I recently saw a complaint against modern day Zelda that it doesn’t feel like the series people grew up with.
There’s no denying Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are a fresh take on the series with more focus on survival mechanics, physics and tougher combat. Nintendo have found a new lane to travel and it doesn’t sound like they’re deviating from it anytime soon. Nor should they.
No doubt they understand there’s still an appetite for those top-down RPGs that were so at home on the SNES. I mean, they just did a full remake of Link’s Awakening after all. And they’ve got a remake of Mario RPG just around the corner don’t forget. But both series have naturally evolved over the course of generations and they both have a completely different sense of scale, which is where games like Sea of Stars can truly shine now and have a spotlight unto themselves.
It’s a similar story with Square Enix who have gone full big budget with Final Fantasy because that’s just the way they like to tell stories now. And that’s ok because smaller studios can still try their hand at the games you grew up with and they’re not in direct competition with the best in the biz. Now they can be judged by their own individual merits. And in this particular case, it’s to the studio’s massive benefit. Because Sea of Stars is a really great RPG.
Of course it’s a respectful homage to the great games of yesteryear. Actually, it’s a celebration of the wider industry with little references to games like Monkey Island and Quest for Glory, but it’s also very much its own entity with its own aesthetic, take on existing mechanics, and attempt at making it all feel kind of modern. Sea of Stars even has its own fishing minigame and a little board game called Wheels which is a nice little pass-time between beats.
Sea of Stars feels like the rebirth of the top-down RPG, actually. It’s a bit ropey at the start and it definitely leans into the cliches, but as the world opens up, as you meet more characters, as you become more attuned to the lore and while its mechanics begin to take shape, it not only awakens that nostalgic glint inside you, it kind of inspires you and opens your mind to new possibilities.
For starters, Sabotage Studios have done a great job of reimagining classic dungeons which made the best in the genre so popular, recreating them for today’s audience. They’re all got a bit of their own flavour, getting you to put the thinking cap on a little bit, sprinkle in just enough action to keep you on your toes, then before you know it, it’s boss time and you’re having to master all you’ve learned.
Their flow is so finely balanced, it’s all just right and they’re memorable enough to stick in your memory. Which is a monumental accomplishment, quite frankly.
And here’s the real kicker, the game is having fun with you along the way. Its characters have this wonderful bond you just want to see grow and build. And they go on to meet some really interesting folk along the way, and all the while there are these ominous cutscenes going on in the background, hinting that something bigger is on the horizon. Outside of its pacey early stages, it really starts to build into a crescendo when everything is in place.
It’s all built around this unique sense of meta humor throughout, like referencing tropes found in other RPGs or putting a tongue firmly in cheek when talking about certain cliches, but it does so in a way that it keeps in with character. A bit like the studio’s previous effort, the excellent roguelike, The Messenger.
Meanwhile, this is all complimented with beautiful, vivid visuals and a gorgeous soundtrack that just rides down your spine and gets the goosebumps going on the backs of your arms. You’ll find yourself spending time wandering around the detailed maps, taking it all in and appreciating what’s been put out before you. Before long you’re fully in this 16-bit day dream all over again, but it all feels fresh and different.
Sea of Stars is super clever, actually. Because the first thing it achieves is doing away with traditional turn-based combat you associate with these games, and throws in timed blocks, so you keep interacting during battle even when it’s not your turn. The game will also briefly display enemy weaknesses so you know which characters are most effective and what attacks they should be pulling off. This, in turn, can actually weaken an enemies upcoming attack and even cancel it entirely, adding this neat strategic layer to each battle.
Then there’s also boosting, so you can a bit of ‘uumph’ to your strikes – or, in some cases, do any damage at all – combo strikes that you and your party can pull off together, and on top of all that, you can see enemies in the overworld. So you’re not just going to get mobbed from an invisible force, you can actually circumvent some enemies.
Another smart thing it does is actually open up the environment to you. So often old school RPGs keep you to your route and that was that, but here you’re skirting the sides of cliffs, climbing walls, swimming in oceans and even jumping between platforms. Sea of Stars is very alive, very active, and it encourages you to go exploring to find hidden chests and ingredients.
Why ingredients? Because you can also cook meals which are then consumed in and out of battle. In the first instance, these recover health and MP, but can even add properties to you and your party. There’s tons of recipes in the game which you can follow, though sadly no option for experimentation. It’s a fun pass time all the same.
Once you build a bonfire for the night, you can sit around with your party, chat to them about the ongoing adventure and even have stories and legends recited back to you before getting that well-earned rest. Some of these stories even hint at things to come in game or places you can visit. So it’s almost like getting a premonition, of sorts.
Oh, and did I mention that on top of the beautiful in-game visuals, you’ve also got stunningly animated cutscenes that break up the action and complement the game just wonderfully.
Sea of Stars isn’t just trying to be like the games you grew up with and loved. It’s trying to break the mould, build something different. To my mind, it succeeds at doing just that.
You can even activate relics in the menu which have different permanent effects on the game and this can make the game easier or harder, depending on where your head is at. It’s brilliant and will feel right at home for modern gamers who like to customise their playthrough.
If I had to point out any weaknesses, I guess I’d say the story didn’t completely win me over at first and it did take a little while to really get into its groove. There’s a certain point where things change and the stakes are inevitably raised, but I do wonder if the initial tone set might throw a few people off and if they’ll even allow themselves to get to that point. These things are always a tough balancing act and totally subjective, but I wasn’t completely convinced Sea of Stars got that flow quite right out of the gate.
Combat can also be a bit of a slog sometimes, particularly when you’re cycling through enemy turns, and there’s some mobs overhealing or bringing in reinforcements, some hitting much harder and your attacks not always seeming to do big damage. It can be a little overbearing at times, but fortunately there’s enough attack variety and combinations you can work through to keep yourself invested and interested.
Aside from that, I adored Sea of Stars. It’s actually right up there with my favourite games this year, and I’ve played a lot of great games in 2023. It’s just such a successful reimagining of the RPGS I grew up and loved as a kid, but done in a way that suits players of today and their habits.
I can see Sea of Stars being a game that inspires generations of kids years from now, acting like this is their ‘Chrono Trigger’ and comparing other games to it. To me, I believe it deserves that praise. Sabotage Studios have really gone out of their way to stay true to roots others have set but presented it in a package that feels complete, varied, oozes style and gives you some memorable characters to boot. You’re going to love Garl. And some others I can’t talk about here.
The blend of fantasy, mix of mechanics, the feel and flow of the game’s systems gradually presented to you, and when that story kicks in, it all fits into place. Sea of Stars feels like both a return to form and the start of something different and special.
Sea of Stars is a defining moment for classic RPGs reinterpreted in a modern way. Sabotage Studios have found a unique balance that compliments everything that came before and presents it in a way that today’s gamer will recognise and appreciate. From story, to visuals, music, and combat, this game is an incredible accomplishment that you simply must play whether you’re pining for days gone by, or are looking for an experience to wash over you with a wave of refreshment, taking you on a memorable adventure you’ll never forget.
+ World class aesthetic with vivid graphics, stunningly presented animation and soothing score
+ Well built remix of familiar mechanics with smart reimaginings and new ideas
+ Surprisingly deep combat with ever-developing strategic layer
+ A story that grows with the game
– Slow starter
– Combat can be a bit of a slog at times
Sea of Stars is out now on PC, Switch, Xbox Game Pass, and PlayStation +
Code Kindly Provided by Sabotage Studios for review purposes
Played on Nintendo Switch