On March 19th of this year, Sabotage Studio, the talented team behind 2018’s The Messenger launched a Kickstarter for their latest project. Being one of my favorite game studios due to the brilliance of their previous game, I was intrigued.
“Sea of Stars is a turn-based RPG inspired by the classics.” Going from 2D platformer to a retro RPG? I do like those role-playing games.
“A prequel story set in The Messenger’s universe.” Connected plots? My finger hovered the ‘back project’ button.
“Continuing on the Sabotage journey of developing games that blend retro aesthetics and modern game design, invigorated and motivated by The Messenger’s overwhelmingly positive response, it was time for the real, big challenge. To make a turn-based RPG that would pay homage to the greats of the 90’s, while bringing enough novelty to be its own thing. All of our games taking place in a shared universe, we cannot wait to show you all the stories we can tell with the richness of the world and the sheer amount of characters that an RPG entails.” All right, just sign me up.
To say I was awestruck by Sea of Stars would be as reductive of an understatement as “Caden likes video games.” I was in love. Watching the trailer nearly brought me to tears with how glorious it looked. The music tugs at my appreciation for The Messenger and deep-rooted retro nostalgia simultaneously. As I looked through the bullet points, I almost couldn’t believe such a perfect game could exist.
Combat combining Chrono Trigger action and Paper Mario engagement? Awesome.
No random encounters, no battle transitions, and no grinding? These guys know what they are doing.
“Unshackled traversal” in a dynamic, unrestrictive overworld with platformer-esque level design? It just cannot get better.
I did the only sensible thing I could do in that situation and dropped CA$ 290 ($220 US) on a game releasing in 2022, making Sea of Stars the first game I have ever Kickstarted. This is my most anticipated game of all time.
Oh, and Yasunori Mitsuda, the legendary music genius behind Chrono Trigger, and some of the greatest soundtracks ever crafted, joined the team as a guest composer. This is going to be extraordinary.
In order to justify my spending habits to you, fellow internet stranger, let me flex some of the cool stuff I get: A 100% custom designed monument in the crypt area of the world, OST double vinyl with Kickstarter exclusive colorway, DRM free digital soundtrack at launch, the digital artbook, a character creator-based statue in the crypt, a digital copy of the game, an exclusive physical copy, my name in the credits, and most importantly for this article, access to the private demo of the game for PC. If you’ll excuse me, I will go play that demo right now and report back with my experience.
I feel like I was just fed a spoonful of the first ever good cake.
My expectations were high, but there was always this looming thought that indie RPGs are never on the same level as the all-timers. Sea of Stars feels like an all-timer. There is so much going on in the world, so much visual splendor, the humor and charm-factor is top-tier, and the combat might just be as good as it gets. Let’s break it down.
Combat might be the most important pillar of an RPG, even if I don’t always enjoy turn-based combat mechanics. Sea of Stars feels very nostalgically traditional with some intriguing layers. Basic weapon attack and mana-consuming skills are the standard base, starring alongside the unique “boosts” and “combos”. After each attack, enemies drop mana particles that build up on the battlefield and can be condensed at any time to boost an action. This reminded me of Octopath Traveler’s boost system, with the twist that boost potential comes from attacking rather than passes of turns. It is an excellent strategic layer that forces you to dynamically decide between saving boosts for a strong attack later, or use the particles as soon as possible. While charging most damage-based attacks simply increased the power, assist skills could also be powered up to varied results. Boosting the healing move gave it full-party healing and the shield skill was similarly enhanced to affect the whole group. Reminiscent of Chrono Trigger’s combo techs, the next layer gives the power for skills to be boosted by another party member, increasing the power and changing the elemental property. This seems like it will be a satisfying and intricate mechanic in the full game with access to the full roster of allies, each with different elemental strengths. Finally, Sea of Stars takes the turn-based action to a more engaging level with timed hits, à la Paper Mario. Each attack and defending action can be influenced by timing a button press at the right time to improve your battle performance. I think most JRPGs would benefit from this mechanic because it brings an extra level of skill and mastery potential to every battle, beyond just optimizing turns. Even just within this tiny demo, the combat intrigued me to no end. I cannot wait to see how it develops in the full game, and most impressively, I am actually looking forward to the combat in a turn-based RPG—a lot.
Aside from the combat, Sea of Stars has that “unshackled traversal” gameplay mentioned earlier. The world appears similar to most top-down JRPGs, but once you’ve got control of Valere or Zale in your hands, you really feel that freedom of movement. The world feels 3D somehow because of how well-executed the running, jumping, and climbing moves are implemented. It felt shockingly distinct, for what the game is; I have never witnessed a game that looks like this manage to feel so great. My assumption is that the world is built in 3D, with the gorgeous pixel art illusion layer on top, making the dynamic lighting and platformer-like movement possible. I also don’t think I have ever seen a smoother studio transition. Moving from a masterful platformer to an RPG really does show within the level design of this world—each area is a minor, free flowing puzzle path riddled with secrets.
Having so much of the gameplay already being so enjoyable makes Sea of Stars’s two year distance all the more painful, because by the time this game is polished into a perfect jewel of an experience, it might be capable of knocking down the greats of the genre on its gameplay alone.
Luckily, games don’t have to stand on their gameplay alone because of some other little pillars, including presentation.
Sea of Stars’s soundtrack is going to be one of the best musical works of all time.
Yes that is indeed painfully hyperbolic, but golly am I excited to hear more of its tunes. The songs featured in the demo have a similar feel to The Messenger’s glorious soundscape but with the added vibe of a fantastical role-playing game. Each new track surprised me, and my overall impression is that I just cannot wait to witness the entirety of its potential, especially the compositions by Mitsuda.
Some people love pixel art for its retro nostalgia induction, some people have grown borderline annoyed by its overuse and perceived cheapness, I personally just like good art. The art direction combines hi-bit with delicious lighting effects to create a mostly original take on the style. It looks fantastic, significantly above most retro indie titles. Even without the fancy lighting, the artistic style has so much detail and charm that you don’t see in a lot of games. In The Messenger the pixel art was deliberately used to enhance the gameplay, Sea of Stars’s lighting is similarly intertwined with the characters’ ability to control the time of day through moving the sun, making that important connection between the visuals and mechanics. It’s great.
Story-wise, the demo took place somewhere roughly in the middle of the game, but luckily almost every contextual detail was redacted to prevent needless spoilers. From what I could witness, there was a lot of little worldbuilding tantalizing me with [REDACTED] messages, and the short quest contained within was really intriguing, even without the context of the rest of the game. It feels like an excellent traditional RPG tale, but with that looming feeling of extravagance that lends itself to more than likely having some incredible twists. My curiosity clashed with my spoiler-rejection throughout the entire demo as I flipped between “oh, what is this secret area with redacted text,” and “maybe play with your eyes half-closed, Caden.”
So much of the Sea of Stars demo showcases exactly what I hoped for when I backed the game. Humor was a big question mark for me, coming off of The Messenger’s legendary writing; Sea of Stars managed to juggle world-ending tension with lighthearted charm with total mastery, even within this tiny slice of the full experience. Gameplay was exceptional, the visuals and music continually impressed, and my anticipation grew. While this demo slightly deepend the painful knowledge that Sea of Stars is two years away, I am grateful that Sabotage is allowing themselves time to bring it up to its full potential. I am fully confident that it will be more than worth the wait.
If you are interested in Sea of Stars, be it for the chance to play the demo, to learn more about development, score some early backer exclusives, or just wanting to contribute to the project, you can still secure a pre-order of the game with included bonuses on Backerkit. Check it out! They deserve it.