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This review contains spoilers
A beautiful and perfunctory RPG experience. Perhaps the most disappointing experience you will have this year.
Sea of Stars has no good reason to be an rpg other than back of the napkin ideas the devs must have had since childhood. Equipment are all small incremental flat stat increases, with only certain accessories even broaching the idea of customizability. One of them (the abacus, which lets you see enemy HP) is so vital though that there is little point in thinking about it. Characters are flat and largely unexciting, dialogue is uninventive and exists in the same space as settlements in this game. They need to exist, and in large quantities, to check the right rpg boxes, but they're superficial pitstops with little to admire besides the art. Eastward and Chained Echoes do so much more in a similar genre space with their settlements that I cannot give Sea of Stars a pass.
Combat itself is serviceable, but SoS gives neither the tension of difficulty or resource management, nor the thrill of customization and experimentation (your characters will still only have about 3 skills to use apiece by the end of the game). If this was a simple action rpg it might have received lower scores, but it would be a healthier game simply from the surgical removal of unnecessary fat.
Boss encounters are actually structured cleverly enough but even on Hard they never hit hard enough to seriously endanger your party, healing is plentiful, and even a stray KO is only a temporary inconvenience since your party member will self-revive with half health after only a couple of turns.
Dungeons and puzzles, such as they are, are busywork lovingly crafted to trigger the bespoke animations that are the actual heart of the game. More often it felt like I was plodding through Mario Maker autorunner levels, or a Sony game's climbing section.
The story is atrocious. Anything attached to the writing is nails on a chalkboard. It is in desperate search of conflict of any kind, but refuses to develop its MCs and their buoyant tagalong sidekick as anything other than the most bland genre versions of themselves. So you get a situation, with no conflict and no pushback, where the game has to pull conflict directly from its rear in deeply unsatisfying ways, falling into jrpg tropes disseminated, dissembled, and parodied decades ago and doing them in the most bland ways you can imagine. The character assassination required to do this is YiiKian in nature but even YiiK had the foresight to engender some kind of conflict to move the story forward, instead of just-so macguffin scenarios and jiu jitsu ass pulls.
The journey becomes predictable in its unpredictableness, a stale bowl of refried bean jrpg pastiche.
So, now the positives (with caveats).
Sea of Stars is the prettiest game released this year. I don't think it's particularly close. If you want to play a spectacle game, avoid FF16 and play this. It is arguably the best looking 2d rpg I have played.
But there are two exceptions to SoS immaculate graphics. First, the portraits are amateur, ill-fitting and immersion breaking. The problem is not necessarily the artistic skill at work, but the game's entire lack of identity. Chrono Cross has a divisive art style for its portraits, as an example, but it all coheres much better than SoS. Second, animated cutscenes play at random intervals of the story. They remind me of the CGI cutscenes inserted into SNES classics by Square when they ported the games to the PSX. Unnecessary and distracting. The pixels can more than speak for themselves and with how underwhelming the rest of the game is, they have to.