Critic - Sea of Stars

Sea of Stars and the weight of its legacy

The Japanese role-playing game is one of the most iconic genres in the world of video games. It is a cornerstone of the industry, and often represents an important marker in the narrative and playful evolutions that have marked the sector. It’s sometimes difficult to define this register precisely, as there have been so many evolutions and variations over the decades. When we decide to embark on a JRPG, there’s a kind of unspoken promise between us and the game: that we’ll experience a great, framed adventure, teeming with colorful, charismatic characters. We often find the same archetypes, exploited through subtle variations. There’s always the taciturn guy haunted by his past, the lighter, more outrageous partner, the dark, mysterious rival, and the seductive, often flirtatious female character – which often raises serious questions about the sexist nature of this representation, even though she often harbors an iron will far superior to her male counterparts. This makes for a familiar setting, one that’s easy to immerse oneself in, and gently leads us to reflect on major philosophical themes such as existentialism, nihilism and the cycle of hatred that often recur in this type of work.

To be able to talk about this genre, we obviously need to go back to its origins and bear in mind that JRPGs share common roots with Western RPGs. It all stems from Dungeons & Dragons, the famous American game whose popularity exploded in the 70s. You all know the story. From this paper role-playing game came many videogame heirs, including the legendary Ultima and Wizardy, released in 1981, which defined the codes of c-RPGs such as character creation, assignable stats, classes, all with freedom of exploration and numerous NPCs to interact with. From this point onwards, there were numerous attempts at imitation on the part of the Japanese, but none of them truly defined the codes of a Japanese-style role-playing game. For this, we had to wait until 1986 and the release of Dragon Quest, which mixed the exploration of Ultima with the turn-based first-person combat of Wizardry, all set in a colorful universe designed by Akira Toriyama. All this is done with much simpler mechanics than those found in Western role-playing games. Text-based choices are replaced by the famous list of commands for physical attacks, magic or the use of items, and objectives can be understood by immersing oneself in the world around us. This was the birthplace of the many tenors that helped refine and affirm the language elements of this style of game. These include Megami Tensei, Atlus’ famous Dungeon Crawler, and Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s celebrated epic fresco.

This brings us to the 90s/early 2000s, the golden age of the JRPG. Attempts at experimentation multiplied, making the genre richer and more difficult to grasp. Licenses such as Fire Emblem and Tactic Ogre, which defined the codes of tactical RPGs, and Pokémon, which made monster-catching games popular. Things continue to get more complex over time, as other sub-categories of Japanese role-playing games emerge and gain in popularity, to the point where the names of certain licenses are used to define genres. Examples include Soul’s like and Persona like. The only real constant is that, until very recently, it was accepted that a JRPG had to be a game developed in Japan. This has changed. Until the arrival of the PlayStation 3, these types of productions so dominated the sector both commercially and critically, that many creative minds around the world have been bottle-fed with these epic adventures. An increasing number of Western studios have begun to produce role-playing games that take up the codes defined in Japan, as demonstrated by Edge of Eternity and Chained Echoes, released in 2018 and 2022 respectively. The simplistic approach of restricting this genre to its country of origin seems outdated. Some might even say that the JRPG appellation no longer makes much sense in 2023, given the mutations this genre has undergone and the global impact it has made. The Quebec teams at Sabotage Studio show us their love for the genre with Sea of Stars, which is almost a synthesis of the major themes of the past, and takes on the role of heir to an entire section of videogame culture.

A refined tribute

Sea of Stars marks a desire on the part of the teams led by Thierry Boulanger to pay tribute to the genres that made 16-bit consoles famous, while adding a touch of modernity. There’s continuity between this title and The Messenger, Sabotage Studio’s first creation, which was inspired by works such as Ninja Gaiden. Both of the studio’s games are set in the same universe, but there’s absolutely no need to have played the former to embark on the latest, each with its own distinct, self-sufficient story. Sea of Stars follows the journey of two young warriors of the Solstice: Zale, incarnation of the god Solen, and Valère, incarnation of the goddess Luana. At the start of the game, you can choose which of the two you want to play, but the story remains unchanged. Only the character we control during the exploration phases changes.

While the story may appear simplistic, because even the narrative structure is an archetype taken to the extreme, it’s nonetheless strong and driven by striking heroes, sometimes touching, sometimes funny. Our two protagonists are raised and trained at the Zenith Academy to become Solstice guardians, as is the tradition for all children born during the saturnalia and solar seasons. These chosen ones are destined to become seasoned fighters capable of defeating the Hosts, monsters that can only be eliminated during an eclipse. They represent a threat impossible to ignore, for the longer they remain alive, the greater the threat that they will turn into world devourers. They are a remnant of the Fleshmancer, an evil sorcerer. After their training, Zale and Valere, accompanied by their friend Garl, set out to destroy the last Host. This battle marks the beginning of a story with much deeper stakes than the mere survival of our heroes’ world. It’s a fable about the passage from childhood to adulthood that transcends time and space, in which this group of fighters, who grow over time, find themselves in the midst of a thousand-year-old conflict between deities. Without realizing it, they are forced to oppose the continuity of a cycle that has seen far too many Solstice children die in vain.

This premise serves as the groundwork for an obvious proposition, for while the homage to 90s JRPGs is assumed, Sabotage Studio’s title takes the risk of following in the footsteps of two monuments of that era, something very few developers have attempted to do. Thierry Boulanger admits to having been deeply inspired by Chrono Trigger and Mario RPG, notably for the dynamic aspect of the adventure. The whole game is made up of fluid transitions as we move from exploration to combat. There are no random encounters, as all enemies are visible in the game area, so there’s no “tearing” of the screen to get us from one phase to the next. We’ll come back in a little more detail to the mechanics that Sea of Stars takes from its two big brothers. The importance of using the sun for exploration and certain environmental puzzles is reminiscent of Kojima’s Boktai, which required the player to get out and soak up the sun. The major asset of Zale and Valère’s adventures is its artistic direction, supported by retro graphics that take us back to a time when Club Dorothée was fashionable.

Sea of Stars legacy
Sea of Stars world map

A deep artistic sense

In recent years, as demonstrated by the popular success of titles such as Celeste, Octopath Traveler and Dead Cells, pixel art has become one of the most popular graphic styles. Sea of Stars is without doubt the finest example of this artistic style. We’re immersed in a colorful, vibrant world. The game’s environments are breathtaking, and every shot is a true tableau. It’s hard not to get lost in thought as we roam the lands of Eterbrume, or as we gaze upon the Sleeper, a giant dragon peacefully asleep, embracing a mountain range.

A sense of detail best describes Sea of Stars’ pixel art. There’s an uncommon attention to relief, with depth effects that allow you to feel the slightest levelling of the terrain and the effects of height. Each environment is brimming with subtlety. It’s a real pleasure to watch nature move with the wind, to linger over birds living their lives and taking flight as we approach. The use of light is also striking. We have beautiful palettes of moving colors and shadows, which follow one another as the hours go by. Given that we’re following the initiatory journey of the representatives of the moon and the sun, it would have been a shame if this hadn’t been reflected in the adventure’s playful and artistic proposition. Time-of-day lighting not only serves to vary the colorimetry of the various zones traversed. On many occasions, it is necessary to use our powers to play with the rotation of the two stars in order to unlock passages or chests.

The music is not to be outdone. Eric W. Brown reprises his role as composer, having previously worked on The Messenger. He is backed up by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda, known for his work on the latest Xenoblade, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, pushing the filiation with the Chrono saga to the extreme. Each location has its own musical ambience, with instruments and sounds chosen to match the visual ambience as closely as possible. The great thing about this broad musical spectrum is that there is never an abrupt transition, as everything is based on an evolutionary aspect. All tracks can change in tone and dynamics according to day or night, but also when a battle breaks out. This system harkens back to larger-scale JRPGs, such as NieR: Automata, which prepared in advance for a change in musical ambience when approaching a new game zone. The environmental sound design completes the sonic mastery. The wind that blows seems as real as the breezes that shake the cliffs of Brittany. The sound of our heroes’ footsteps on the ground lends a palpable quality to the world of Sea of Stars. All this visual and aural ambience adds up to a comforting adventure.

Sea of Stars legacy
Into the wild

A sea of calm

With the advent of high definition, the video game industry underwent its adolescence crisis. Obsessed with the idea of being recognized as a mature cultural sector, it embraced ultra-realism, but above all the multiplication of anxiety-inducing narratives. Dark, depressive worlds became the new norm. Eccentricity and cuteness deserted big productions, particularly in the West, as they failed to achieve the respectability so coveted. Fortunately, things have changed in recent times, as evidenced by the great success of games such as Breath of The Wild and Animal Crossing. There’s a desire, even among the general public, to find something more colorful and less pompous, probably linked to the resurgence of utopian narratives as opposed to dystopia and cyberpunk, and to the fact that we live in an increasingly anxious world. We can observe this trend even within very big productions. Final Fantasy VII Remake, to name but one, has perfectly understood the usefulness of these lighter or completely zany moments. They air out the narrative and provide a welcome break. Let’s not forget that a video game is not a film, and that having the same monotonous, dry tone over a 20-hour adventure can be trying, even unpleasant.

Sea of Stars is a game that’s good for the heart. Sea of Stars is not afraid to rely on archetypes when necessary, deftly discarding them to destabilize us in the most beautiful of ways. At one point in the story, we meet a group of charming pirates who regularly break the fourth wall. Yolande, the chatterbox of the troupe, often pokes fun at the JRPG codes, waxing lyrical about some of the genre’s clichés. The heroes don’t understand a thing, but players with a little experience of this type of game will understand the malice of the developers. The other interesting aspect is that this band of merrymakers, although initially presented as a mere comic spring, gains in depth as they follow us on our adventures. The arrival in the cursed town of Lucent marks a turning point. In a place seemingly cut off from reality, their comic aspect takes on a whole new flavor. As usual, they take to the stage to entertain the tavern patrons with a piece of music. For a moment, they appear to bring hope to the darkest corners of the world. The city’s grief-stricken inhabitants are distracted from their woes, if only for a moment. It’s in these moments that Sea of Stars really comes into its own, becoming much more than a warm and pleasant game to play. We become attached to the characters we meet, because despite the absence of photorealistic graphics, their joys and torments are palpable. Each village becomes a pleasant place to visit.

The title owes much of its charm to Garl’s bonhomie. He adds a welcome counterbalance to Valère and Zale’s unshakeable determination. Being accompanied by a normal human being from the outset helps to anchor the Solstice Warriors’ struggle in a broader context. Garl, also known as the Warrior Cook, allows us to forge links with those who populate the world we travel through. In many ways, he’s the soul of the group. He’s the one who takes care of the others, teaching us how to cook and concoct the tasty treats that keep us alive. This mechanic also makes campfires a useful place to exchange ideas and share experiences, enlivened by the stories of historian Teaks. Garl is that character who loses an eye fighting by your side, but who regrets nothing and remains focused on the positive. He’s the one who extends a hand of friendship to poor Malkomud, rejected by his own people because of his differences.

Sea of Stars legacy
A moment suspended in time

An elegant gameplay loop

Sabotage Studio’s title isn’t just a pleasure to look at and listen to. It also offers an interesting videogame experience. The combat system, for example, is fully turn-based, giving it an accessible feel that has won over many gamers who thought they couldn’t get to grips with this type of gameplay. This aspect is due to the relics, small accessories that allow multiple accessibility, and to the game modifiers that sometimes allow us to move away from the JRPG to offer something else depending on the player’s choices…

Its pronounced dynamism is the secret ingredient in the Sea of Stars recipe. In this way, it fully follows in the footsteps of Mario RPGs, offering the possibility of striking multiple blows at enemies during a single turn. To do this, simply press the action button a second time, just before hitting the target. It is also possible to charge certain attacks, which then become devastating. The defense system follows the same principle, reducing the damage inflicted by opponents. This forces players to be on their toes at all times, soaking up every attack frame to ensure perfect timing. The latter is further reinforced by the music, which in many cases frames its tempo on the sequence of necessary keys, for example when the action button needs to be pressed several times to make multiple attacks.

Sea of Stars legacy
A dynamic combat system

The inspiration from Chrono Trigger can be felt in the combos. As you attack creatures in your path, a gauge fills up. Once we’ve passed a certain threshold, it’s then possible to perform super-powered duel attacks, or cast particularly effective support and healing spells, without having to use our precious magic points. As in any good role-playing game, the latter are present in Sea of Stars. However, we have very few at our disposal, although their maximum capacity can be increased by leveling up. Every time our character hits an enemy with a melee attack, he recovers magic points. This is where the combat system becomes particularly interesting. We need to skilfully play with our various offensive abilities to achieve an effective rhythm. In terms of subtleties, how can we not mention the famous magic attack without magic? Simply put, when we strike with our melee weapons, our enemies release orbs of energy. These balls can be absorbed by our characters on demand, allowing us to instill a dose of each fighter’s own elemental magic into physical attacks.

Sea of Stars, unlike many low-budget JRPGs, doesn’t fall into a loop of dialogue, simplistic exploration and combat. On the contrary, it offers a real adventure of exploration and puzzle-solving. Sea of Stars is reminiscent of metroidvania codes. The further we progress in the story, the more we unlock new powers that unlock access to previously inaccessible paths. So we’re encouraged to keep returning to the places we’ve explored in order to unlock all the secrets of the world around us. The level design is packed with good ideas, and abounds in shortcuts that link different areas together to facilitate our peregrinations. A taste for exploration is a must if you want to get to the end of the story, and that’s where the problem lies.

Sea of Stars legacy
A linear game with a sense of adventure

A lack of depth

Some Japanese games like to have fun with the concept of New Game +, like the NieR license, or simply with restarting the save game when we think we’ve completed the story, like Bravely Default. However, these titles do so either to bring a new reading to the work before delivering the quintessence of its message, or to give us access to a highly satisfying ending. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Sea of Stars, which encourages us to complete the quests of certain characters – and not always the most obvious ones – in order to activate a mechanism that sets in motion the true ending. This secret ending doesn’t bring much of a change, except to sweep away the dramaturgy of the final act. The title, which skilfully managed to maintain a balance between naive sweetness and genuine melancholy, unfortunately falls into the trap of mawkishness like a certain Kingdom Hearts 3. In the end, a villain just needs an outstretched hand and a big hug to undo the abyss that consumes his soul. There was a way to do more, to do it better, without giving the impression of pandering to the player.

The combat system is also symptomatic of this desire to do things right, while at the same time being too wise. This is perhaps due to the fact that the aim was to charm a Western audience that sometimes has preconceived ideas about the genre. Unfortunately, this results in confrontations that quickly lose interest and never offer any real challenge. Once the duo attacks are accessible, the game doesn’t really offer any variation, apart from the various combos we can unlock by meticulously exploring the territory and the special attacks of certain characters. We’re light-years away from the richness of a pre-PlayStation Final Fantasy, or Persona 5 to cite a recent title, although budget may be a factor. The equipment system remains confined to a childlike simplicity. All you have to do is buy the best weapon from the nearest merchant in the next town you have to go to. There’s no customization possible when it comes to each hero’s unique range of spells. They are simply unlocked as they go along, and we are never asked to make any strategic choices about their activation.

In many respects, we find an almost common reflexion with Final Fantasy XVI. It’s as if 2023 is trying to tell us that simplicity is the order of the day in JRPGs, and that pointy gameplay mechanics are likely to turn audiences off. The presence of relics, which simplify the game to the extreme, is the biggest echo of Square Enix’s latest major production. While opening up to an even wider audience is to be welcomed, it’s distressing to see more and more representatives of such a prestigious genre failing to understand that accessibility means opening the door to neophytes, while retaining the interest of seasoned players looking for a challenge. A JRPG, and a turn-based one at that, will never be a game that requires great dexterity or optimal reflexes. Works of this kind should be seen as a variation on chess. They are games of strategy, and the fun lies in coming up with the best approach.

Sea of Stars legacy
Breath of the sea

Sea of Stars is a fine tribute to the genre. It’s a work that exudes passion and, unfortunately, gets caught up in a form of respect that seems to have been a handicap. We could have had a modern retelling of the genre, but all we have is a title that tries to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors. Having said that, though, what we have is a real sweet treat, carried along by a well-paced story and a cast of endearing characters.

It’s not a revolution, but in the end, that’s not so important, as it remains a beautiful, heart-warming adventure that takes us back to a time when video games were more inclined to nurture our childhood dreams. It’s confirmation that the JRPG is now an international genre whose codes we can all use, and there’s little doubt that Sabotage Studio’s title will show the way for many young Western studios bottle-fed by these new mythological tales from Japan.

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