Sea of Stars review: Total eclipse of the heart

Sea of Stars offers a fresh take on the classic RPG formula that attempts to break the mold while retaining its nostalgic charm.


Sea of Stars is a retro-inspired, turn-based RPG from Sabotage Studio, the team behind 2018’s The Messenger. Although the game is set in the same universe as the studio’s previous title, Sea of Stars is a standalone experience that does away with outdated RPG features while enhancing its gameplay with modern improvements. What results is a compelling adventure that caters to those looking for a fresh, engaging take on a tried-and-true formula while retaining the nostalgic familiarity of the classics.

Written in the stars

A screenshot of the party walking across a rope bridge in Sea of Stars.

Source: Sabotage Studio

In Sea of Stars, players take control of two Children of the Solstice, Valere and Zale, each imbued with innate magic capabilities as a result of being born on the solstices. Valere and Zale wield lunar and solar magic, respectively. The duo must spend their childhoods training to become Solstice Warriors and teaming up to perform Eclipse Magic, with the hope of quelling the efforts of an evil alchemist known as The Fleshmancer.

As you trek across distant lands, several quirky acquaintances join the party along the way to lend their skills toward the cause. Once you meet the bubbly traveling historian, Teak, you can begin to dig deeper into the lore of the world by obtaining artifacts tied to a specific story. While gathered around a campfire, players can have Teak read a story to the party, giving narrative context to the voyage ahead.

Gone with the grind

A screenshot of the party walking across some beams over several zombies in Sea of Stars.

Source: Sabotage Studio

One way that Sea of Stars attempts to thwart the expectations of its genre is in its modernized combat system. Rather than being whisked away with a swirling transition to a separate screen, each battle in Sea of Stars begins instantly where the characters are standing. What’s more, many random combat encounters can be avoided entirely, simply by walking past enemies without attracting attention.

You may be wondering how, or why, you would avoid enemy encounters in an RPG like this, as doing so means you are missing out on valuable experience points and leveling. There is no character leveling in the traditional sense, eliminating the need for grinding and instead offering steady progression throughout. All party members level up at the same time, giving the player the option to boost specific stats for each character. Rather than running out to grind levels after a defeat, my instinct became instead to rethink my strategy prior to combat. While there were plenty of bosses that make me break a sweat, there were never any enemies that felt impossible to beat.

Timing is everything

A screenshot of a combat encounter with aquatic enemies in Sea of Stars.

Source: Sabotage Studio

Sea of Stars offers a more involved approach to its turn-based combat through the use of a unique timing-based system. Properly timing an action during an attack grants bonus damage and additional hits. The same timing concept applies to blocking as well, with a well-timed block capable of reducing damage taken. Alongside timed hits, players must also manage the Locks system during combat. Stronger enemies can conjure spells or attacks that take several turns to fire up. During this time, a lock will appear above them that indicates a series of attack types that need to be performed in order to break the lock, usually a combination of physical and magical attacks depending on their vulnerabilities. Breaking the lock before the enemy takes their turn causes the move to be cancelled entirely, while partial lock-breaks will reduce its overall effectiveness. In tandem with the Locks system, players must also find the proper timing to use Live Mana, which is special mana that can be applied to basic attacks to imbue them with magic. This blend of battle systems in Sea of Stars made for combat encounters that felt fresh, dynamic, and engaging.

Though Sea of Stars does not have a strict difficulty setting, it offers players the means to customize their gameplay experience through the use of Relics, which are collectibles that once obtained can be toggled on and off to make the gameplay more or less challenging. Auto-healing after combat, reduced shop prices, and improved block chances are among some of the handful of Relics available in the game. While most Relics will provide benefits that make for an easier ride throughout, use of Relics is entirely optional and provides an elegant, nuanced way to tweak the difficulty to your liking in a way that makes sense for an RPG.

Making your way through certain locations sometimes involves a bit of environmental puzzle solving, which further requires you to climb, swim, and launch yourself across platforms. Complementing the already generous traversal mechanics are several tools that you acquire along the way that are required for fully exploring certain areas. Actions like pushing blocks and leaping over gaps are made possible by tools such as a wind bracelet and grappling hook. Some puzzles will have the Solstice Warriors using their magic to control the time of day in certain contexts. Puzzles typically offered the right amount of challenge and were thoughtfully incorporated into each region.

In my wheelhouse

A screenshot from the minigame Wheels in Sea of Stars.

Source: Sabotage Studio

When you aren’t eliminating baddies with Eclipse Magic, much of your time will be spent cooking, fishing, sailing, or exploring the nooks and crannies of fantastical locations. From expansive hillside vistas and tropical oases to dimly lit swamps and haunted houses, each setting exudes a unique charm that is further elevated by the lovely pixel art aesthetic. Even the overworld map boasts stunning visuals that I had wished was more accessible throughout the game.

Those looking for another way to take a break from the adventure can swing by a local tavern for a few rounds of Wheels, a mechanical, baked-in minigame that combines tabletop combat with a slot-machine-like spinning mechanic. It took a few rounds to get used to, but the game is surprisingly complex and made for a refreshing diversion, one that I wouldn’t mind playing outside of Sea of Stars proper.

A stellar performance

A screenshot of the party sailing on a small boat at night in Sea of Stars.

Source: Sabotage Studio

For all that it does right, there are still a few missing features that I would have appreciated having throughout the game, the most notable being a way to track quest progress. Though the task at hand is usually pretty straightforward, there were times when I couldn’t quite recall where I left off during a quest and was not sure where to go or who to talk to next. Teak’s storytime is also limited to campfire sessions, with no way to review a story after it has been told other than requesting Teak to read it again. While these are ultimately minor gripes, adding some sort of reference log would only serve to enhance an already enjoyable adventure.

In true Sabotage fashion, Sea of Stars faithfully captures the nostalgic appeal of retro turn-based games while improving upon its systems with contemporary innovations. The witty, self-aware dialogue and charming cast of characters are bolstered by thoughtful design choices and a compelling narrative. Sea of Stars is an instant classic that retro RPG fans and newcomers alike will not want to pass up.

This review was based on a pre-release PC review code provided by the publisher. Sea of Stars releases on August 28, 2023 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

Contributing Editor

Larryn is a freelance contributor who creates video game guides and reviews for Shacknews and has more than a decade of experience covering games across various outlets. When she's not gaming, Larryn can often be found watering houseplants, playing D&D, or teaching her cats new tricks.

Review for
Sea of Stars
  • Gorgeous pixel art aesthetic and design
  • Charming characters, including antagonists
  • Witty, self-aware dialogue and humor
  • Generous save points and ways to manage difficulty
  • Outdated systems are replaced with modern improvements
  • Steady progression that is not grindy
  • Delivers the right amount of nostalgia
  • Surprisingly fun minigame
  • No quest log or way to track quest progress throughout
  • No way to review stories beyond Teak re-reading them
From The Chatty
  • reply
    August 28, 2023 7:01 AM

    Larryn Bell posted a new article, Sea of Stars review: Total eclipse of the heart

    • reply
      August 28, 2023 7:47 AM

      How was the music?

      • reply
        August 28, 2023 10:29 AM

        Yeah, Chrono Trigger's Mitsuda soundtrack is a stone cold classic. Need to know if this is just a serviceable job or what.

        • reply
          August 28, 2023 10:30 AM

          guess I'll find out tomorrow on gamepass

          • reply
            August 28, 2023 11:39 AM

            Keep in mind that Mitsuda is only a guest composer and the majority of the music in the game is written by Eric W. Brown aka Rainbowdragoneyes aka the drummer of Nekrogoblikon and Vale of Pnath.

            I love Mitsuda but honestly I'm looking forward to hearing Eric Brown's RPG composition chops. The Messenger had awesome music.

            • reply
              August 28, 2023 12:18 PM

              Good to know (Yeah I like messenger soundtrack and nekrogoblikon)

    • reply
      August 28, 2023 9:22 AM

      sounds great!

    • reply
      August 29, 2023 7:22 AM

      Looks great! This is on PSPlus Game Catalog at launch as well.

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