Sea of Stars Review - Sailing the Standard Seas
Sea of Stars is this year's big indie Kickstarter JRPG, and it has a lot in common with last year's Chained Echoes. That game was a modern reimagining of Final Fantasy XII by way of Skies of Arcadia and Xenogears. This is Chrono Trigger via Super Mario RPG and perhaps Star Ocean. SoS at least has a plot that is clearly its own instead of just rewording everything in FFXII, but it's still probably safe to say that you won't like it unless you like its inspirations.
I'll start with the writing, since that is easily the weakest part of the game and it's at its worst early on. Although SoS's dual protagonists are not silent, they're nonetheless so impossibly bland that it's hard to ascribe much more personality to them than Chrono or Mario managed to convey with low-res gestures. The rest of the cast fares better, but only to the extent that I could at least come up with an adjective or two to describe them other than "generic". Still, the plot eventually manages to go somewhere interesting despite the best efforts of the cast to be boring. I doubt I'll remember any of it in a year, but it was enough to keep me going to the regular ending. Just be warned that the opening sections are dull enough that I nearly gave up on the game.
Sea of Stars doesn't really have anything that's as strong as the story is weak, but it's at least competent in most other areas. The best contender for an equivalent strength is the art, which is great throughout. Every area features detailed backgrounds and unique sprites, and fancy animations do a lot to spruce up the boss fights. Graphics don't make a game, of course, but they did a lot of the heavy lifting on the marketing here. The music is also generally quite well done, although the game could certainly have used a few more battle tracks.
Combat, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. It's basically just the battle systems of Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG mashed together, meaning you have timed hits and a bunch of special attacks ripped sometimes verbatim from SMRPG together with the character combo attacks from CT. Each character only gets three abilities and an ultimate over the entire game, though, so it's quite basic even with a beginner-friendly game like SMRPG as a comparison. SoS tries to shake things up with a "locks" system whereby hitting an enemy with specific elements before it finishes casting will cancel the spell, but in non-boss battles particularly this actually reduces the strategies available to you since the game has basically decided your next several turns for you. Bosses fare better since you need to balance attacking with keeping MP available to break locks, but even then there's rarely much more strategy than not using offensive skills unless you have to.
The required gameplay is mostly a long series of battles broken up by simple world traversal and the occasional puzzle. Unlike a lot of RPGs, these are actually pretty well done. The puzzles you have to do are satisfying despite being pretty easy, and the optional ones I saw were pretty clever. Most of the rest of the optional gameplay feels like pointless Kickstarter bloat, unfortunately. It's got the tacked-on town building, board game, backer content, etc, that all of these games need to have, and while none of it is bad enough to actively detract from the game, none of it really contributes anything either.
I brought up Chained Echoes at the beginning because I don't think Sea of Stars compares very favorably to it. Where that game meaningfully built on the systems and ideas of its 10-20 year old predecessors, SoS hardly contains anything that wasn't already done by its own 30 year old inspirations. That wouldn't have been a problem if it had a brilliant new story to tell, but since it doesn't, it's hard to see what this offers that isn't already readily available in older games. That doesn't make it a bad game by any means, but it's hard for me to imagine someone I'd actually recommend it to. You'll probably have a good time with this as long as you like JRPGs, but unless you've already played all the classic and modern games with timed hits and character combos, there are loads of other options that will give you all of this game's strengths with a better story and more content. Sea of Stars is competent, but forgettable.
Time to beat: 25 hours for the normal ending
MSRP: $35 or Gamepass