While playing Sea of Stars, I realized what made Chrono Trigger so special. Square’s landmark RPG remains a gold standard because its developers understood that it was possible to build an RPG without any grinding. Every enemy was visible on the overworld, so you never got ambushed with random battles. Because you weren’t forced to run into enemies every few steps, encounters could be distinct and fun. And so was the curve the game kept you traveling along until you reached its conclusion.
Sea of Stars, a throwback RPG from The Messenger developer Sabotage Studios, borrows all of that, and is one of the best turn-based RPGs I’ve played in some time because of it. In the 35 hours I spent with the game, combat was rarely tedious or frustrating. Instead, it always felt like the challenge was right for my characters’ levels because the game had given me the experience I needed to get there.
The game begins by asking you to choose between two characters: a boy named Zale, with bright orange hair, and a blue-haired girl named Valere. Whoever you choose, the other character will be with you through every step of your long, winding journey. Zale and Valere are Solstice Warriors, raised in a monastery-like school from childhood to tap into the power of the sun (in Zale’s case) and the moon (in Valerie’s case) with the goal to prepare themselves to eventually defend the world.
When they begin training in early adolescence, it means separating from their friend Garl, a hearty, gregarious kid they grew up with in the town that houses their school. He doesn’t have Solstice powers, so he can’t join them for training. But when they emerge for their first quest years later, Garl quickly finds them and joins them on their journey. Their quest is focused on fighting Dwellers, monsters who would wreak havoc on their world if the Solstice Warriors weren’t present, and the Fleshmancer, the big bad behind it all.
Along the way, Zale, Valere, Garl, and a misfit band of characters fight loads of battles against creatures big and small. Much like Chrono Trigger, each character has individual attacks, but also has combos that they can pull off together. It’s important to consider which move you perform and when, because you often have a very short window of time to prevent a monster from striking.
Enemies have timers that ticks down until their next attack and boxes displaying moves you can hit them with to stop that attack from happening. It’s somewhat similar to Octopath Traveler 2, where each new enemy had a series of blank boxes by their name that were gradually filled in with symbols as you hit them with an attack they were weak to. But by tying your attacks to timers, Sea of Stars pushes you to constantly strategize to pull all those attacks together in a limited amount of time.
And timers are always counting down. There are the countdowns to attacks, but there are also the smaller timing challenges required to make the most of each attack and block. You need to hit the action button at the precise moment of contact, and that keeps battles physically engaging. Then there are the countdowns when a character gets knocked out, with the number of turns left before they automatically revive represented in cartoon stars around their head. The number of turns goes up with each successive KO, which means that, even though the game doesn’t push you to conserve Phoenix Downs, a match can still have you scrounging to buy yourself more time.
The result of all these timers is a great modern riff on an old favorite that takes classic turn-based design and lights a fire under its ass. The kindling that keeps that fire burning? Terrific enemy variety. Sea of Stars keeps introducing new monsters at a regular clip throughout its 30+ hour runtime. One might make clones of itself as you scramble to kill it. Another might envelop you in a bubble, lift you in the air, then drop you on the ground, requiring a well-timed button press to minimize fall damage. I never really got tired of any of the monsters I was facing, and if I did, there were always new ones being introduced just in time.
These fights often occur in dungeons that split the difference between SNES RPGs and 2D Zelda. They never get as deep as, say, A Link to the Past, and you probably won’t ever get stuck for long. But, they do require you to find key items, raise and lower water levels, or hunt down bigger keys for bigger doors. This was precisely the amount of puzzle-solving I was looking for. The only frustrations in exploration are caused by the game’s lack of a quest log (which isn’t often a problem because SoS is fairly linear). If you forget where you’re supposed to be going, you can always check the map. But if you’re in the right general area but can’t recall your specific task, you’re kind of out of luck. You just have to wander around until you get back on track.
Sea of Stars can falter in its downtime. During the demo that I played earlier this year, I visited Brisk, a port town you reach a few hours into the game. I had assumed that I couldn’t open most of the doors because developer Sabotage was keeping the stuff behind them secret for the full release. But, nope, a lot of the buildings are just closed off, and it’s kind of a bummer. Towns are where RPGs get the chance to show off a lot of their personality and, though other towns have a little more to offer, Sea of Stars is kind of a whiff in this regard (which I may be hyper-aware of because I’m currently playing through Baldur’s Gate 3, which succeeds wildly in this respect).
There are some fun minigames you can mess around with between the epic battles. There are quite a few ponds throughout the game where you can catch fish to make health-restoring sashimi, and the minigame is pretty fun, too. There’s also a game called Wheels which is an interesting hybrid of slots and a dueling game like Yu-Gi-Oh! that I had a good time with even though I lost over and over.
This review has been very focused on mechanics because Sea of Stars’ protagonists aren’t similarly interesting. Zale and Valere may have odd names, but they’re deeply conventional characters. Each is blandly heroic and compassionate, but neither has much personality beyond that. Garl is, by far, the best of the central characters, as loyal to his important friends as Samwise Gamgee was to Frodo. Over the course of the game he even earns a nickname that could apply equally well to Tolkien’s steadfast hobbit: Warrior Cook. He’s the heart of the game, and the second act climax, which centers on him, is Sea of Star’s storytelling highlight.
Sea of Stars offers plenty of small things that make it a delight, too. The colors are constantly lush, even as they swing wildly from autumnal forests, to bright coastal towns, to ominous black and red castles, to swamps dotted with mushrooms that may serve as bridges or trampolines depending on where you need to go. The music by Eric W. Brown and Yasunori Mitsuda (who co-composed the score for Chrono Trigger) is upbeat and melodic. One small detail that, thankfully, isn’t small at all? The onscreen dialogue. In text-heavy games with no voiceover, I often find myself squinting to read the screen, but Sea of Stars’ fonts were perfectly easy to read from the comfort of my couch.
What I find most remarkable about Sea of Stars is that, despite not caring all that much about its characters, the gameplay was good enough that I was invested throughout. Managing the meters of each battle, and exploring the colorful landscapes and dungeons that connect them, is so entertaining that my quibbles about other aspects couldn’t bring the experience down. The story isn’t especially compelling, but it perfectly serves the purpose it needs to: getting you from the fun of A to the fun of B without any real hiccups in between. Howard Hawks once said that a movie needs “three good scenes and no bad ones” to be great. That’s what Sea of Stars has going for it. Nothing that’ll bother you too much, and plenty of good.