A shallow story and cast hold Sabotage Studio’s RPG back from greatness
Sea of Stars lives up to its sun-and-moon concept of duality in ways that developer Sabotage Studio probably didn’t intend. The team has cited Chrono Trigger and other classic SNES games as inspiration for Sea of Stars, but while playing the game I quickly realized those ambitions didn’t quite extend to its characters and writing. Characters resolve major conflicts and relationship stumbling blocks with ease — they simply stop talking about them — and over the course of what tries to be a grand epic, no one really changes or grows. Yet out on the battlefield, Sea of Stars often shines more brilliantly than the luminaries around it.
Sea of Stars’ narrative has a lot in common with Dragon Quest and other straightforward, good-versus-evil setups. The main story centers on a pair named Zale and Valere who harness the power of the sun and moon, respectively, on their quest to fight an evil being known by the slightly awkward name of The Fleshmancer. There’s intrigue, betrayal, and revelations that shatter the characters’ worldviews as the story unfolds, all telegraphed so clearly that it’s hard to feel surprised when they happen.
The game is also almost universally populated with one-note personalities. Valere and Zale are interchangeable to the point where, if you covered their character portraits, it would be almost impossible to tell who’s talking. Their dynamic feels like a missed opportunity as well. The relationship between the two is shallow and underdeveloped for most of the game, as the focus remains firmly on the events they’re part of rather than the characters themselves. The same is true for their allies and enemies.
The end result is something that resembles Golden Sun more than the story-driven RPGs of the ’90s. The idea of the characters and their journey is more interesting than the reality, and inconsistencies in writing tone and style also make it difficult to fully invest in that idea for long.
Sea of Stars does an excellent job selling the idea of adventure, though. Its world is beautifully rendered and brimming with magic, from hill-sized catapults and dragons cozily draped around mountains to brightly lit fungal tunnels, haunted forests filled with sickly green miasma, and colorful towns perched precariously on the ocean’s edge. Even your standard, early-game regions feel fresh and exciting, helped in part by the creativity of monster designs and their behavior in combat.
Battles in Sea of Stars feel like those in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, even down to Valere and Zale’s first skills, which are almost identical to Superstar Saga’s shell kick and fireball. The three members of your party have basic attacks and special skills, both of which deal extra damage if you press a button at the right moment before the hit lands. Skills cost mana, which you can regenerate by using basic attacks, and enemies are weak to certain types of weapon and magic damage. The setup is a familiar one, admittedly, though Sea of Stars adds a few extra layers that make it one of the smarter combat systems in the genre, one that rewards good planning and gives every action a purpose.
Enemies enter a lock state before using powerful spells or attacks. You can break the lock with the right combination of moves and cancel the attack, but there’s a catch. A lock might require two bludgeoning attacks to break, or three consecutive moon element attacks. That’s challenging to pull off depending on turn order and how much mana you have left, but when locks spring on multiple enemies, it requires a deeper level of strategy even during standard encounters.
Then there’s live mana. Your basic attacks create this resource, which you can use to boost a character’s attacks and even imbue them with elements, handy for breaking enemy locks if you time your boosts correctly. It’s a deft balance of complexity and approachability that only grows more satisfying as you team up with more allies.
Sea of Stars aims for, well, the stars, but lands somewhere a bit lower. Its charming world and brilliant combat carry much of the adventure. However, when Sea of Stars wants very much to be a narrative-driven game with a big cast of characters, it’s difficult to overlook the story’s shortcomings.
Sea of Stars will be released on Aug. 29 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Sabotage Studio. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.