The recent Nintendo Direct contained many highlights, and one standout for me was the upcoming RPG Sea of Stars from Sabotage Studio, developers of the critically-acclaimed The Messenger. In addition to the short showcase of gameplay footage, we received the announcement of a new demo for the game, which I promptly proceeded to download and play on my Nintendo Switch.
In the Direct, my interest had been piqued by the vibrant, detailed pixel-art aesthetic and the varied-looking turn-based combat; so the demo came at an ideal time for me to jump in and see if Sea of Stars could fully grab my attention. I’m extremely pleased to say the demo delivered on my expectations and in certain ways surpassed them! Below, I’m going to go into more detail on what the short demo contains, the gameplay included, and also a few areas where I think small improvements could be made before launch. Let’s get into it!
Shoot for the Stars
Upon beginning the demo, you’re asked to choose either of the two main characters Valere or Zale to lead your party, before wisely being thrown straight into a slice of the game itself. Here, you descend down a mountainous area with your crew of four characters, immediately being presented with the gorgeous pixel-art aesthetic reminiscent of classic RPGs. This opening section contains everything you need in order to get accustomed to the basic moment-to-moment gameplay of Sea of Stars, and is an excellent, intuitive way to open the demo.
The 2.5d-esque environments require climbing to navigate around them, with plenty of satisfying secrets to discover along the way. As you make your way through the environmental puzzles, one of the first things that hit me – aside from how beautiful this game is – was the freedom I felt. Just small touches like being able to grapple up certain surfaces or jump up short-to-medium-high walls makes everything feel more liberating.
It isn’t long until you meet your first enemies to fight, and this is where Sea of Stars shines brightest. A turn-based RPG is obviously not a new concept, but there’re many new ideas here that breath fresh life and energy into the format. On the face of it, you have your traditional timing system where characters take turns to attack, use skills, or consume items, with the frequency of attacks varying individually. However, Sea of Stars has many tricks to make sure each turn involves much more engagement from the player.
Take Valere, for example. Using her signature moonstaff, she can use the Moonerang skill to send an attack bouncing from the enemy back to her. However, by pressing a button in time with the impacts, you can continue the attack back to the enemy again several times for multiplied damage (think the infamous way Link sends magic attacks back at Ganondorf in The Legend of Zelda). If you mess up the timing, then you may only get one or two hits in, and the precious MP you spent on the skill can feel wasted – but if you get a long chain going, you can deal a lot of damage. Other characters have their own unique modifiers to their attacks to ensure the player stays attentive, and it’s a highly successful way of making every fight feel both unique and exciting.
As well as this, your party has an additional combo metre that builds up as you deal damage and take hits in combat. This metre can be exchanged in to use more powerful moves, some of which involve multiple members of your party (such as a physically strong character launching another partner at the enemy for a huge hit!). The dilemma here can be whether to wait until you can use your most powerful combos, or trade in for the cheaper ones earlier on in the fight – again, this all makes sure the player is paying full attention.
There are nice touches on the enemy side of things, too. You can see the timer counting down to their next attack, as well as the components it will include. By using certain types of attacks before the enemy has fully channelled themselves, you can weaken their incoming assault – which, let me tell you, is very important against the stronger foes who possess the capability to one-shot you. It reminded me of playing a game such as Slay the Spire, where the strategy of cancelling out your opponent was a riveting part of planning out your approach.
Talkin’ & Cookin’
After this introductory area, the Sea of Stars demo skips you forward to one of the populated areas, the Port Town of Brisk. Here, the demo gives a glimpse of how Sea of Stars will operate between quests. Brisk is a pirate-themed town where the main Inn is literally built out of a ship. Again, there’s a relative freedom here, and you’re allowed to swim around in the pristine beach waters and explore some of the rooftops. It’s hard to tell just how large the town will be in the final game, as much of it is closed off for the demo. I hope there’s a fair bit more to explore and interact with, as there weren’t too many substantial interactions outside of the main quest, resting up, and going shopping. Speaking of which – it would be a good call to add a confirmation menu to shopping purchases, as the one-click purchases currently make it very easy to accidentally purchase an item you don’t mean to.
Within the areas of Brisk I could explore, the character interactions were very enjoyable, and the character art accompanying the dialogue is full of personality. The conversations are often witty, assuring me the developers are very knowledgeable and aware of the RPG genre, with some fun little meta jokes mixed in to the conversations. One notable scene involves an arm-wrestle that’s won by someone cheating with a magical shirt that turns them into a hulking muscular figure… Yes, really. It’s these sorts of wonderfully weird moments that makes a world feel truly lived-in, and I’m looking forward to plenty more in the final game.
Whilst in Brisk, I took more time to look through the inventory and crafting options of Sea of Stars. Equipping items, skills, and weapons is all familiar RPG stat-based stuff, but the game does have a trump card in terms of its cooking menus. This is accessed through the campfire scenes; whenever you find one of these, you activate a screen where your party casually spreads out, and you can talk to them individually. This allows you to talk to the Warrior Cook Garl, and put together various dishes from your collected ingredients. These are crucial too – different meals have different effects, whether it be restoring HP, MP, or both in tight combat situations. Plus, the lovingly drawn pixel-art of the cooking itself is a delight to behold, and will probably make you reach for your closest gaming snack… !
Speaking of the campfire scenes, they contained some of my favourite downtime moments of the Sea of Stars demo. You can talk to every character individually, and seeing their ways of passing the time is very cute. Take Valere and Zale, who do sit-ups/press-ups whilst everyone else lounges around! Perhaps the true highlight is the mysterious Teaks, a travelling historian who only joins the party during the campfire scenes. Her book, the Lore Grimoire, has stories for her to read to you, and in the demo that’s a specifically creepy ghost story. I adored this morbidly fascinating interlude to the rhythm of Sea of Stars.
A Sea of Possibilities
Once I was done wandering around Brisk, the demo directed me out into the overworld map, where a few other locations were open. Firstly there was a fishing spot, and as we all know, fishing minigames are important stuff for an RPG (I’m only half-joking). Sea of Stars has a pretty great one, with easy-to-understand mechanics but a good degree of difficulty. Essentially, there’re two steps to it; firstly, being accurate enough to land your float near a fish, and two, being strong and precise enough to keep the fish on line as you pull with the directional stick back to shore. I could easily see this minigame being a time-sink if there’s enough reward for it in-game.
Before you get to the dungeon that forms the end of the demo, there’s also another area you can walk to: the Coral Cascades. You can’t actually access this in the demo; instead, you’re greeted with a text box from the developers telling you that you’re listening to one of the tracks from guest composer Yasunori Mitsuda, who is well-known for his work on classic RPGs Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as multiple games in the Xeno series. I stopped to listen for a while in the demo, and just this one track had a hauntingly serene nature to it that I could easily see myself adding to a work/study playlist one day. This moment was also ideal for studying the portion of the overworld map shown to us in the demo. The vivid world contains many enticing visuals, no less so than a massive dragon, and it has me eager to get the full game in my hands.
From here, the final port of call is the Abandoned Wizard’s Dungeon. After a humorous cutscene that features the return of that magical muscular shirt, your party makes their way in. You’re greeted by a big visual change – gone are the luscious natural environments, replaced by the dark greys and purples of a magical world filled with sharp geometric angles and mysterious runes. The dungeon has one main door, in the form of a portal that takes you to a different room depending on the colour of the magical prism powering it. As you venture through the dungeon, you gain newly-coloured items that change the colour of the prism and subsequently the location the portal takes you to, until you meet the final boss. I always like to see a creative, non-linear set-up such as this.
The dungeon rooms each have different platforming puzzles with groups of enemies dotted between to test both your combat and preparation skills. If you haven’t been paying attention and participating in the trading and cooking that the demo has been teaching you, the dungeon will be extremely difficult. Even with a full stock of meals and a plethora of combo attacks, I barely scraped my way past the final boss! I’m glad the demo had a significant challenge level, as it left me on a high from completing it, and eager to see how the full game will challenge me upon release.
Overall, I’m extremely satisfied by the demo for Sea of Stars. My interest from the Nintendo Direct has now turned into full-on anticipation of getting my hands on the full game, and if that isn’t the mark of a successful demo, I don’t know what is! From looking further into the developer and game online, I also like how they’re slowly revealing new details to the community through their online compendium of characters.
The way Sea of Stars adds new ideas onto solid RPG foundations makes it feel both familiar and refreshing. The player is always an active participant in combat, thanks to the timing-based skill attacks or the necessity to keep an eye on enemy movements. Even out of combat, the ease of traversal makes Sea of Stars feel distinctly modern. In many ways, it reminded me of CrossCode, another recent RPG that excelled by piling new ideas on top of an understanding of the genre. That, and also the fact that both have utterly stunning pixel art graphics!
My main question marks now are over the story and longevity of the game. I really like the surface-level glimpses of the characters we were shown, but the demo tells us very little about the overall story arc and where these characters will be taken to emotionally. I hope that the final release is a substantial and varied offering, with plenty more intriguing towns and imposing dungeons for me to get stuck into. Of course, this is a demo, and it’s a smart decision to make sure the gameplay hooks take centre-stage.
If you’re at all an RPG fan, or were also intrigued by the footage shown in the Nintendo Direct, then I fully recommend downloading the Sea of Stars demo and seeing if you enjoy it. It only takes an hour or two to get through, and it may just leave you with a new game on your to-play list for 2023!
2 thoughts on “Sea of Stars Demo Review: Classic Appeal With A Modern Twist”
Had actually heard of this one before the direct, and, admittedly, was a little disappointed the demo ended up only being available on Switch. That said, glad you covered it as I wasn’t able to get around to playing it. Sea of Stars sounds promising. 😀
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I believe the demo is confirmed to be coming to Steam, so hopefully you get to give it a shot too. Until then, I’m glad to be of service, haha! The gameplay definitely has me sold, I just hope the story and longevity of the game can match it. 🙂
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