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Sea of Stars

Sea of Stars

Written by Eric Hauter on 8/28/2023 for PS5  
More On: Sea of Stars

Often times, I get lost in the stories of major RPGs. I don’t mean that I become so enraptured with the story that I lose track of my surroundings and allow the game’s world to wrap around me, enfolding me in the warm embrace of fantastical goodness. No, I mean that I get so zoned out on the game’s mechanics that I forget to keep track of what the hell is going on in the story. Either that, or the narrative is so convoluted that I simply stop caring about whatever is happening to the characters in the game (looking at you, Final Fantasy VII Remake) and simply fall into a pattern of button clicking to advance my characters.

This never happened to me while playing Sea of Stars. About halfway through the game, I realized that I was being told a very clear story, taking place in an interesting and well-developed fantasy world. The characters are well-defined, with clear motivations and personalities. The settings are unique and original, and they each serve a purpose in the overall narrative; I never wondered why I was dragging my characters through a particular environment. When twists come in the story, they are earned by what has come before.

Even more intriguing for me is the fact that Sea of Stars has wit. This is a game with a sense of humor, and I don’t mean the crass nonsense that sometimes substitutes for “funny” in games. No, this game was written by people that care about the characters they are writing, and when the humor hits, it is born from the actual personalities of characters we have come to know. Heavy on charm, Sea of Stars is full of laughs and surprises.

In fact, Sea of Stars excels in a lot of ways. There is a reason that this game is dropping on both Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus on it’s first day out in the wild; I’m assuming that the administrators of those programs saw what was on offer here and thought “Oh, yes. We must have this.” This is an RPG that delivers 30-or-so hours of colorful and fun gameplay, never becoming boring or rote. Sea of Stars’ gameplay is engaging the whole way through; I never turned off my brain and just clicked buttons with this one, which is a major achievement for an RPG.

The story in Sea of Stars follows Zale and Valere, two Solstice Warriors who – by having the fortune to be born on the Solstice – are singled out as “gifted” children and trained their entire lives to fight for the future of the world they live in. Solstice Warriors have very particular skill sets; Zale’s powers are sun-based, whereas Valere uses Moon powers, and working together they are able to meld these powers as a single fighting force.

It seems that a great ancient evil, known as The Fleshmancer, left behind a few “Dwellers” when it was defeated and banished. These Dwellers are creatures of unspeakable power, and only during rare eclipse events are the combined powers of Moon and Sun Solstice Warriors enhanced enough to stand a chance of defeating them. The story follows Zale and Valere (and their non-Solstice Warrior buddy Garl – a self-described “Warrior Cook”) as they set out into the world to help the needy and gain the experience needed to defeat the lingering Dwellers.

Along the way, this little band of heroes has a series of adventures, meeting new allies and enemies, and helping out anyone they come across that might need it. And that’s just about all I want to say about the storyline, other than to ensure potential players that every moment in the game is justified by the story. There is very little wandering about aimlessly, and even when you can’t see exactly why you are doing what you are doing, you can trust that the game will make it all make sense in the long run. This is meticulous storytelling.

So yes, Sea of Stars is well worth playing for the story and world-building alone. But some other key components in the game are worth discussion, as Sea of Stars’ lofty aspirations sometimes deliver a somewhat mixed experience.

First, more of the good stuff: Sea of Stars’ much ballyhooed traversal/exploration system is indeed excellent. The level design in the game is second to none in the puzzle RPG space. It is very rare to see pixel art characters behave in the way these do; characters shimmy across ledges, balance across tight ropes, dive into ponds, and Nathan Drake up cliff sides. These animations go a long way towards making the environments feel interactive and lively, and fun secrets are tucked away for those that are interested in leaving the beaten path.

Environmental puzzles are brilliantly executed, and again, always make sense within the context of the story. The difficulty of the puzzles varies slightly, and while I never got stuck for more than a moment or two, I was still left very satisfied when I completed a dungeon. There were several moments in the game where I saw a place I wanted to go, but I lacked the ability to get there. Again, I should have trusted Sea of Stars. This is a game that takes care of its players, and if you see an interesting far-off ledge a dungeon, the circuitous path you take will eventually lead you there.

Sea of Stars’ combat system was more hit or miss for me. There’s a lot going on here, but once it’s all introduced, the combat system becomes very static for long periods of time. It takes forever for the few new powers each character gains to be introduced, and while I enjoyed the way the characters are actually taught new abilities in the context of the story (as opposed to simply gaining them due to the magical accrual of XP), that affectation does leave the player’s toolbox feeling pretty light for the majority of the game.

For the first ten hours or so, each character has a basic attack, two magic powers, and a couple of combos that can be pulled off after a meter builds up. Performing basic attacks allows a character to super-charge one of their actions every few turns, but that’s about it. There is a neat timing mechanic that can increase damage (and decrease damage received), which keeps things engaging, but the impact of scoring those timed hits feels negligible after a while.

New combos can be discovered, and a few additional powers are eventually learned, but after so many battles the combat system starts to feel a little static. It’s not a deal breaker, it’s just not as engaging as I wanted it to be. I would have also liked a way to speed up the combat, as it can feel mighty slow after a while, as does the overall progression loop. It does help quite a bit that Sea of Stars relies very little on grinding, and it has no random battles. You can see it coming from a mile away, and sometimes you can avoid combat if you wish.

It should be noted that running at its default difficulty, Sea of Stars can be pretty tough. The game allows the player to customize that a bit with its “Relic” system, which allows the player to adjust certain things in the combat system, giving them incremental advantages if they wish. It’s a cool system, and I had a lot of fun messing around with the different setting combinations until I found one that was a bit less nail-biting, but still presenting a challenge.

Sea of Stars also has a hearty helping of fun side activities. The cooking mechanic substitutes for potions and elixirs in the game; finding ingredients and better recipes is imperative if you want to survive at the higher difficulties. A fun (and fairly unique) fishing minigame helps with that ingredient hunt. And a very entertaining minigame called "Wheels" takes the place of the obligatory card game, streamlining the "play a game at the tavern" activity in an agreeable way. 

Overall, I found Sea of Stars to be a very impressive game. There are enough standard RPG tropes that it will tickle the nostalgia button for those that long for the JRPG days of the SNES and the PS1. But the game has so many modern conveniences and interesting new mechanics that it never feels dated; Sea of Stars is a breath of fresh air in a sometimes very stale-feeling genre. Put your head down and barrel through the combat in order to get to the amazing story, puzzles, and exploration. Regardless of my minor quibbles, Sea of Stars is the good stuff.

Top tier storytelling, environmental puzzles, and exploration make Sea of Stars a must play for RPG fans. Though the combat system wears slightly thin after a while, the rest of the game is absolutely stellar. Colorful, funny, and packed full of memorable characters and moments, this is a game that is not to be missed by RPG fans.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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