Canadian developer Sabotage Studio announced turn-based RPG Sea of Stars back in 2020 as an unexpected prequel to critically acclaimed sidescroller The Messenger. Swinging for the fences, the game draws influence from legendary RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Mario & Luigi. Recently, The Escapist had the opportunity to hands-off preview Sea of Stars with Sabotage Creative Director Thierry Boulanger and Executive Producer Philip Barclay. And in a nutshell, it feels like Sea of Stars wants to take the best parts of its inspirations to create a game that is all meat, no chores.
The story occurs in an archipelago full of mysteries to discover in a time before a flood drowned the world. The evil Fleshmancer left the world long ago, but his dangerous creations are still being born. However, those born on the solstice receive the power of the sun or moon, and after undergoing training at an academy, they can become Solstice Warriors. These warriors and their eclipse magic are the only thing that can destroy the Fleshmancer’s monsters and protect the land. In fact, during an eclipse, the warriors become stronger and the monsters weaker.
The dual protagonists of Sea of Stars are Valere, who commands the power of the moon, and Zale, who commands the power of the sun. You can choose which one leads the party at any given time, and the hands-off preview of Sea of Stars also showed off a bit of a third party member, stout warrior cook Garl. In the preview, the party met a pirate crew to negotiate a boat ride, but in order to get that ride, they had to obtain a magic coin in an abandoned wizard’s lab that is filled with traps.
The dialogue on display was colorful, but it’s frankly far too early to judge the quality of the narrative. What are easier to judge are the visuals — they’re a delight. Sea of Stars enjoys a strong visual identity that doesn’t feel derivative of anything else, even though the archipelago draws clearly from Chrono Cross and the world map is exploding with Chrono Trigger energy. The audio too fits the scene pleasantly, and several tracks were provided by Chrono composer Yasunori Mitsuda, including one that is “an homage to Lizard Rock.”
As the party traveled the map to the wizard’s lab, Boulanger enthusiastically described a nearby mountain filled with holes that the wind blows through, creating sounds. However, it could mean doom if what sleeps there is ever roused. Based off of the preview, it sounds like Sea of Stars has a lot of imaginative scenarios in store. At the least, there is a ton players have yet to see, as Boulanger estimates everything offered in screenshots and trailers so far only comes from the first quarter of the game.
One of the most exciting and unique elements of Sea of Stars is its full dynamic lighting system — a rarity for a pixel art game. Not only is it just impressive to behold the major visual changes as the time of day shifts, (The official website offers an interactive example.) but it will feed directly into gameplay as well. You will eventually gain the ability to control light and the time of day, which will be necessary to access certain areas or solve a variety of dungeon puzzles. Indeed, the whole game will use light and shadow as a fundamental mechanic to enrich gameplay.
And mercifully, it will only be a gameplay mechanic. During the preview, Boulanger assured that the light/dark concept will not have any metaphorical significance for the plot in Sea of Stars. That means players do not need to worry about the game devolving into yet another trite, boring story about the vague “balance” of light and darkness.
Sea of Stars is much more interested in using and celebrating all of the good ideas and tropes found in turn-based RPGs. Typical shops to buy weapons, armor, and accessories exist. There is HP and MP to manage. There are team attacks in battle like seen in Chrono Trigger, and you can increase your attack damage and minimize damage received with well-timed button presses, like in Super Mario RPG and Mario & Luigi. Upcoming enemy attacks can be canceled by hitting them with a group of specific types of abilities. You can jump, climb, swim, and ambush enemies to make for platformer-like dungeon navigation. You can set up a campfire (or later camp on your boat) where you can cook, creating food that is the game’s equivalent of potions. You can even fish if you would like.
However, Sabotage Studio has taken a lot of these ideas one step further for Sea of Stars. For instance, team attacks don’t cost any MP. Instead, they are charged up when the party cancels enemies’ attacks, which is something you should be doing in the first place in order to avoid nasty damage. Thus, team attacks become a direct reward for playing the game well. (Boulanger said you can think of it like a “group-wide Limit Break.”) Likewise, in order to take full advantage of area-of-effect attacks, you can just use abilities that force enemies closer together.
Meanwhile, at camp, you can talk to party members in order to get a reminder of what you are supposed to do next, just in case it’s been a while since you played. (Adults with limited time will appreciate this.) And the food you cook will be a simple matter of using the recipes you have available; there is no frustrating guesswork, and it is not akin to a “crafting” system. Even the fishing is completely optional, simply there for people who enjoy such things.
Basically, every aspect of Sea of Stars feels like it’s either enriching the core experience or providing a non-mandatory bonus to explore. It’s not afraid to be a traditional turn-based RPG, yet it’s also seemingly designed a little more thoughtfully and cohesively than some of its forebears. It just might be an RPG that has leveled up. That’s the hopeful impression that the Sea of Stars preview left, anyway.
Ultimately, Boulanger is simultaneously deeply humble and highly lofty with his aspirations for Sea of Stars. He recognizes that the games Sabotage is drawing influence from are classics and masterpieces, yet he would really love if Sea of Stars could evoke some of that same response in its players.
“If (Sea of Stars) can stand even remotely on some level, not next to, but within the ballpark of what it was inspired by, I think that would make it… a worthy entry,” Boulanger said.
Sea of Stars will launch on Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam in holiday 2022. More platform announcements for the game are expected in spring 2022.