It’s only February, but 2023 is already shaping up to be full of AAA releases from big-name developers. From The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom to Final Fantasy XVI and Starfield, RPG fans have a lot to look forward to. One of my most anticipated titles, however, is an indie retro RPG from the developers of The Messenger. Sea of Stars immediately captured my attention with its lovely pixel art, interesting battle mechanics, and the news that Yasunori Mitsuda would be contributing to the soundtrack. The wait has been long, but after the most recent Nintendo Direct, we now have a demo on the Switch to tide us over until the game’s August 29th release date. I quickly dove into this sampling to sate my curiosity and walked away wishing I could keep playing. Here are my impressions after roughly an hour with the game.
First off, Sea of Stars is utterly gorgeous. Its vibrant pixel graphics and charming character animations are both beautiful and endearing. Dynamic lighting and shadows add to the atmosphere, and though it’s not present in this demo, the full game will have a day/night cycle that players can freely manipulate, whether for ambiance or to solve puzzles. The isometric environments are detailed, and there are lots of nooks and crannies players can uncover to find hidden goodies, like treasure chests containing helpful gear or even scrolls that can unlock new combo attacks in battle. A world map connects the locations in true old-school RPG fashion. Even with one island as a sample, I can tell that exploring this land is going to be a joy.
It’s hard to make any judgments about the game’s story or characters with such a short peek; the demo appears to start slightly after the journey begins, so I didn’t have a lot of context for what’s going on. Zale and Valere are Solstice Warriors, do-gooders who can channel the power of the sun and moon, respectively. Along with their best friend Garl, the pair are on a quest to reach the ominously named Wraith Island in time for an eclipse. In order to get there, they make a deal with a pirate crew to retrieve a valuable artifact from a dead wizard’s abandoned lab in exchange for passage to the island. The demo allows you to explore a few areas, including a port town called Brisk, but the main attraction is the wizard’s lab.
Like any good dungeon, the lab includes monsters, puzzles, and caps things off with a boss fight. One of the features that sets Sea of Stars apart from other retro RPGs is that you can climb and jump off ledges, swim in water, and push objects. These traversal options give you more ways to move around environments and find hidden areas, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the full game takes advantage of this to encourage exploration.
At first glance, combat in Sea of Stars appears to be a standard turn-based affair. However, a few elements make it a little more interesting. First, the game employs timed button presses à la Super Mario RPG that can increase damage dealt and reduce damage taken. Some character skills also have interactive elements, like Valere’s Moonerang attack allowing you to bounce her lunar projectile between enemies with well-timed taps of the A button. Second, enemies periodically charge up special attacks, but you can weaken or even cancel these moves by hitting them with specific types of damage — displayed over an enemy as a series of locks that break with each correct hit. Third, regular attacks scatter energy across the battlefield. At any point, players can choose to have a character absorb this energy, which powers up their next attack. And finally, characters can employ combo attacks, which are powerful two-person techniques that can deal a high amount of damage or even heal the party. All of these elements make for a more engaging battle system with a lot of promise.
Last, but not least, the music in Sea of Stars is delightfully nostalgic. Primary composer Eric Brown’s score sounds like it could have come straight out of a SNES or PS1 RPG, albeit with slightly better synths. The demo also includes one of Yasunori Mitsuda’s guest tracks, which immediately made me think of Chrono Cross — a huge plus in my book, as I think it’s one of Mitsuda’s best soundtracks.
Overall, my impressions of Sea of Stars are very positive, but there are a few things I’m concerned about. The writing in the demo is serviceable but often lacks personality, and there are some lines between NPCs that don’t make much sense. Character movement feels a touch slow, particularly on the world map. And the cooking system, which allows you to make restorative meals at campsites, feels a tad restrictive because you can only carry ten items at a time. Given that this demo is not a final build, I expect some of these concerns will be addressed in the coming months, and others may naturally work themselves out as you progress in the full game.
This summer is full of big RPG releases with shiny graphics and modern touches. But I’m just as excited, if not more so, for the nostalgic retro experience that awaits me in Sea of Stars. And based on what I’ve seen in this brief demo, you may find yourself excited too! Sea of Stars comes out August 29th on PC, PS4/5, and Switch.