Sea of Stars Demo Impressions

A few weeks ago the upcoming indie RPG Sea of Stars had a public demo released. This game has been anticipated for awhile by a lot of the SNES RPG fans I follow in the gaming world thanks to its Chrono Trigger inspiration and guest music tracks by the game’s composer, Yasunori Mitsuda. Despite the enthusiasm from many others, I myself hadn’t paid too much attention to the game until the recent Nintendo Direct. I don’t know what it was about the Direct trailer that hit me – maybe I’m in the mood for this kind of game or maybe being surrounded by a bunch of stuff I wasn’t really interested in helped Sea of Stars stand out more. But this time I found myself compelled by it, and thankfully the release of the demo meant I could scratch that itch and see if the game would be something to look forward to in the months to come.

The Sea of Stars demo follows the two main characters of the game, Zale and Valere, as well as their companion Garl, as they seek passage by sea to a distant destination for [REDACTED STORY REASONS]. This leads them to a group of pirates who agree to grant them passage in exchange for helping them get their hands on a piece of treasure. Most of the action of the demo is focused on the dungeon-like area where this treasure is claimed, allowing you to solve puzzles and do some battles to get a feel for how the game will work. But of course since no RPG is a real RPG unless there is fishing involved, you can also try out the fishing minigame as well as exploring the town where you encounter the pirates for the first time.

Let’s start with presentation. The pixel art is Sea of Stars is gorgeous, with evocative character designs as well as cool monsters to fight. The colors really pop and create a world that is a pleasure to see. I was also particularly impressed with the way the pixels look in motion – the boss encounter at the temple in particular showed that sprite moving in fascinating ways. Graphics are rarely what draw me to a game and I don’t need them to be good to get into a game, but for those who have high standards Sea of Stars looks quite promising on that front. And the music of course is gorgeous. I didn’t even listen to the Mitsuda track that’s available in the demo – the music by the game’s main composer Eric W. Brown was plenty catchy in its own right. This is one I can see myself listening to with headphones instead of having a podcast or YouTube video in the background.

From a writing standpoint, the demo suggests a tight, sharp experience that gets to the point and leaves much of the discovery to optional conversations with NPCs. This isn’t as wordy as a Golden Sun or a Persona title – the dialogue scenes are relatively short so you can focus on the action. But the personalities of the characters – particularly the few side characters you meet in the game – really shine through the way they speak and act when you interact with them. I found the band of pirate companions very charming and look forward to seeing more of them in the full game. It also seems like Sea of Stars will primarily be funny and earnest in tone; nothing about the demo suggests that this game will be particularly edgy or tongue in cheek. It’s an honest celebration of the era of RPGs it strives to capture.

Unsurprisingly the meat and potatoes of a game in this style is in the exploration and combat. Overworld movement primarily focuses on using the control stick to maneuver your character, but there are a few movement features that make Sea of Stars feel a bit unique. You can jump down or climb up small ledges including making a small hop to climb ledges that are slightly taller than the height of your characters, making vertical movement a much bigger part of this game than your SNES-era Final Fantasy game. You can also jump horizontally across narrow gaps Zelda-style and swimming is available to you as well, although in the demo the swimming is focused only on surface-level movement across the water. Whichever of the two main characters Zale or Valere that you choose as your primary character also has a ring that creates a burst of wind which you use to manipulate objects in the environment. This for example is how you push the blocks for sliding block puzzles.

Overworld puzzles are a feature here and they’re pretty standard fare. If you’ve played CrossCode for example, Sea of Stars is not nearly as puzzle-heavy as that experience nor are the puzzles as involved. Golden Sun might be a useful point of comparison here. Puzzles might be climbing oriented, figuring out how to navigate to a particular location so you can press a switch. Or they can involve moving blocks around, or memorizing a path across platforms that will disappear if you step on the wrong ones. Puzzles in the demo are generally quick and punchy, rewarding you with a treasure chest or a key item and then sending you on your way. It does seem like there will also be optional puzzles and hidden pathways in dungeons, as the demo dungeon featured a missable path that led to some pretty solid armor if you beat a fishing minigame.

Here you can see some of the puzzle mechanics in action, changing out crystals to move between different puzzle rooms

Fishing in Sea of Stars seems to be one of a number of possible minigames promised on their website. You can fish only at set locations which are meant for fishing. When you stand at a fishing pier, you can cast your rod out into the water and then press the cast button again to drop the bobber where you want it to land. Once a fish bites, you hook it and have to pull on the line only when the fish is in the appropriate zone on the fishing meter – if you pull when the line is stressed, you’ll break it and miss the fish. Fish are a resource you can use in cooking, which is one of your main methods of healing in Sea of Stars. Meals can be prepared at campsites and then are stored in your pack to be utilized as consumables in or out of combat. Cooking ingredients can also be harvested in the overworld or occasionally dropped by monsters in combat.

Speaking of combat, this is the system I was the most prepared to be critical of. After all, turn-based combat has experienced all sorts of iterations and experimentation over the years, and since it is the most frequent gameplay element in most RPGs it is also the element that I look to scrutinize the most. Thankfully, Sea of Stars is doing a lot of interesting things with its combat system that, while clearly taking inspiration from classics like Chrono Trigger, feels unique and modern in its execution. At the beginning of a round of combat, enemies display how many turns remain until they will take their action. You can take action with whichever of your characters you want first until all three have taken their turn. Each turn you take, the counter on enemy turns will decrease by one until they make their attack. Once allies and enemies have all had one turn, the round comes to an end and a new round begins on the same terms.

Your characters can make a basic attack or use a skill on their turn. All attacks are affiliated with a damage type: Valere and Garl do blunt damage (indicated by a hammer icon) while Zale does slashing damage (indicated by a sword icon). Making a basic attack restores skill points (SP) so you can use your more powerful abilities. It also knocks some little glowing orbs out of the enemies that can then be absorbed by an ally to make their attack stronger and, in the case of Zale and Valere, add their elemental affinity to the attack (sun and moon, respectively). Being able to add elemental damage is important because sometimes when enemies queue up their attacks at the beginning of the round, they will display a meter than indicates they are making a particularly powerful attack. The meter shows icons for damage types that, if executed against that enemy, will prevent or at least weaken the special move they are about to perform.

Had I planned my turn better, I might’ve prevented this special by depleting the enemy’s meter

Now if you don’t have any orbs lying about to charge up a basic attack with elemental damage, you can instead do elemental damage by using one of your character’s skills. Skills cost SP to use but deal a lot more damage than basic attacks, and for the main characters have a moon or sun elemental affiliation without having to charge up with orbs. They also have other beneficial effects like being able to hit multiple enemies, or serving a function other than damage such as healing your allies. The game encourages you to use skills liberally since you can recharge them with basic attacks, which is a nice change of pace from the typical MP-based RPG where your tendency is to hoard all your points until the boss fight.

Combat encounters have a couple more features worth noting. One is timed inputs. By pressing a button at the right moment when attacking, you execute a more powerful attack that does more damage and maybe hits more times, allowing you to deplete more spots from an enemy’s special meter. The game describes these inputs as “optional” but based on my experience, they’re about as optional as firing your gun in Call of Duty. Not using the timed inputs significantly increases the damage you take and lowers the damage you deal while also halving the number of spots on enemy meters that you deplete with your basic attacks or specials. If you have any plans of legitimately engaging with Sea of Stars then you need to be using the timed inputs. Compare this to a game like Ikenfell where the timed inputs can be set so that you never get a total failure, just a good or great, or turned off completely so all your attacks and blocks are great. It’s something to be aware of if timed inputs are an accessibility issue for you.

The other notable feature is the combo meter. Normal actions during combat slowly build up the combo meter, with breaking enemy meters filling it up by a more significant amount. Once the combo meter fills completely you get a diamond of energy that you can spend on combo attacks, moves where two characters work together for a big attack or healing spell. Some combo moves are more expensive than others, requiring you to save two or three diamonds of energy to execute the attacks. This is the most blatantly Chrono Trigger aspect of the game, but the fact that it works differently helps it to stand out more. And besides, team-up attacks are sick and more games should have them, so it works out.

All of these elements work together to make a combat system that feels quick and dangerous. You’ve got to strike a balance between using your specials too much and thus not having them at the right time when you need to deplete an enemy’s special meter, and never using them and thus wasting turns of SP recovery as well as slowing down the battles. Picking which enemy’s special to prevent when multiple foes have a meter up adds a little spice, and at least during the demo, combat feels pretty lethal if you’re not executing timed hits well or aren’t making good choices about how to spend your turns and SP. The system feels unique and modern, a smart response to the typical complaints one might have about the era of RPGs being captured here. My one major concern after the demo focuses on the length of the game – based on the menu screens and the layout of their website, it looks like there will be about six playable characters who will each only have four skills. If this is true, that’s a pretty small number of skills to be learning in an RPG. If this thing lasts longer than 20, maybe 30 hours, using the same small, discrete set of skills over and over again is going to get old fast. I’m hoping either than the game really is short or that there’s going to be more going on than is implied by the demo’s menus.

Overall, the Sea of Stars demo solidified my interest in the game. I’m excited for an experience that captures the SNES era RPG in presentation while bringing fresh combat, movement, and puzzles that keep things punchy and new. The game is slated to come out in August of 2023, and if you want to read more about it you can check out their website to see character descriptions, screenshots, and listen to some of the music from the game.

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