Sea of Stars review – A modern classic redefining the JRPG
Standing side by side with the pantheon of legendary JPRG titles before it, Sea of Stars confidently asserts itself, not only taking key learnings from all-time greats but reinvigorating the genre through its many innovations. A sprawling spectacle, a ceaseless delight, an enchanting journey, and frankly, one of the best games I’ve ever played.
Every now and then when jumping into a new game, you get the feeling you’re experiencing something special. Perhaps there’s a certain charm to its presentation, maybe a degree of refinement in the moment to moment, or even an unwieldy scope to its narrative. The type of game you just can’t help but think about endlessly.
Sea of Stars is all of that and then some. A package so well-rounded, so immensely full, so complete. It’s the type of game you marvel at in awe, pondering the effort required to bring its countless pieces to life in one seamless bundle.
Sabotage Studio has accomplished its grand vision. With a mission statement of “creating definitive editions of the game genres we enjoyed as kids,” not only have they tactfully paid homage to their inspirations, but through a number of dazzling new ideas, they’ve now left an indelible mark on the JRPG genre. Sea of Stars is a modern classic.
Sea of Stars – Key details
- Price: $34.99 USD | £29.50 GBP | $50.95 AUD
- Developer: Sabotage Studio
- Release date: August 29, 2023
- Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, PS4, & PS5
Sea of Stars trailer
Evolving the JRPG
On the surface, Sea of Stars may look no different from the bog standard JRPG. You’ve got your conventional battles with turn-based combat, your overhead view when exploring, and even the shrunken sprites as you navigate the world map between points of interest. This game isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather, its explicit goal is to take what worked best in previous generations, improve where possible, and inject its own new ideas into the mix.
Let’s start with combat. Again, just watching the game in action, you wouldn’t think much of it. But with a controller in hand, you soon realize how subtle yet genius additions change the conventional flow.
Almost every single move in the game can be mastered through a rhythm-game-esque timing mechanic. Tap the input at the right moment, be it upon impact with a devastating cleave or the apex of a jump before you slam down with colossal might, and not only are you rewarded with bonus damage, but often bonus effects too.
For standard attacks, miss the ever-so-precise timing and your character lands just a single blow. Nail the timing, however, and they double up. On the opposite side of the equation, learning enemy patterns can be just as vital. Timing a perfect block greatly reduces incoming damage, but it’s easier said than done.
Just from this seemingly minor tweak to the formula, Sea of Stars keeps you thoroughly engaged with each passing second. Where others in the genre may grow repetitive with time, simpler battles mostly becoming automatic on your part, this game bucks the trend to keep you on your toes from the first minute to the 30th hour.
Similarly, an inventive ‘lock’ system works in conjunction with rhythmic combat to ensure each and every fight feels fresh. Ditching the archetypal buffs and debuffs, you’re instead presented with a unique puzzle in almost every encounter.
Your heroes all jump into the mix with their own weapon types and magical capabilities. In order to break ‘locks’ on certain enemies, you’re asked to consider your next steps well in advance, ensuring the optimal mix of weapons and abilities to match the pattern on display. In doing so, you’re rewarded by not only preventing a deadly onslaught but also by boosting a Combo meter, providing access to team-up attacks and eventually game-changing ultimates too.
These two combat-oriented features alone exemplify the greatness of Sea of Stars. But it doesn’t stop there. Similar can be found across the board in exploration, boss battles, traversal, puzzles, and everything in between. Seemingly minute yet radical innovations ensure JRPG stalwarts feel at home while offering a new glimpse at what’s possible in the beloved genre. Respecting the foundations while building to greater heights.
Sea of Stars does an exceptional job of delivering one surprise after another through the few-dozen-hour main adventure. Each new location is a chance to introduce a new mechanic. One that may change how you can interact with a previous area. Every new region is an opportunity to establish a new feature you just hadn’t considered for the genre before, yet one that feels entirely at home here. Who knew a grappling hook could fit so naturally in this type of game?
It’s a brilliantly designed package bursting at the seams with creativity. One that will keep you enraptured even long after credits roll for the first time.
Sweetening the deal, at least on a personal level, I was delighted by the dev’s choice to neglect two particular tropes of the genre. There are no random battles to be found and there is no grinding required whatsoever.
You won’t want to fast-forward through mindless encounters as you explore the many diverse lands on offer. Nor will you feel a need to retread old stomping grounds to level up before pushing forward in the story. For my money, these anachronistic staples only bog down otherwise deeply engaging titles. Here, their removal was a cognizant decision and the game is far better for it.
Every frame a work of art
Take one look at any screenshot from Sea of Stars and you’ll see its dazzling beauty. But similar to the gameplay systems, it’s not until you actually feel this world in motion that you come to understand the full breadth of its charm.
Beams of a sunset’s radiant orange and purple pierce through a towering castle in the distance as you find a break in the forest below. Smoke reflects the moon’s ghostly luminescence as undead foes begin to circle. Snow-covered villages to underwater cities, central protagonists to once-off NPCs, every new locale and character is just as richly detailed and gorgeously animated as the one before.
Words truly don’t do it justice. Nor do pictures, for that matter. The diversity in biomes, enemy types, time of day, it’s all congruent every step of the way, delivering one breathtaking sequence after another. And it’s only made even more captivating by the ethereal sound design that punctuates every moment.
Legendary Japanese composer Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy V) reasserts himself as an absolute master of his craft here in collaboration with Sabotage Studio’s Eric W. Brown. Together, they’ve compiled a list of memorable tracks you won’t be getting out of your head anytime soon.
Much like the games that inspired Sea of Stars, every new town comes with its own distinct theme, as does each new boss. Here, they’re all simply enchanting. The type of soundtrack you’d gladly leave on loop all day long. But it’s not just the overall score, sound design as a whole is truly magnificent too.
From the effects of every strike, to the pitter-patter of footsteps from different characters, and even the tiniest details like the little chime that plays when you save your progress, it’s all wonderful stuff. And magnifying the sheer effort behind it all, music even changes overnight, giving an entirely different soundscape depending on the time of day.
Hooked until the very end
Once more paying homage to the formative titles in its genre, Sea of Stars is no small feat. While it’s not exactly a 100+ hour saga like some, you can expect at least 25 hours for the main story alone, with potentially dozens more depending on your level of commitment.
With a story set over multiple decades, you follow its protagonists through the highest highs and the lowest lows of every twist and turn. Each time you think you’re nearing the conclusion, it’s as though the game zooms out to reveal you’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s to come.
So it helps then, that characterization is top-tier here as well. You meet a broad range of strange, quirky, sometimes ominous, othertimes adorable friends and foes along the epic journey. Through their own unique quirks, every single one of them makes their mark no matter how big or small. Be it the creator of the ‘Wheels’ mini-game – which absolutely deserves its own Gwent-style spinoff – or a misunderstood creature just trying to fit in with its kind, these characters leap from the screen and etch themselves in your memory.
Those in your party are given rich backstories that slowly unravel as you progress, some that only come into focus after the main narrative itself. It’s never so much as to be overwhelming, especially with a good amount of lore being optional as you sit by a fire and take a breather, but it’s all so well-structured that you can’t help but get swept up in it all.
This is a rich universe with near-boundless secrets to uncover. The type of experience you just don’t want to end, where as soon as credits roll, you’re ready to relive the entire thing from scratch.
My time with Sea of Stars is far from over. Despite reaching ‘the end’ twice during the embargo window, there’s still so much more I have left to discover. With collectibles to track down, sidequests to finish off, puzzles small and large to solve, optional challenges to try my hand at, and many overarching mysteries still with dots to connect, there’s a great deal left to see and do.
The Verdict – 5/5
The fact none of it comes across like a tedious chore, and instead it’s all content I’m eager to engage with, should speak volumes to the level of care Sabotage Studios put behind every little pixel. Sea of Stars is a masterfully made video game, one that cements itself atop the genre, right alongside the all-time greats that inspired it. Moving forward, anything this small but mighty dev team sets its mind on will be must-play material.
Reviewed on PS5