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I've been waiting for this game with bated breath ever since the first trailer, and upon learning that Yasunori Mitsuda himself, one of my favourite musicians of all time, wrote some music for it, and then playing the demo of it during the recent Steam's demo exhibition, my hype for the game steadily progressed. Needless to say, once again I'm reminded that one should count their chickens when they hatch.
Sea of Stars is one of the most mediocre games I've ever played. It's not bad, I dont regret the time I've spent playing it, but it just doesn't have much to offer beside nostalgia for the better games I've played through many times and absolutely stunning visuals.
This is the one positive thing I can say about the game without any "but"s - it looks fantastic. There's an insane amount of effort put into presentation of basically everything, even the minute things: every food item has its own sprite, every island you can visit has its own unique resting site that you might not even see if you don't make it a habit to rest on the overworld map, almost every location follows the day/night cycle, the title screen changes depending on your progress through the game, there's maybe about a dozen animated cutscenes (I think they kind of clash with the otherwise pixelart aesthetic, I've had the same problem with Chrono Trigger's PS1 rerelease, but they do still look really nice), all characters have alternate spritework just for one scene you might miss, all weapons have their own sprites, et cetera. The visual design of every location is great, they're all memorable and distinctive, and everything in them fits together nicely. The characters and enemies alike are all very well animated.
The combat is good initially... but it stops introducing new elements very quickly and ends up stagnating. If you've played the demo, you've seen most of how the combat goes - it's turn based and you control three characters, who have a basic attack (if you press the action button when the animation suggests so, you get an extra hit in), a couple of skills that use mana which regenerates with basic attacks, an ability to infuse the basic attack with magic generated by hitting enemies without the infusion, and food items which regenerate health or mana or both and have a total limit of 10 at a time. There is a combo meter that fills in through using skills and breaking enemies stance, and you can use it to make a pair of characters execute a special skill. About 10 hours later or so you also get to swap your characters mid-battle which is a free action, and the characters gradually get their ultimate skills, which use a yet another separate meter and have their own long flashy animations a la Limit Breaks or summons in Final Fantasy games. When enemies attack, you can time the blocks and take reduced damage.
This might sound like a lot to take in, but getting a grasp of it doesn't take long, and after than the combat is mostly static. The combat livens up a bit when you get to swap the characters around, but that novelty wears off pretty quickly as well.
A lot of skills end up strictly inferior and since they use the same resource, there's rarely any reason to deviate from the ones that work best. As an example, the fourth party member has the ability to delay opponent's turn, and it ends up dominating every other ability they have. The third party member has a very strong healing ability, and it dominates the rest all the same.
The combo meter fills up too slowly to use in most circumstances outside of the boss battles, and for the most of the game it's dominated by a single ability - a party-wide heal. This happens with the ultimate meter as well - the fifth party member simultaneously deals damage to all enemies, delays their turn and heals the entire party. No one else's ultimate has nearly as much utility.
The story operates completely on mcguffins and prophecies. No one can make a step without being bound to do so by Fate, which is used extensively to handwave away the impossible knowledge the characters suddenly obtain about what to do next and the lack of motivation to do so. Very few characters in this story actually want something from life, and when they do, they end up doing things so colossally stupid it becomes, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious.
Plot sort of starts in the middle and ends in the middle as well, there's very little progression to be felt throughout the game.
I feel there's only one party member with a distinct personality, the rest are kind of bland and uncharacterized. There are occasional comic reliefs which work decently well and don't become annoying by overstaying their welcome. The villains are all caricaturely evil, most of them in a cartoonish way, and some in the complete disregard for morals way. The background characters come and go without leaving much of an impression.
The world, despite extensive lore dumps, feels extremely artificial and tailor-made for the adventures the party is having. The progression through the world feels artificial as well - as I've played the game, I quickly learned that there's no sidetracking to be had, for almost the entire game there's been only one unexplored location available, which I had to traverse to get to or to otherwise unlock the new singular unexplored location. The game opens up a bit right at the end, but only just a bit - the best of it's efforts on that front will lead the player to about 3 screens or so of the optional area and a rematch against the boss the player had already fought, the other lead to 1 screen worth of a rudimentary puzzle, another boss rematch, or a short series of battles.
This, to me, was the probably the most disappointing bit - JRPGs typically excel at gradually widening the scope of themselves and allowing the player more and more leeway in what they can do as they get access to more and more optional locations bit by bit. In most JRPGs, getting a ship represents the moment of the game opening up for real. In Sea of Stars, it means nothing except that the player can now traverse ocean to get to the next singular unexplored area currently available to them.
Gameplay progression systems also happen to be boring.
Leveling up provides benefits so minute I don't understand why the devs didnt simply tie level ups to boss battles only, while making them more substantial at the same time. The game limits grinding severely either way - the amount of experience points needed for the next level scales very fast, as does the experience defeating enemies provide as you go through the game. It's therefore very hard to over- or undergrind which is good, but, again, I don't see why they designed a problem they needed a solution for when a game in Chrono series that they're so clearly paying homage to already completely sidestepped the whole issue two and a half decades ago. The skills/combos are already tied to story progression and collectible scrolls anyways.
The weapons and armor dont have anything to them except numbers, no special effects or anything (with one singular exception of a set of weapons that deals higher damage to undead), so they end up being disposed of as soon as the player finds a weapon/a piece of armor with better stats. The accessories are a bit better, but still like a half of them are just stat bonuses. Some of them are pretty transformative, though, and one is outright game-breaking.
As the story goes, the player gets access to a few knick-knacks that allow them to get into places they couldn't before, and this brings me to the secondmost sore spot in the game for me - collectibles being tied to the true ending.
I don't mind it in principle, what I do mind is the lack of quality of life features typically associated with such endeavors. Backtracking is very painful in this game, especially early on. What's even more painful is the lack of any sort of list for what you're missing in which location. There is a parrot that screams the random articles of the remaining collectibles in the area at you, but it's random, it's one at a time, and it takes forever to ask it again, and it includes in its tally the abysmal minigame that replaces the sort-of-traditional-for-JRPG-genre collectible cards minigame, which I wouldn't want to inflict on my worst enemy and which will be absent from this review lest I descend into words not lightly used in the civilized society. Collecting all the Rainbow Conches was not a very entertaining experience.
The soundtrack has some nice pieces, but overall it left kind of an amateurish impression on me. In a lot of songs the lead melody feels way too loud compared to the rest of the instrumentation, and a lot of songs suffer from the kind of uncanny sound you get by placing the same exact note with the same exact velocity using the same exact primitive instrument that has only one sample tied to it per note or maybe a deterministic synth generating the sound. The instruments themselves are often pretty obnoxious (especially the marches song, that one had me turn the music off until i got through the area). Nevertheless, I like the day/night cycle also cycling through two variations of the same song, and some songs having the dynamic stopping point, pretty neat.
I find myself running out of steam writing this review not unlike how the game itself seemingly ran out of steam and just sort of ended. I don't know if I can recommend this game to someone. Like I said at the beginning, I don't regret my time with the game, but I also don't see any particular reason why I would want someone to experience it.
It's a very okay game.

This review contains spoilers

I am not immune to propaganda. Show me a trailer for an indie JRPG featuring scripted encounters on the field maps, dual techs, and guest tracks by Yasunori Mitsuda, and I'll go "oh, a Chrono Trigger inspired indie JRPG, I sure hope they actually learned the right lessons from the classics" and drop $30 to see if they did.
They didn't.
(Full spoilers for both Sea of Stars and Chrono Trigger.)
I criticized Chained Echoes for being overly derivative of various golden age JRPGs, but to its credit: it feels purposeful in its imitation. It re-uses elements from older games wholecloth, smothering its individual identity under a quilt of influences, but I can appreciate the craftsmanship and intent behind it. It's clearly made from a place of love.
I don't get that vibe from Sea of Stars at all. I complained about some tediously self-aware dialogue in the early hours, and while it only dips down quite that low once or twice more, it colored the entire game with a feeling of self-aggrandizement. In fairness to what I wrote then (and based on a lengthy speech in the hidden Dev Room) it sounds like the devs truly did want to make a JRPG and pay homage to their childhoods. But to me, harsh as it may be, Sea of Stars feels like the devs thought making a JRPG was easy: just copy the greats (specifically, Chrono Trigger), and it'll work out. Based on sales and reviews, it is working out for them, but I'm the freak out here with highly specific ideas about why Chrono Trigger was good and Sea of Stars doesn't seem to agree with my assessment. This inherent friction lasted across the game's entire 30-35 hours.
You play as Zale and Valere, paired Chosen Ones whose innate Sun/Moon powers allow them to do battle against Dwellers, ancient beasts left behind when the villainous Fleshmancer set his sights on this plane of reality. He has since moved on to another world, but Dwellers left unchecked evolve into World Eaters, planar monstrosities that do exactly what it sounds like they do. The Solstice Warriors must hold a never-ending vigil in case previous generations missed a Dweller, battling them when their powers peak during an eclipse.
Joining them is Garl the Warrior Cook, the pair's childhood friend and the only character with anything resembling charisma; Seraï, a masked assassin of mysterious origin; Resh'an, a former companion of The Fleshmancer; and B'st, an amorphous pink cloud with almost no relevance to the plot a-la Chu-Chu from Xenogears.
Battles happen on the field map, like Chrono Trigger, and their main feature is essentially the Break system from Octopath Traveler. When a monster is charging up a special move, they gain "locks" that can only be broken by hitting them with specific types of damage; break them all, and they lose their turn. It's frequently impossible to break all the locks - you simply do not have the action economy to put out that many hits - and so you're usually playing triage regarding which special move you're willing to take to the face.
The battle system also takes a page from Super Mario RPG and includes timed hits and blocks for every attack. Tutorial messages insist to not worry about these and just think of them as bonus damage, but most of your attacks (especially multi-target spells) won't function properly unless you're nailing the timing. You'll often still do some damage, but the number of hits is the most important thing when you're dealing with Locks. There is an accessibility option (purchasable with in-game currency) to make timed hits always land in exchange for lower damage, but that only works for basic attacks.
Only a handful of skills have a message explaining when to push the button, and for the rest? Tough luck, figure it out. It's inconsistent at best and opaque at worst. And I mean literally opaque: because of how the field maps and graphics are constructed, character sprites (especially Seraï) often end up entirely offscreen or covered by other sprites when you're meant to time a press. This wasn't a problem in SMRPG or Mario & Luigi because those had bespoke battle screens with fairly consistent framing for timed hits; the concept isn't very compatible with CT style battles without a way to maintain that consistency.
I legitimately enjoyed the battle system for about the first 30% or so of the game, at which point the startling lack of variety in the battle options began to chafe. Every character has a basic attack, a mere three skills, and a Final Fantasy summon-like Ultimate attack that requires a bar to charge up. There's around a dozen "Combo" moves (read: Dual Techs) across the entire party, but the meter to use them charges so slowly they might as well only exist during boss battles. Your maximum MP caps at around 30 (at the max level, which requires a lot of grinding), skills cost anywhere between 4 and 11, and your potion inventory is limited to 10 items, meaning you're going to almost always rely on basic attacks - which recover 3 MP on a hit - for most battles. Landing a basic attack lets you imbue another basic attack with a character's inherent elemental attribute, which is the only way to break most locks once you're in the mid-game.
Play SMRPG sometime (perhaps the upcoming remake, even) and you'll figure out quick that Timed Hits are cool because if you do them properly it makes battles faster. You aren't trying to get 100 Super Jumps in every single battle because that would be exhausting and slow. Sure, in Chrono Trigger I'm solving 80% of encounters with the same multi-target spells, but that also means they're over in less than a minute. In Sea of Stars, if I mess up an early button press with Moonerang or Venom Flurry, it might not even hit every enemy, which probably means I won't break the locks I need to, which means they'll do their long spell animation. A trash mob battle will probably take two full minutes of me carefully trying to land my timed hits and manage my MP. That shit adds up.
I wouldn't quite go so far as to say Sea of Stars disrespects your time, but a lot of shit adds up. The backgrounds and sprite work are universally great - really beautiful stuff, great animations - but there are tightropes/beams scattered everywhere around the game world, seemingly placed only so you're forced to slow down and look at the backgrounds. From a purely quality of life standpoint, I don't know why you have to hold the button for so long when cooking something, especially if it's a higher-tier restorative. The overworld walk speed is agonizing. The narrative flails in several bizarre directions, only cohering in the broadest possible sense of "we need to beat the bad guy".
Comparatively, Chrono Trigger never stops moving. Your objectives in CT are clearly signposted and make logical sense, even when they string together into longer sequences. To save the world from the Bad Future, we need to defeat the big monster, and we learn the monster was summoned by an evil wizard. To defeat the evil wizard, we need the magic sword, but the sword is broken. To re-forge the sword, we need an ancient material, so off to prehistory we go!
It may sound tedious when written out this way, but the crucial element is that this only takes something like 4 or 5 hours. You're never stuck in any individual location longer than 45-60 minutes, and that's if you stop to grind (which you don't need to). Working at a leisurely pace, you can 100% Chrono Trigger in somewhere between 15 and 20 hours. My most recent playthrough - in which I deliberately walked slowly, grinded out levels, and talked to every NPC for the sake of recording footage - clocked in at about 17.
Sea of Stars doesn't stop introducing new plot elements until the middle of the end credits and makes little effort to tie them together in a cohesive way, instead relying on the inherent fantasy of the setting to smooth over any bumps. For example, take The Sleeper, a massive dragon that once ravaged the world before being sent into an eternal slumber. It explicitly isn't a Dweller, being little more than a curiosity on the overworld map. It bears no relevance to the plot other than as a mid-game side objective to earn the privilege to progress the actual story.
Zale and Valere, despite having speaking roles, do not possess an iota of personality between them; they are generically heroic and valiant and stop at every stage along their quest to help the weak and downtrodden as JRPG Protagonists are wont to do. The idea that Garl should not join them on their dangerous journey - as he is a mere normie - is raised once or twice, but ultimately disregarded due to Garl's endless luck and pluck. He barrels through any possible pathos or character development by simply being the Fun Fat Guy at all times, whether or not the next step follows logically.
No less than three times do the characters visit some kind of Oracle or Seer who reads the future and literally tells them what is going to happen later in the story, sometimes cryptically and sometimes giving explicit instructions. At one point a character awakens from a near-death experience having suddenly gained the knowledge of how to restart the stalled plot, launching into a multi-stage quest that has no logical ties to the party's objective. It's just progression, things happening because something has to happen between points A and B.
Another example: a late game dungeon introduces a race of bird wizards complete with ominous side-flashes to their nefarious scheming atop their evil thrones. They are relevant for only that dungeon, which is broadly just an obstacle in the way of the party's actual objective. I don't understand the intent. Is it supposed to be funny that this guy looks like Necromancer Daffy Duck? If so, why is the story genuinely trying to convince me of the sorrow of their plight and how it relates to the lore (in a way that also isn't relevant to the current events of the plot since it's shit that happened like 10,000 years ago)? How am I meant to react to this? Why is it here, in the final stretch of the story? I was asking these kinds of questions the entire game.
Presumably, the plot is like this because it's trying to imitate JRPGs of the time, which had a reputation for sending you on strings of seemingly random errands to defeat monsters or fetch items. You know what game doesn't do that? Chrono Trigger! The game Sea of Stars is obviously trying to position itself as a successor to!
Is it fair that I criticize the Solstice Warriors for being flat characters when Crono literally does not speak and his party consists of a bunch of genre caricatures? Yes, because CT doesn't try to be more than that. There's no need for wink-wink "did you know you're playing a JRPG? eh, ehhh?? aren't they so wacky with plots that barely make sense bro???" writing in Chrono Trigger because it knows that you know that it knows that you know you're playing a damn JRPG. It's got Akira Toriyama art like Dragon Quest! It says Squaresoft on the cover, those dudes made Final Fantasy!
You're on a roller coaster through time and space! You're here because you want to see knights and robots and cavemen do exactly what knights and robots and cavemen do. Of course Ayla the weirdly sexy cavewoman will say "what is raw-boot? me no understand" after Robo the robot shoots dino-men with his laser beams. It's comedic melodrama, it's operatic in a way that leverages genre familiarity.
Sea of Stars isn't willing to fully commit to this approach, undercutting its own pathos with half-measures and naked imitation. I'd be so much more willing to accept the sudden-yet-inevitable betrayal at the end of the first act if the game didn't then whip around and say "haha, we sure did the thing, huh?" Yeah, I saw. We both clearly know that you're not being clever about it, so why is it in the game?
The answer is usually "because it was in Chrono Trigger", without any examination of what made it work. Like, okay, everybody knows Chrono Trigger is "a good game", but do you know why it's a good game? I could see someone playing it and just thinking, "I don't get it, this is an incredibly generic JRPG," but what you have to understand is that CT is an immaculately constructed generic JRPG. Simply using the same ingredients isn't going to create the same result.
Take the most famous twist of CT: at a critical moment, silent player avatar Crono sacrifices his life to get the rest of the cast to safety, removing him from the party lineup. In the context of 1995, this is a shocking, borderline 4th-wall-breaking twist. Permanent party member death wasn't unheard of - take FFIV or FFV - but the main character? Crono was the mandatory first slot of the party, a jack-of-all-trades mechanical role akin to a DQ Hero. Even though he doesn't have a personality, Crono's consistent presence and the story's inherent melodrama lend a tangible feeling of loss.
Using the power of time travel, the player can undertake a sizeable sidequest to bring Crono back to life, replacing him at the instant of his death with a lifeless doll. He rejoins the party, no longer a mandatory member of the lineup. At this point in the game, you arguably don't even want to bring him along on quests, because he still doesn't have dialogue. Crucially, the entire quest is optional; the first time I played CT, I accidentally did the entire final dungeon (also optional!) first, assuming it was a necessary step.
Sea of Stars tries to do this with Garl. He takes a fatal blow for Zale and Valere then dictates the plot for the next two hours of the game while living on literal Borrowed Time. You journey to an ancient island floating in the sky (sick Chrono Trigger reference bro!) and split the party to pursue multiple objectives in multiple dungeons, culminating in a whole sequence complete with bespoke comic panels of the party mourning their best friend for months offscreen.
This didn't work because I, the player, had no attachment to the character. Garl is the least mechanically useful party member, dealing the same damage type as Valere but without any elemental type to break locks; his heal skill is more expensive than Zale's and his repositioning skill is unnecessary once you have all-target attacks. I dropped him for Seraï at first opportunity and literally never put him back in the main lineup.
Nor do I buy into Zale and Valere's feelings. Protecting Garl is supposed to be one of their main motivations - it's a major scene in the prologue, and leads to an entire dungeon detour in the first act - but they haven't put forth any genuine effort to prevent him from hurling himself into danger's way throughout the game. As noted, he just repeatedly barrels his way through the plot by demanding it continue, even after he's fucking dead.
The true ending of Sea of Stars requires beating the game once, then completing numerous optional objectives which lead to... can you guess? Going back in time, replacing Garl at the instant of his fatal wound with a body double (which means B'st was pretending to be Garl - someone he's never met - during that entire segment, a completely absurd notion), and pulling him back into the present. You do another lengthy sidequest to get an invitation to a fancy restaurant, and then you can fight the true final boss, again, because Garl simply demands it when you get there.
If this CT retread had to be in the game, it would have obviously been better served by Garl being the main player character; go all the way with the imitation. Any vague gesturing the narrative makes towards not having to be The Chosen One to still fight for justice would carry more weight if you weren't playing as the Solstice Warriors, instead scrambling to keep up with them as the worst party member. As things stand, it's just a big ol' reference to a better game, a transparent play for Real Stakes that rings hollow.
An even more egregious example is The Big Thing at the start of Act 3, once the cast finally sets sail upon the eponymous Sea of Stars. Leaving their world of fantasy and magic, they enter a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, complete with a brief graphics shift into 3D and a full UI overhaul. It's intended to be a shocking twist, a mind-blowing reveal... but it doesn't work, because A) it's a blatant crib of CT, and B) it's all in service to a punchline.
In Chrono Trigger, once the game has fully established the time travel concept by sending you to 600 AD and back (about three hours of gameplay), the party is forced to flee into an unknown time gate. It spits them out to 2300 AD, a wrecked hell world in the depths of a nuclear winter. Here, the party discovers an archive computer recording that sets up their goal for the entire rest of the game: prevent the apocalypse by stopping Lavos, a titanic creature buried deep within the earth.
It's important that this happens at the beginning of the game. You're expecting some form of going to the future to see goofy robots - it's a natural extension of time travel as a plot device - but 2300 AD is a genuine shock in the moment. It serves as a constant reminder of the stakes: this is the bad future, and you're trying to stop it from ever happening. After gallivanting through medieval times, the contrast really works.
In Sea of Stars, you probably aren't expecting to suddenly fight a robot when you're chasing The Fleshmancer across worlds. It's a potentially cool swerve, but what's actually gained by having the final act be in sci-fi land other than some kind of "dang, didn't see that coming" factor? He isn't even actually in control of the robots or anything, he just hides his castle here because... well, it's unclear why, because even once you restore the sun and moon and fight him in the True Ending, he only seems momentarily inconvenienced.
But it sure is a CT reference! And it's also a joke, because your mysterious sometimes-assassin-sometimes-swashbuckler companion Seraï reveals that this is her home world, pulling off her mask to reveal her metallic endoskeleton. You see, she used to be human, but had her soul chewed up and put into this mechanical body. She is a literal Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot.
You know! Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot! Like TVTropes, lol? Wacky JRPG party members!
How do you expect to maintain any investment after that? There's like four more dungeons in sci-fi world - including aforementioned Necromancer Daffy - and I just couldn't give a shit about any of it. The post-apoc stuff doesn't add any stakes, because we already know the Fleshmancer has ruined countless worlds and we're just chasing him to this one in particular because Seraï asked us to (and I guess they want revenge for Garl). I wasn't having fun, I was just annoyed.
I'm baffled. Sea of Stars clearly knows how to outwardly present itself as a quality JRPG. At a glance, the game looks like everything I could want: beautiful artwork, smooth gameplay, fun characters. Something that gets why I fell in love with the genre in the first place, and why I hold up Chrono Trigger as its crown jewel.
But it just isn't that, at least not to me, and that's... I dunno, existentially troubling? Based on the reviews I've seen, I'm clearly in the minority for feeling this way. I do believe the dev team and all of these players also love JRPGs. But if they do, it must be in a way fundamentally different from the way I do, because otherwise I simply don't understand the creative choices in Sea of Stars. I want more than this.
Maybe one day, hopefully sooner than later, we'll get the Disco Elysium of JRPGs, but today sure isn't that day.

The bottom line is that Sea of Stars is an ultimately mediocre title that manages to cobble together its form by stealing things from a dozen other, older, better titles. Each thing it steals is implemented worse than the game it steals from, but still good enough to not be bad. The act of playing the game is fine. It's Fine. It is the ultimate definition of Mid. Mid of Stars.
To list all this game's faults on a lower level than "wow it looks pretty" would to be sit here all day, but I can't help but go over some of the biggest issues I had during my time with it.
The first and foremost is the writing and plot--the plot by itself is pretty standard, just your basic "go kill the demon king" storyline when you get down to it, but its building off lore from a game pretty notorious for having nonsense lore(The Messenger) so it ends up being nonsense here as well--none of the worldbuilding details or twists really ever land because you never get the sense that this world is anything more than levels in a video game. There's like maybe five actual towns in the game, for gods sake. This is compounded by the character writing that manages to be completely uninteresting at best, and positively dreadful at worst. The worst of it is a major side-character in act 1 that speaks exclusively in video game references, who basically ruins every scene she is in and kill what little pathos there can be in this game. Once she steps aside, it gets a little better and I'd even say act 2 cooks for a short time, but then they do the very bold decision to put the only two characters with any sort of internality on a bus until literally the final boss door. Its frustrating. That's not to speak of the other issue with the game not respecting itself, every scene that gets a little tropey immediately gets a Marvel quip to kill any tension and remind you you're seeing scenes played out in a dozen older games with way more self-respect. It sucks.
Then, there's the game pacing. As mentioned, the game has I think six actual "towns" in it, and you only visit each of them at a single point in your journey which means you consistently go 4+ dungeons at a time without any "downtime" where you can sidequest, play minigames, talk to npcs etc. They completely missed the memo on the "vibes" of a jrpg in spite of aping these games so hard--those points where you're just sort of idly walking around town are important and this game just doesn't have any of that. This is compounded by what I'd call location issues--backtracking even after you get to the end of the game with all movement options is painful, consistently involving traversing old dungeons or going through two-three extra screens to get to where you need to go, so the game actively disincentivizes you from trying to do anything besides progress the main quest.
The actual gameplay is split into two--puzzle dungeons generously described as "Crosscode but worse" and combat described as "Mario RPG but worse", double-hampered by piss-easy difficulty. Like, this game has 8 different accessibility options but I struggle to find how anyone would need them when the game difficulty is toggled so low.
Which sucks, because the one place the game excels in is the economy/item management, you have a very limited inventory that heavily incentivizes consumable usage, and also the gold is a really tight resource that you have to manage. In theory, this is great and adds an attrition factor the long dungeon dives mentioned earlier--in practice, the difficulty tuning being so low means you never interact with those systems because you can easily go through the game never using consumables which means you can sell all the crafting supplies for a surplus of money.
Even the OST manages to not really be striking, like its perfectly serviceable but I never really found myself humming a tune or getting hyped by a song. Its just, rpg music. You could replace it with the rpgmaker default soundpack and I think the experience would have been exactly the same.
And yet, in spite of all this, I still finished the game including the true ending that demands like 95% completion because it was juuuust that not bad enough that I could sunk cost fallacy my way through it.
The final thing I'd leave you with that speaks to the shoddy nature of the game is the opening--after the framing device, the game opens with our new heroes going off to their first mission. You fight exactly one tutorial battle vs a goblin, then it forces you into a flashback where you see their backstory. This last an hour and leads up to exactly the beginning of the game. Why did they have the flashback? Why would you not just start the game from the backstory sequence? Its the sort of thing literally any editor would notice and rectify immediately.
Truly, the Mid of Stars.

I don't like to go hard on games like this, but as someone who is ostensibly the exact target audience for this(ex-tumblr lesbian jrpg fanatic), its awful and basically the exact opposite of what to make a faux-jrpg as.
To start, lets get the combat out of the way. Its a mix of Paper Mario and Battle Network, except somehow lamer and significantly slower than either of them. Even trash encounters take 3-5 minutes because you spend an inordinate amount of time walking up to hit the guy only for them to jump away immediately. Combined with the generally low combat numbers and high HP pools of enemies, in addition to the action button combat making it so you can't speed up combat its just a miserable slog. By the halfway point of the game, I just turned on the "instant win all combat" button, except that STILL makes you wait until the protagonist's turn in-combat to activate so you're still sitting there 30 seconds each fight waiting. That alone killed any momentum in the game for me.
Next, the world. You'd think a Magic School would be a slam-dunk setting for a jrpg--lots of fun themes and tropes you can choose from, quirky npcs to encounter, etc etc. Ikenfell does a very bold move here and makes the entire map a dungeon. Besides one tavern at the start of the game(and ceases to be relevant 10% of the way in), there is no real "towns" or calm places. You walk into the school courtyard, which is a dungeon, which leads you to the dorms, which are a dungeon, which leads you to the botany labs, which are a dungeon, and so on. There is functionally no "downtime" from the combat portion of the game, you are just shuttled from dungeon to dungeon to dungeon. There also aren't really any npcs to deal with, no sidequests to handle, nothing of the sort. Just large dungeons bereft of anything interesting or exciting. This game is honestly a masterclass in how not to pace your game, the constant slog of enemy encounter after encounter just removes any tention or interest the game could have.
But surely, I thought, this game should be heartfelt. Perhaps to someone younger, it might be, but I could not connect with any of these characters. The most interesting one is the hot-blooded lightning lesbian, in part because she does something besides mope around the entire game. The writers focused so much on either the grander Plot stuff or the traumas the various characters have that any sense of comradery or fun is lost. And like, you can make characters who just mope around all the time--I recently played Tales of Berseria, where the main character is a deeply traumatized young woman who spends 80% of the game with coping with that trauma, but there she's surrounded by people who don't take things as seriously and the game isn't afraid to clown on her from time to time. The plot itself is also generally whatever, its basically just a collect the macguffin plot to lead you from place to place. It doesn't even really use the setting in any interesting way.
An odd note as well is that there's three vocal themes in the game, all of which belong to later-game party members who's function is just not plot-critical. Which, its fine, I love hip hop and am a huge sucker for vocal themes but its a weird choice. None of the main characters, just these three weirdos. It feels like a bit of a waste of dosh, but like sure why not.
What actually gets me is one of the songs has a lot of references to real life figures like Martin Luther or Bob Ross, and it took me out so much. Like, the game pretty expressly does not take place on Earth so..???? Petty concern, for sure, but its actually funnily enough the thing that stuck with me the most.
All in all, a waste of talent and time by all involved. I feel bad because every lesbian-themed western indie jrpg seems to disappoint(even Christine Love's Get in the Car didn't hit the marks it should have), and I don't want this to be the case because, well, thats me.
But that's the world we live in. Its a pity.

the best game ever made and I have played the game of life
insanely creative environments, insanely creative characters with incredible backstories (most of them), unbelievably funny, exciting, challenging, heartbreaking, inspiring, adventurous, colorful, spectacular and all round just a pretty cool game.

Finally finishing these games in 2023 killed whatever hope I had for Ken Levine's next project. This is the video game equivalent of a kid breaking his toys so nobody else gets to play with them.

“The better your… Dandori… the more important… you are…”
The original Pikmin game is a novel experience like no other. If you were to ask one of its fans to describe the gameplay to you, you will be met with a different answer each time. It was the inception of a new genre of game that despite its critical acclaim has inspired few contemporaries, certainly due to the rather modest return on investment the series has made over its lifetime. You see in this world (which is one and the same as in Pikmin) there is an objective evaluation upon which your work’s value can be judged and deemed beautiful. The more efficient you are in obtaining these metrics the better the work is. This concept and its romanticization as I have come to understand it is referred to as ‘Dandori’. Pikmin despite its promise as a unique, fun, and compelling gameplay experience had failed to draw in sufficient mainstream appeal. Experimentation on the game’s format in its iterative sequels also performed mildly. As efficient use of time can be equated to money, the ever-increasing pursuit of greater attainment of Dandori becomes self-evident and demands for these inefficiencies to be expunged.
“Your Dandori…needs work.”
Pikmin 4, for good or ill seeks to do exactly this. The concept of Dandori is the focal point of the game, both in its design philosophies as well as its narrative. Pikmin 1 and 2, tells a tale of success and perseverance. How the brave space captain Olimar, whose work-ethic was peerless, was able to overcome trials and tribulations to save both himself and the company he worked for. Pikmin 4 completely dispels this preconception. It is both a meta retrospection and a reboot. Instead, in both our reality and in Pikmin’s, a different turn of events transpired. Olimar, and metaphorically the Pikmin series itself, did not escape past the stratosphere of PNF-404. He was close to success, but failed, doomed to become just another part of the abandoned wilderness, but perhaps with just a bit more acumen and acclimation towards Dandori principles he could be saved.
“Those who do not embrace Dandori cannot survive this planet… But if they grow the leaves… they will thrive”
Pikmin 4 wants to succeed. It is engineered to succeed. To do this it wants ‘you’ to succeed. Like the player carefully manages their Pikmin, the game seeks to manage the player. It does this through several ways. It limits your options, guiding you towards efficiency (having more than three Pikmin at a time is almost never optimal) and it provides you the means to easily accomplish your tasks. Most prominently of which is Oatchi, an entity that will both point you to your objectives as well as accomplish them for you. There is almost no obstacle that Oatchi cannot handle alone, but then what becomes the purpose of the Pikmin then? Therein lies the beauty that is this game. You see Dandori and its pursuit is never forced upon you. It is tantalized, endorsed, and romanticized but your adherence to its principles is voluntary. You can beat this game and all its challenges as efficiently or inefficiently as you wish. Dandori challenges, of which there is specific threshold requirement to complete, can be entirely skipped and ignored. You use the Pikmin because you want to be efficient. You want to be efficient to save time. You want to save time because it is made to feel satisfying to do so. What do you do with the saved time? Further pursue mastery of Dandori. It is a malady and madness. Which the game itself acknowledges.
“Go home!”
Not everyone has fallen for this spell. Dandori is ‘almost’ presented as NOT being inherently beautiful and meaningful. Pikmin or Captain lives and wellbeing are not factored into its evaluation. Olimar and his obsession at being an exemplary worker is not unquestionably a good thing. It is shown to take a strain upon his life and the time he would spend with his family. It is unfathomable to directly challenge the idealization of Dandori as it is not just foundational for Pikmin 4 but the culture that produced it in the first place. Yet intentional or not, Pikmin 4’s endgame is its own critic.
I recommend this game to anyone who is already a Pikmin fan, particularly for those who enjoyed Pikmin 2. While the wilderness has already been tamed four entries in, I am sure there is plenty for you to enjoy, even if the game is back heavy with the challenges. If you are foreign to the series whether you will enjoy this game depends on how much you are willing to engage with Dandori. If you are sick of hearing the term’s prominence in this review, you will not survive the game itself.
(If a game inspired me to write something about it, it gets 5 stars regardless of all other factors. Like Dandori this metric is only as real as you let it become)

What an absolute work of art, well worth the 10 year wait in my opinion. This is almost exactly everything I could have asked for in a new Pikmin game. You are committing a crime against art and gaming if you don't play this game (and you don't have to play the first 3 before this if you are wondering).

I like this one more than the original for arbitrary reasons, gosh I wish it was in the 3d all stars collection, thanks Nintendo.

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