Sea of Stars Review: Grand Voyage


Sea of Stars

By: Jason Siu


11 min read

Home » Reviews » Sea of Stars Review: Grand Voyage
Sea of Stars Review, FullCleared

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Quick Verdict

Describing Sea of Stars merely as a retro-inspired turn-based RPG is a major disservice. For me, it represents a chance for a new generation of gamers to experience a genre that defined my 1990s childhood. Unlike remasters, which often just add a fresh coat of paint with updated visuals while retaining outdated mechanics, Sea of Stars offers a contemporary twist on a classic formula, potentially convincing gamers to explore the games that inspired it.

Sea of Stars is also a reminder that not every game needs to be packed with realistic models and voice acting to have a memorable story and endearing characters. Lovingly crafted pixel art that focuses on all the right details shows that this art style still has a place in 2023. In a year dominated by sequels from beloved franchises, Sea of Stars stands out brilliantly as an original game. Here’s to hoping it can become a franchise of its own.

Chrono Chronicles

Sea of Stars Review Gallery, FullCleared

Although designed as a standalone game, Sea of Stars is technically a prequel to Sabotage Studio’s other title, The Messenger. The adventure in Sea of Stars takes place thousands of years before the events of The Messenger, though both are set in the same universe. That being said, you do not have to know anything about The Messenger to fully enjoy Sea of Stars. In fact, I never played The Messenger, but now I’m looking forward to the experience, having completed Sea of Stars.

Sea of Stars is officially billed as a “turn-based RPG inspired by the classics,” but I feel the developers do the game a major disservice by describing it this way, because it’s much more than that. It’s evident that the game draws heavy inspiration from Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG, the latter of which is slated for a remake later this year. With Sea of Stars’ success, Nintendo might think about sending Sabotage Studio a generous gift basket. I suspect this game will drive players to check out the Super Mario RPG remake. This underscores my point: Sea of Stars stands out as a pivotal game in 2023, a year already brimming with highly-anticipated AAA releases.

For every gamer familiar with the history of Squaresoft and Enix as separate companies, there are likely 10 who haven’t even heard of Marle. You can sit there and try to convince someone how great of a game Chrono Trigger is, but the fact is, not very many will take the plunge. Need evidence? As of this writing, Chrono Trigger on Steam boasts only 7,109 user reviews. Sea of Stars, which released on August 29, already has 1,922 user reviews. The point is, a game like Sea of Stars makes it easier to convince someone to play a classic like Chrono Trigger. It gives people an opportunity to understand what it is that made 16-bit era RPGs so memorable.

The allure of the new often overshadows the classics. Sea of Stars has that shiny new game appeal, while a classic like Chrono Trigger is like that old vinyl record your parents rave about — you know it’s probably good, but you’ve never really given it a spin. I see Sea of Stars as a potential stepping stone: Gamers will dive into it, love it, and then think, “Well, maybe it’s time to check out the classics that inspired this.” The game isn’t just a nod to classic RPGs; it’s an invitation to explore them.

Starlit Storytelling

Sea of Stars Review Gallery, FullCleared

I often judge a game by how many memorable moments it has. I’m talking those parts that stay ingrained in your memory forever, whether it’s a cutscene, a set piece, or even a boss battle. The very best games have a handful of those moments, but for a game to be great, it should have anywhere from one to three. While Sea of Stars doesn’t quite hit my “very best” category, it certainly lands in the “great” bracket. One particular cutscene has cemented its place in my top 10 coolest moments ever in a video game. On its own, it might not seem revolutionary, but in the context of the game’s narrative, it stands as an emotional and symbolic peak.

That encapsulates my overall feelings of Sea of Stars’ story and characters. While they don’t break new ground, the story and characters of Sea of Stars come together seamlessly to offer a memorable experience, echoing the charm of 1990s JRPGs. These characters aren’t meant to be complex or sophisticated. They’re meant to be cheerful, lighthearted, and most importantly, relatable. I actually found the starting cast of Sea of Stars to be oddly similar to Kingdom Hearts’ Sora, Kairi, and Riku: Three innocent children who imagine a life of adventure and wonder ahead of them.

Throughout the experience, players encounter a myriad of characters and story arcs. From the whimsical to the heartfelt, each narrative thread weaves the timeless themes of adventure and friendship. There’s even a touch of breaking the fourth wall, which might not be for everyone, but it sure brought back fond memories of my JRPG-filled 1990s. Later on in the game, you’ll be introduced to a character who tells you stories that flesh out the lore in Sea of Stars. It’s a great way to fill in the blanks for those who want to learn more about the game’s world and characters, while making it entirely optional.

Epoch Endeavors

Sea of Stars Review Gallery, FullCleared

As you may know, 16-bit RPGs were mostly flat worlds. Where Sea of Stars truly shines with its modern approach is in its emphasis on unshackled traversal and vertical world exploration. During your adventure, you’ll unlock tools, such as a grappling hook, that not only open up more ways to navigate the environment but also expand the environmental puzzles. While most puzzles are fairly basic and might not really scratch that itch in your brain, they do a good enough job to keep you engaged. More importantly, it breaks up the monotony of simply walking from one point to another, by causing you to interact with the environment. As you explore the world, you’ll be able to swim, climb, vault, and even jump off ledges. There is even a mechanic to change the time of day in order to solve certain puzzles, those of which are a bit more complex and satisfying to complete.

You can forage ingredients for cooking and even take breaks at fishing spots to catch seafood, which also serves as ingredients. Food does play a role in the game, restoring HP and mana during battle. Think of these as your potions and ethers from Final Fantasy, but you’re limited to just 10 cooked meals at a time. It’s crucial to keep ingredients handy, allowing you to replenish your inventory after challenging boss battles.

With a playtime of 25 to 30 hours for the main story and an additional five or so for the true ending, you’ll traverse a myriad of environments. All of them are beautifully done with lush colors and amazing details. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best-looking pixel art games in existence. There are even little details like changes to the characters’ facial animations when they’re walking on a tightrope. It’s very obvious a lot of love and care was put into creating the game’s world and it pays off. Almost every town you visit brims with life, bustling with people to interact with.

Along with plenty of eye candy, Sea of Stars has a soundtrack that is worth every penny of its $9.99 cost on Steam. Mainly composed by Eric Brown, three guest composers also contributed: Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger fame, Vincent Jackson Jones II, and Reece Miller. Mitsuda’s 10 guest tracks will likely stand out if you’re a fan of his work.

Star Road Revelations

Sea of Stars Review Gallery, FullCleared

One of the biggest components of any RPG is its combat system. Sea of Stars is a true turn-based RPG, meaning you can take as much time as you want to make your decisions. This is different than an Active Time Battle (ATB) system you may be familiar with from Final Fantasy games, where actions happen once a bar is filled, meaning you must think and react in a timely fashion. For those RPG enthusiasts complaining that Final Fantasy XVI isn’t turn-based, Sea of Stars might just be your cup of tea.

If you’ve played Super Mario RPG, you’ll be familiar with the time-based actions for attacking and defending. Essentially, pushing a button at just the right moment will cause an effect of sorts, depending on whether you’re attacking, using a skill, or being attacked. It’s akin to a mini-game within combat, where mastering the timing of effects can significantly impact the battle. Some skills also hinge on precise timing. Depending on your gaming style, this can be either addictively challenging or a tad frustrating. The flow of battle revolves around generating mana, which happens simply by attacking. Your basic attacks will cause orbs to spill forth, which can be absorbed to enhance a future attack.

During battle, you’ll control up to three characters, but they can be swapped out freely at any time. This is important, because one of the biggest core features in Sea of Stars’ combat system is the strategic “locks” mechanic. Sometimes when an enemy is readying a major attack, players can break the locks by dealing damage of the associated types: moon, sun, sword, blunt, poison, etc. If all the locks are broken before the enemy’s turn, it can cancel the action entirely. The mechanic adds a layer of strategy, since you can bring in a character to address a particular weakness. Sometimes it’s impossible to break all the locks before the enemy takes its turn, but even breaking some of the locks will reduce the power of the upcoming attack.

Unfortunately, I found the combat system to be a bit lackluster after 15 hours or so. Each character learns up to three skills and one Ultimate. Though there are combos involving two characters, their appeal diminishes quickly as they essentially become just another skill activated once your combo meter is full. There is a little bit of depth in swapping out characters to figure out which combinations work best for that particular fight, but overall, I found combat to be the game’s weakest link. Then again, if Sabotage Studio’s goal was to mimic classic JRPGs then it definitely did that while adding a modern touch to it all. Remember, in many classic JRPGs, you could breeze through most of the game by merely spamming one button. The fact that each character only has three skills turns combat into a bit of a bore once you’ve invested over 15 hours into the game.

Sea of Stars Review Gallery, FullCleared

The game prides itself on eliminating the need for level grinding. According to Sabotage Studio, everything “has been balanced with a pretty friendly rubberband to allow players to catch up if they are behind, while also hindering the ability to get ahead of the curve too much.” From my experience, that’s really accurate, since I didn’t do any grinding at all, and I felt like the challenge was just right. There are some accessibility features in the form of “Relics” that will make the game easier or harder. Through one of the game’s menus, players can freely toggle these Relics on or off at any time.

I felt like there were a lot of cool design concepts that just didn’t seem to hit their full potential. For example, I would have liked to have seen follow-up skills or even chain attacks, so there was a strategy in selecting the order your characters act in battle. Or, a well-timed block could result in a counter attack. Although you’ll figure out the best moments to use specific party members, the game’s difficulty doesn’t require such strategic depth. It would also have been nice if the game trained you on the timing for certain skills for the trigger, as it can be difficult to decipher even after 20-plus hours of playing with a single character.

When it comes to equipment, it also lacks a bit of depth. Each character has a weapon and armor slot, and you’ll typically equip the item with the highest stats. There are two silver accessory slots and one gold one, which can add some interesting bonuses to your characters. You won’t spend a lot of time equipping items or figuring out what’s best, since it’s pretty simple. Again, this is clearly in line with the games that heavily inspired Sea of Stars, but it’s also an aspect I felt Sabotage Studio could have improved on to give itemization a bit more variety.

What I did love is the leveling system in Sea of Stars. Drawing inspiration from Super Mario RPG, you can choose a stat to boost with each level-up — attack, magical attack, hit points, mana, physical defense, magic defense, etc. — so you can customize your characters a bit. But more importantly, everyone levels up at the same time, so you don’t have to worry about some characters being underleveled if you don’t use them as often. It also means it doesn’t matter if a character is dead at the end of battle (though that happens rarely).

Eclipsed Emotions

Sea of Stars Review Gallery, FullCleared

From sitting in the overworld map listening to the music, to spending hours playing the Wheels minigame, Sea of Stars is a wonderful adventure from beginning to end. There are so many little touches to the game, like how the title screen changes based on where you are in the story and which characters are in your party, that show how much love and care Sabotage Studio poured into creating Sea of Stars. The game also boasts gorgeous, hand-drawn animated cutscenes throughout its narrative. Additionally, Sea of Stars pays homage to the classic titles that inspired its creation. Another example is the Rainbow Conch you collect, which is likely inspired by the Rainbow Shell in Chrono Trigger. It’s these subtle callbacks that, while not affecting a newcomer’s playthrough, certainly bring a nostalgic smile to a veteran’s face. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a very polished experience and I did not encounter a single bug during my playthrough.

While the game’s combat depth and its overall simplistic yet touching story might draw criticism, there are some memorable moments that rival what some of the best JRPGs in the 1990s could offer. However, Sea of Stars is what 2023 really needed. It’s a reminder that games don’t have to promise the world by delivering a gigantic checklist of demands. It exemplifies the importance of having a clear vision for a game and focusing on bringing that vision to life. Do it well, and that vision shines through in its experience. There is no denying the game Sabotage Studio set out to make when it crafted Sea of Stars, and for that reason alone, it is a great success.

Sea of Stars was released on August 29, 2023 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, and PC. This review is based on a retail code provided by Sabotage Studio on PC. While FullCleared has affiliate partnerships, these do not influence our editorial content. We may, however, earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.

Sea of Stars Review Gallery (possible spoilers!)

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With over 20 years of online publishing experience, Jason Siu is currently the Content Director at VerticalScope and used to spend most of his time writing about cars. His work can be seen on websites such as AutoGuide, EV Pulse, FlatSixes, Tire Authority, and more. As the former co-founder of and West Coast Editor of Modified Magazine, he has also authored two books for CarTech Books. In his spare time, he founded FullCleared to indulge in his passion for writing about games. Although Jason is a variety gamer, he generally prefers RPGs.

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