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Sea of Stars (PlayStation 4) artwork

Sea of Stars (PlayStation 4) review

"A fun journey that doesn't quite reach the level of its inspirations."

In the wild world that is gaming, nostalgia is a double-edged sword. While it serves to elevate beloved games into world-changing entities, it also can greatly effect more recent offerings designed to capitalize upon those feelings of adoration gamers have for those venerable classics.

While that effect is definitely a boon when one of these newer games is in the process of being released, due to all the buzz and hype it will generate, the story isn’t necessarily the same after it’s out, though. The thing about nostalgia is that it elevates the thing one feels nostalgic for, creating a bar that’s likely too high to be cleared. While the newer game might be perfectly fine and worthy of playing on its own merits, it will be easy to denigrate it simply because it isn’t the game it’s designed to remind people of when they’re going through its world.

Such was my issue with Sea of Stars. When this game not only was released in mid-2023, but also immediately dropped onto PlayStation Plus, it didn’t take long for me to dive into it simply because it seemed like every time I read anything about it, the holy name of Chrono Trigger was being invoked in some way, shape or form. And when it comes to me and nostalgia, it’s hard to find a way to get my attention more quickly — that game’s been a personal favorite of mine for decades and I’ve played through it several times.

Breaking News: Sea of Stars is not Chrono Trigger. While it took some time for me to come to grips with this revelation, once I did, I was able to enjoy it on its own merits and, while there might be a few missteps, it is a very solid and enjoyable game.

You’ll start out controlling youngsters Zale and Valere. The two are Solstice Warriors in training, which, to be frank, isn’t the best occupation to have. The duty of a Solstice Warrior is to use the power of eclipses to overcome the dire threat presented by extremely powerful monsters known as Dwellers. After a previous mission was something less than a resounding success, the entire order of Solstice Warriors consists of Headmaster Moraine and veterans Erlina and Brugaves, who also serve as mentors to the young duo.

After a bit of tutorial work that culminates in a battle with a big robot who looks suspiciously like the one at Chrono Trigger’s early-game fair, Zale and Valere earn the right to pass through a cave in order to reach the domain of a being known as Elder Mist and fully access their powers, which leads to them being sent to another land to join forces with their comrades in their first Dweller fight. Joining them will be childhood friend Garl, who serves as the “regular guy” supporting the two heroes, while also constantly commenting on just how cool and awesome every single place they visit or thing they do is.

Of course, things won’t be go as smoothly as our heroes hope. There are shadowy forces who aren’t keen on allowing the Solstice Warriors eradicate the Dwellers and, after many years of being on the job, Erlina and Brugaves have gotten pretty fatigued with the whole “dedicate your entire life to battling giant monsters” thing. Fortunately, Zale, Valere and Garl do find a few additional allies, such as a portal-utilizing ninja and an ancient alchemist with ties to those shadowy forces serving as adversaries.

Much like Chrono Trigger, you’ll have up to three characters in your active party and travel through locations where monster encounters tend to be visible on the map. The world map is handled similarly with you walking across various small lands until you come across a dungeon or outdoors region and can enter these often-vast areas. To go with their regular attacks, characters will gain a few skills, as well as several combo attacks that can be performed with teammates.

A few new things get added to the mix. Each character has his or her own elemental power. Hitting foes with regular attacks causes orbs to fall onto the screen. By collecting them, the next guy in line can infuse their attack with their element to cause more damage. Also, whenever an enemy is preparing to execute their own special attack, a collection of symbols referencing those elements will appear above them. If you’re capable of matching those symbols with your attacks before they take their turn, you’ll be able to negate whatever they were going to do. Of course, it isn’t always easy (or possible) to do this with regularity, but if you can nullify a few symbols, you’ll at least weaken their moves. There also are action commands with nearly everything you do, so properly timing button presses while you and enemies are attacking can boost your moves and weaken enemy blows.

All of which adds up to a pretty fun game. It did take me a while to figure this out, though. As you progress through Sea of Stars, you’ll gain a few abilities used to solve puzzles in dungeons, giving those places somewhat of a Zelda-esque vibe where, when you’re not fighting, you’re using your brain to navigate them. But early in the game, while you’ve yet to get your full arsenal of tools, it’s easy to notice that there’s not much to do in these places other than walking, climbing and edging along narrow paths — creating a situation where you’re often stuck with tedious walks between battles. Really, for a lot of the early game, I just sort of co-existed with this one, waiting for it to get good.

But as the game progresses, dungeons get more involving and their boss fights get more intense, with many of them possessing powerful attacks where you have to figure out how to match a lot of elements to a lot of symbols in a hurry to avoid suffering devastating damage. I found this game to get better, the farther I got into it…except for a couple ugly little things.

One is simple. While playing it, I discovered that Sabotage Studio designed it as a companion of sorts to their previous game, The Messenger. This led to a bit of confusion, especially when a handful of notable characters just sort of disappeared from the plot due to having to fill a role in that game.

More significantly, in another reference to Chrono Trigger, you will have an ally perish during your mission and, like that game, you’ll have the opportunity to perform a resurrection. Doing so is necessary to fight the true final boss and get the best ending, but it will require a number of tasks to be completed. Many of these are fun, as they involve fighting tough optional bosses or solving tricky puzzles. One, though, requires you to collect every single one of the game’s collectible item. That is just not a good idea! From the moment Dragon Quest introduced their medals to the blueprint, this sort of thing has had a specific role in games — allow players to obtain a bunch of goodies, with some being tricky to find, in order to trade in for useful equipment and goods. Making them necessary to actually truly beating the game turns a diversion into a bunch of annoying busywork.

Sure, one could say that one of the goods you get for collecting some of these Rainbow Conches is a parrot that will announce where something you haven’t done yet is located, but that’s only of so much help. It only gives you one “something” per region at a time and that “something” could be just about anything. It could be a Conch, it could be an opponent in the game’s tavern competition, it could be that you haven’t caught everything in the local pond for the obligatory RPG fishing game. In short, beating this game is pretty fun; truly besting it only would be for true diehards.

For me to put any effort into being a true diehard, a game has to truly speak to my heart and Sea of Stars wasn’t quite at that level. It’s still a fun game, though, especially if one can overlook the whole “homage to the classics” thing and appreciate it on its own merits. I can’t see it generating the same nostalgic buzz down the road that its inspiration did, but it is a quality game worth experiencing, especially for those of us who grew up on retro RPGs.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (March 19, 2024)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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