exploration element in the game is also distinctly fresh, putting heavy focus on traversing the environment via handholds, narrow ledges and hopping over gaps and up and down small ledges, so dungeons have quite a bit more going on than just being the typical RPG "empty corridor full of monsters".  They also have a heavy focus on Wild Arms-styled puzzles, as well as ones involving your protagonists' abilities to unlock hidden secrets by manipulating the time of day.  These can get a bit drawn-out at times, but I never became overly annoyed by them owing to the brisk pacing and lack of random encounters; enemies appear in pre-determined places on each map and they do not respawn unless you completely leave the area and return.

Combat similarly draws elements from its inspirations - Chrono Trigger's three-party system with enemy placement and special move effectiveness varying from battle to battle - but also works in timing minigames for attacks, blocks and special moves similar to Mario RPG.  It's definitely not a 1:1 copycat of either, though, mixing in several elements of its own.  For one, characters can act in any order on your turn, but only once per round, which becomes important when enemies start charging special moves.  While they do this, 2-4 icons (termed "locks") will be displayed over them, and hitting them with attack types depicted on those icons will break locks, weakening the incoming attack or, if all of them are broken before their turn occurs, stopping it completely.

The game also encourages you to use skills and special abilities liberally, rather than conserving them for larger battles.  Your characters have relatively small MP pools (and they only grow a small amount with each level), with your skills able to cost easily half or more of your reserves.  Your normal attacks restore MP when they land, though, so you can use them fairly often without having to rely too heavily on restorative items.  Landing hits and breaking locks also fills up your Combo meter, which fuels more powerful moves involving two or three characters - not unlike the combination techniques in Chrono Trigger.  Stored combo meter also does not carry over between battles, so it's worth using them whenever you get a chance to.  Finally, landing blows on enemies with normal attacks causes them to drop orbs; holding down Right Trigger will cause your currently controlled character to gather them up and unleash a stronger, elemental-charged attack; this can be done up to three times in a single turn for an especially powerful blow.  Having a character be KOed in battle also isn't as big a deal as in some games - they will recover 50% HP on their own after a set number of turns (starting at two and increasing each time they're downed), though if all three characters are down at once the game is over.  If nothing else, a nice alternative to many of the Final Fantasy games where reviving allies mid-battle is an annoying ordeal of using a Phoenix Down on them, then watching as they get hit and KOed again right away.

Sea of Stars puts much emphasis on its cooking system, which is your primary means of healing during battle.  You gather various ingredients throughout the dungeon areas, as well as from fishing holes on the map (complete with a Breath of Fire-esque minigame).  Whenever you reach a campfire you can cook up food items to restore HP, MP or both to one person or your whole team, and it's best to weigh your options carefully as you can only carry up to ten meals at a time.

On a writing front, Sea of Stars is refreshingly modest - a wonderful change of pace from countless other indie RPGs that want so badly to present their writers as highly-cultured visionaries with messages too important and ignore, but who are just too full of themselves to pull it off.  Its world and storytelling is pretty formulaic RPG fare, but it makes it work by giving every location a distinct feel and adding some new elements to the traversal mechanics, so even getting around them rarely feels monotonous.  The characters are genuinely human - relatable, fallible and with strong chemistry between them, so it feels all the more impactful when the twists come around and lives get shaken up.  The sense of humor is admittedly cheesy (particularly the pirates who constantly rag on clichΓ©d plot points from countless other games), but it never becomes overly irritating.  The world lore is conveyed in a clever way too - by finding various artifacts as you traverse the world, you can then have various legends read out during the game's campfire segments - several end up playing into story events later, with others just being there for fun.

In short, Sea of Stars is a game that, while clearly inspired by the classics, is anything but a cheap knockoff.  Its inspirations are apparent if you're familiar with that era of role playing games, but it brings plenty of its own twists to the overall design and gameplay to keep it fresh.  The charming characters, modest writing, brisk pacing, gorgeous 2D animation (with some modern touches like dynamic lighting) and wonderful music (with a few tracks contributed by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda) make it not just a memorable tribute to 90s-style JRPGs, but a fine one in its own right.  It's a true rarity - a game made by people who invoke the classics because they genuinely love them and know what makes them work, not because they want to use that connection as an easy inroad to being put on a pedestal and worshipped.  It admittedly does have a few balance issues and it ran out of steam toward the end, with combat becoming overly easy, lots of monotonous backtracking and a pretty lame copout for the final confrontation, but I nevertheless had a lot of fun with Sea of Stars.  I certainly hope it inspires other indie devs to bring a high degree of polish, innovate and set new standards in the way their old favorites did, too.

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.