Let me throw this out there upfront - I come to this as a total JRPG amateur. I'm somewhat familiar with many of them but have only finished a handful start to finish. With that in mind, I came to this homage to Chrono Trigger and its ilk without familiarity of the games it pays tribute to. With that perspective, Sea of Stars is full of fun, creative ideas that create sporadic moments of excitement, but it overall lacks the progression to stay consistently engaging.
Your moment-to-moment gameplay consists of a mixture of "parkour", "puzzles" and combat. Those first two are rudimentary to the point of being mindless, but in a way that was basically satisfying. When it came to scaling the highest peaks and exploring the deepest oceans, I could mostly just let the little cymbal monkey in my brain take over, but it was soothing in a way that effectively broke up the combat and story sequences, especially with the gorgeous environments and very catchy music.
On the store page for this game, Sabotage Studio boldly and proudly proclaims the game features NO random encounters and NO grinding. In both cases, I feel compelled to wonder what they understand those words to mean. I suppose it's technically true, but battles with generic goons at seemingly random points along your path, which respawn when you're inevitably forced to backtrack along the area, feels enough like grinding random mobs to me to be a distinction without a difference. That's not to criticize that so much as say this isn't the revolution of JRPG game design it was touted as. I would also clarify my use of "generic" as referring to them being unnamed characters; the designs themselves are wonderfully exciting and creative to see. There's some freaky little fellas in the Fleshmancer's castle I couldn't get enough of.
Still, the combat is the interesting little baby in the King's Cake. The game's locking system, in which an enemy's Dragon Ball attack buildup can be cancelled out by thwacking them with a specific combination of typed damage, is a wonderful idea in concept, ostensibly filling combat with a series of little puzzle sequences to put together on the fly. Still, because I'm a cold-hearted monster, I have some issues. While the game is admittedly weirdly insistent about how you DON'T NEED TO WORRY about pulling off lock breaks, like a fussy mom worried about her kid getting hurt on the playground, it remains frustrating how often they smack you with locks that simply can't be broken in time. Whenever an enemy mosies on in with a smug grin, drops his big fat gut on the table, and tells you to pop three suns, two blunt, two slash, maybe a poison for good measure, and write the next great American novel in two turns, I feel like they might as well just call out "everything-proof shield!". Sun in particular is a menace; options to pop more than one sun icon at once are sparse, to say the least. For the other side of the celestial coin, Valere has Moonerang, a move which functions as the best single target attack, best AOE attack, and would effectively break any and all moon attacks. This also highlights another issue - your selection of moves is limited, and useful moves are even moreso, so much of this 30+ hour game is spent recycling the same three or four moves. I think my hands bounce moonerangs back and forth in my sleep like an Amityville possession now. Things are meant to be shaken up by combo moves, but the vast majority of these are similarly useless. In addition, the meter takes long enough to charge it was infrequent I could do too much with it all. I'm sure there would've been a lovely little animation if I dumped three whole combo charge on doing a bit of poison and arcane damage to a single target, but such things are now lost to history.
In addition to the lock system, attacking and defending can be strengthened by properly timed taps, which are also NOT vital and you DO NOT have to do them for the love of GOD (seriously, they reemphasize that at least five or six times). The mechanic introduces a satisfying little challenge to spice up combat. Most animations are fairly intuitive when you're supposed to hit, though some could be much clearer, and a handful I never figured out, just watching a boss perform the entire first act of Goethe's Faust in windup to his attack and trying to intuit which of Mephistopheles's appearances was deemed the most operatic.
In aid of your many cruel and unnecessary attacks on woodland creatures, the game presents a series of collectibles. First, relics. While presented and sold as unlockable buffs, these are essentially cheat mode, and hardly worth mentioning. Second, armor and weapons. In an effort to reduce tedious digging around through stacks of Thunder Staff of Enlightening and Mighty Pants of Virginal Defense, equipment has been streamlined to the point of being vestigial. Sans backtracking, if you find armor, it will have better numbers than what you currently have. Equip it, do a little "yippeeeee" as you watch the numbers go up, and move on - i.e. a complete waste of time. The more detailed equippables come in the form of accessories, which actually do provide unique buffs, though nothing too exciting. Specifically worth mentioning are the party-wide buff items, which can form an integral part of the party strategy until the game arbitrarily decides to take characters away for a while, and the items they were carrying with them. The last and most frequent pickup is ingredients, used to make food items that were almost entirely unnecessary for the vast majority of the game. The fact that there's a fireplace every eight feet like the Solstice Warriors took a pitstop in a multiplayer survival game means that heals are pretty much only useful in tanky boss fights that go on for a fortnight, in which case there's a combo ability that gets the job done.
Before getting to the story, let me quickly address Wheels, a delightful little sidegame that occasionally crops up along the journey. It's surprisingly engaging, though not quite deep enough to sink hours into. That being said, the balance is a tad wonky. The only enemy I struggled with was the one deploying the Assassin-Priest combo. After trying it myself, I was just unbeatable. The Assassin just crams every enemy token into gay baby jail and stunlocks them until they die; it's kind of silly.
For an RPG such as this, the make or break ultimately comes down to the story. Here, the story could be best described as... sporadically interesting. My patience grew thin very early, as we watch two cardboard automatons named Valere and Zale file through the Chosen One Registration Office, before being set off to the big wide world in order to fulfill their destiny of doing fetch quests for every random jackoff that asks. So much of this game is made up of "sorry Solstice Warriors, destined saviors of all mankind, I won't trust you're REALLY worthy until you rescue my favorite sneakers from the Swamp of Misery or whatever". I was satisfied with that for a long stretch of time, as that token busy work lead me through wonderful setpiece after wonderful setpiece, meeting fun characters along the way and seeing all sorts of creative ideas for locations and enemies (the Necromancer in particular was pretty funny), all illustrated with some phenomenal pixel art. In addition, all the backstory / lore communicated through Teaks was actually very engrossing.
Still, that only lasted for so long until the aimless wandering wore thin. It was only towards the end, when the writer's room burned through all their hoarded-up psychedelics in one glorious session, that they roped in ideas of multiversal travel and sci-fi robots that I perked up. When the relationship between the Alchemist and the Fleshmancer came into focus, it was interesting! When we went through the 3D cyber-highway and plopped out in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, I was hootin' and hollerin'! The entire sequence of Garl's sacrifice was a genuinely poignant moment in a generally lighthearted game. When the plot develops a clear sense of purpose, I was fully onboard, but the wheels on the bicycle remain pretty wobbly throughout.
The betrayal, for example, is nonsensical. Let's walk through the logic tree: 1. I am dissatisfied being forced into the destiny of a Solstice Warrior - Fair. 2. I am not convinced this Dweller we are meant to kill will be the last - Fair. With these in mind, we should therefore ally with the Dwellers and cast the world into an infinite darkness. Uh? Wuh? Buh????? Many many hours later this is justified by their intention to leave to a different universe and the vein in my forehead subsided. That is, at least until Erlina's second personality takes over and the logic tree changes to 1. UNLIMITED POWER!!!!!!!! therefore ally with the Dwellers and cast the world into an infinite darkness. After the tragedy of this baffling twist, the Elder Solstice Warrior is so hurt he decides to piss off and give up on everything. Like, just kicks up his feet and hangs out in their town while Valere and Zale have to awkwardly swing by his house for brunch and pretend like it's not weird that he just abandoned them without a second thought and only comes by to raid their fridge and borrow their PS4 games.
Serai is a peculiar character. Introduced with a quirky cast of lovable pirates and upcoming twists signposted so hard they risk pulling a Hereditary, the ultimate reveals come with very little circumstance. The first reveal is played as a joke, but nobody ever seems all that fazed by any of it, least of all her crew, who make literally no comment on their pirate captain turning out to be a cyborg assassin. Who even are these people? Are they from another dimension too? How did she even meet them? Still, the detour to save her homeworld was interesting, and the Derelict Factory was probably one of my favorite locations in the game.
The Alchemist's plot is easily the most interesting in the game, but it ends entirely abruptly. After a revelation which I would like to see the emotional character fallout of, he holes himself up back in his gamer den and doesn't say another word for the rest of the game. Instead, he leaves behind a My Pet Alchemist for you to play with in an awkwardly transparent example of story making concessions to gameplay. He doesn't show up again until the ending and, well...
To not sugarcoat it, the ending of this game is quite frankly pathetic. After battling through a series of increasingly spongey bosses, you reach the final fight with the Fleshmancer. Or, er, rather your former mentor who is apparently evil now; the other one has shed some of his pixels to become a boss in The Messenger, I guess. After defeating her, I laughed out loud when the Fleshmancer abruptly blew her fucking head off. Then, we're treated to a GI Joe "the battle goes on" type sequence, the Celestial Warriors tell their friends that Pookie has to go back to his home planet, and there's a flashy little space battle. Ultimately, I think I would've flipped a gasket at this ending, if I didn't know there was a true ending to be acquired after the credits roll. As is, it's cute and charming as a sequence.
Then, however, I was mortified. The first action of the true ending is to bring Garl back. Make no mistake, I like that little fella. His ability to make friends with everyone is charming, even though he's about as useful in combat as you would expect a frying pan to be against Chthulhu. But there needs to be such a thing as consequence in a story, and our first order of business here is to completely undermine and destroy any impact that emotional death sequence might have had because they can't abandon a fwend. So, right off the bat I was annoyed. Then, after completing a series of tasks, most of which I had already done and which included a particularly tedious scavenger hunt, you reenter the Fleshmancer's Castle, fry cook in tow. Now comes the actual fight; since the timeline is altered, Erlina has pissed off to also pick up an extra paycheck as a side gig in The Messenger. With the Fleshmancer defeated, we're treated to a GI Joe "the battle goes on" type sequence, the Celestial Warriors tell their friends that Pookie has to go back to his home planet, and there's a flashy little space battle.
...Wait a minute.
So the true ending is almost the exact same thing, except now we have Garl as an Also-There. The Alchemist swoops in and whisks of the Fleshmancer... somewhere??? Why does he save him? Where is he going? Find all this out in the next $35 game, you little pocket books! I hope he just took him to Reno or something, blew some of those gold coins on slots and prostitutes. While the final image is sweet, this ending that you were asked to go above and beyond for is insultingly abrupt. Very little feels resolved, and the fact they accompanied the game's release with an announcement of upcoming story DLC, presumably to clean this crap up, is disgraceful. I know it's free DLC, but there's no excuse for releasing the game when it ends just as satisfyingly as Pookie returning to his home planet did - maybe the DLC will open by announcing Zale died on his way back.
The overriding philosophy of this game was "streamlining", and in that they succeeded. However, those gritty details, quirks, peculiarities, are the heart and soul of these types of games. When the gameplay and story has been smoothed down to be as efficient as possible, a certain amount of heart is lost along the way. The worst part of Sea of Stars is that it does often feel like going through the motions - doing a thing to do a thing to do a thing. In the end, I'm not sure there's much to be remembered from it aside from the tremendous polish. Polish, however, does not alone make a compelling game.
P.S. Some miscellaneous notes:
1. The weird little animatics were infrequent enough to be distracting, as well as feeling totally unnecessary - still looked cool though.
2. The facial expressions are just wonderful. Every characters' shocked or embarrassed face amused me every time.
3. Some of the character positioning for attacks was pretty awkward. Something like Moonerang sitting you unevenly between enemies could be argued to be a gameplay challenge, but Venom Flurry would often send Serai off the screen - that's a big problem for a timing challenge.
4. Garl's eye getting messed up is introduced and then never mentioned again.
5. I was unreasonably annoyed about the Clockwork kids talking about how they never aged and are still kids while they're walking around with 40-years-in-the-desert Moses beards and wrinkled up like Clint Eastwood.