There is a very specific recipe to cook up a tasty 16-bit RPG. Take a dash of good Chrono Trigger pasta, add a slice of Secret of Mana, spice it up with Secret of Evermore stock and voilà: serve while hot. But, like many simple but nutritious dishes, it is also a recipe very easy to fumble. Still, Sabotage studio have been studying the books long and in-depth, Sea of Stars is the ideal dish to fulfil your craving for Super Nintendo-style RPGs.
With their 2018 The Messenger, Sabotage had proven to have a very successful formula for a Ninja Gaiden-style action platformer, but it was the brillant narrative that was most surprising. Sea of Stars works as a prequel story in the same universe, but this time Sabotage’s narrative muscles are hard at work.
The RPG follows the adventures of two young Children of the Solstice (which, incidentally, would have been a great title for a Nintendo DS version of the game). We follow Zale and Valere since they were children, training to become two warriors to protect their country against the creations of the Fleshmancer, an evil alchemist. They’ll be joined by several other party members, among them most notably their childhood friend, Garl.
From the story, you can expect to explore mountain peaks, deserts, underwater areas and of course classic towns. At one point, we’ll even be tasked with building “our” town from scratch, by collecting plans and inviting people to live with us. But the rest of the gameplay is definitely of the classic 16-bit RPG variety: explore areas and defeat enemies in turn-based combat.
But that's not all, as there is quite a lot of variety such as a little board game you can play around in taverns and defeat champions to get rewards. There is also a fishing minigame, which you can mostly use for cooking. Puzzles also break up the fights, by using a grappling hook and an air blower you can move around blocks and get through rooms. But, clearly, the combat is the meat and potatoes of Sea of Stars.
Zale and Valere bring their own kind of powers to fights, that of the Sun and the Moon which, combined, can be used to stop the enemies from launching special attacks. The combat is inspired by the button timing of Super Mario RPG and Mario & Luigi titles, to both parry and attack efficiently we need to match the right timing. In this, comes a very clever design by Sabotage.
The difficulty can be freely adjusted by using a handful of items that make combat easier, the timing of parries less strict or give less health to enemies. They are all optional, so you can decide to wear just one to check if the combat is more palatable. I decided not to wear anything and, of course, I got cut down a couple of times in some boss fights. Still, Sabotage encourages to go with the flow of the game, as grinding is entirely optional here. I would recommend to save whenever possible, since trusting the autosave is not always the best option.
By performing successful attacks, Valere and Zale build up a combo meter and unleash more powerful attacks, plus can restore health to the team. Future members of the team can also join in combos and also bring their own skillset to the party. Sabotage definitely hits combat with a lot of variety and, overall, even the random combat encounters feel entertaining enough, especially because you don’t really need to go back and grind.
The story is slowly revealed as the party explores islands, with twists and turns which will keep things interesting and varied enough. Overall, the main problem with the evolution of the story is the limited number of significant narrative beats, along with some missed opportunities.
For example, during the intro, the two protagonists wonder about Garl, their cook friend who has been missing since they were kids. What happened to him? What horrible fate has befallen him? One hour later, Garl is back and joins the team, all is forgiven, no issues whatsoever. All perhaps a bit too simple and straightforward.
The two main characters also feel a tad generic. While many around them feel memorable, Garl included and some of the pirates we’ll meet later. For most of the story, Zale and Valere seem to stick close to the classic “brave warriors afraid of nothing” stereotype. On the other hand, there is also an interesting focus on stories, as our party gets visited by a storyteller who can tell us campfire stories as we progress into the world.
You have probably noticed the cooking references in the review and, true enough, cooking is a very big part of Sea of Stars. Since there are no healing potions, stopping at a campfire to rest is a great excuse to prepare some tasty dishes. Recipes can also be bought and found around the world, along with new weapons and armor. Food can be used to both heal up single members and the whole party, along with restoring precious MPs and waking up from begin KOd.
Naturally, you’ll have to collect ingredients for those tasty dishes, which can both be found by exploring and also in stores. While not really a crafting system, since you’re locked in by the recipes, the system works fine. Still, it could have perhaps used a dash of the typical cooking creativity, for example by leaving the players free to create something by meshing ingredients randomly.
Now, time to get the obvious out of the way: Sea of Stars looks incredibly gorgeous. It has beautiful pixel art, dynamic lightning and a great use of colors. This is one of the best-looking 16-bit RPGs that you will ever play, that is for sure. Also, since at one point we'll be able to change the time of day at will, the real time lightning system looks magnificent. There is no voice acting, but the music more than makes up for it with a varied selection of appropriate 16-bit sounding tunes, plus some special contributions from Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda.
Regardless of some narrative shortcomings and a lack of particularly memorable sequences, Sea of Stars is an extremely pleasant and well-designed RPG experience. This is one title that will make both fans of classic 16-bit RPGs and more recent entries like Octopath Traveler quite happy and satisfied.
There is an overall pleasant atmosphere about it. Despite some of the more difficult fights, I felt that coming back to Sea of Stars was like visiting an old friend. This old mate, while perhaps not having anything new or exciting to tell you, is there to welcome you with a smile, a bowl of hearty soup and old comfortable stories to pass an evening together. One couldn't wish for anyone better.