Ever since the golden age of the ever-faithful SNES took a gradual turn towards a new beginning on a wider home-based scale, I’ve longed to return to those cozy roots on modern hardware. Fortunately for me, I just about had that wish granted when Sea of Stars—a whimsical love letter to turn-based JRPGs of old—finally graced the system back at the end of August. Turns out, those inner pipe dreams eventually found a muse to make a second appearance — and on Nintendo Switch, no less. How’s that for coming full circle? Sure enough, the stars must’ve had it written since day one, and it just so happened to be a nautical iteration of said stars that brought me directly back to my childhood.
Granted, there’s a lot to unpack with Sea of Stars, more so in the character department, which, when peeled back and put out on full display, is rather hefty, to say the least. Not that this spoils the quality, mind you, as Sea of Stars is, when all’s said and done, a charming little number that brings fantastical pixelated landscapes to a wholesome and instantly recognizable world that’s evidently rife with lore and wonder. And that’s barely scratching the surface, too.
Having spent a great deal of time romping through the idyllic waters and luscious grasslands of Evermist Island and its surrounding regions, I can safely say that my time as a Solstice Warrior has just about reached its climax. Question is, did I enjoy the ascension process, in general, or was it merely the case of quenching my thirst for the sake of fending off that ever-alluring urge to source something nostalgic? Let’s dive right in.
Welcome, Child of Solstice
Sea of Stars follows two young friends, Zale, and Valere—fledgling heroes who thrive to become Solstice Warriors and master the art of magic—on their joint venture to confront an evil tyrant known as The Fleshmancer. Driven by the desire to grasp the foundations of spell casting, Zale and Valere embark on a quest to master the fundamentals and techniques taught by Zenith Academy, an elite school built in the hopes of forging powerful warriors of old and new. And this, really, is where you begin your journey: earmarked to be a Solstice Warrior, but with years of combat training to endure beforehand. Oh, and sewing, apparently; a good Solstice Warrior must also know how to sew.
The early portions of the game are split into short bursts of world-building, character development, and generally setting the scene for a series of much larger events. True to its 16-bit SNES roots, it introduces the bulk of its fodder through text-based interactions and digestible turn-based combat. This isn’t anything particularly revolutionary, though its familiarity is what makes it all the more appealing — especially for those ‘90s die-hards who’ve yearned to return to a sprite-heavy Shangri-La for the better part of two or more decades.
As far as playable characters go, there are just the two to choose from: Zale, a fire-wielding blade dancer, and Valere, an ice-grasping lunar monk. Regardless of the protagonist you choose to play as, not a whole lot changes to the overall structure of the story; the combat is slightly different, but that’s about it. Point is, I didn’t exactly feel the weight of the world on my shoulders when it came to picking A or B. No complaints there, though.
In terms of gameplay, Sea of Stars is, more or less, a bread and butter turn-based RPG, complete with all the same bells and whistles we’ve happily brushed over countless times before. On top of the general exploration and dungeon crawling, the experience itself is also made up of interacting with citizens for deeper insights into the history of the world, and completing the odd puzzle in order to progress deeper into a key area of a dungeon or region. Again, this is all textbook stuff, which is why anyone who’s ever so much as glossed over a SNES classic will have a basic understanding of how it all works. Again — no complaints.
As far as combat goes, Sea of Stars operates under that same old iconic turn-based format—a cycle in which players either attack, defend, or use magic to whittle down an opponent’s health bar. This is where player choice comes in, as each protagonist has a unique magical ability that, depending on the foe, can either deal a significant amount of damage, or barely make a scratch. Ultimately, though, the entire aim of the game is to bring both Zale and Valere to the apex of their magical careers, after which the Children of Solstice can confront The Fleshmancer and his evil minions. Simple.
Two Heroes, One Purpose
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter all that much who you choose to play as, as you’re pretty much guaranteed the opportunity to play the fly on the wall for both of their journeys. And I’ll be honest, it’s that wholesome camaraderie between both heroes that actually carries the bulk of the story; it’s fluid, hearty, and even the slightest bit emotional on the odd occasion. Add the fact that the flow of the message is also accompanied by a mesmerizing soundtrack that’s as nostalgic as it is uplifting, and you’ve got all the basic ingredients to formulate an instant connection to millions of 16-bit enthusiasts.
Outside of the close-knit circle of heroes, Sea of Stars also onboards dozen of other characters over its thirty-hour adventure. However, as much as I wanted to develop a connection with their desperately transparent personalities, I just couldn’t find common ground to share with them, which ultimately led me to lose interest every once in a while. This wasn’t enough to draw me away from the conversation, though, as there was always something that needed to be done, or another chapter to prepare for in a completely different region.
I’ve Been Here Before
To call Sea of Stars anything other than a homage to some of the universally celebrated hits of the SNES era wouldn’t be unjust. In fact, it becomes abundantly evident right from the tee that it’s exactly that — and it does all in its power to reinvigorate the flame that captured so many hearts thirty years ago, if not through the pixelated world, then through the soothing soundboard and elegant atmosphere. It’s all there, and it manages to formulate a realm that’s not only nostalgic for veterans, but approachable for newcomers, too.
Speaking of approachable, Sea of Stars isn’t the most complex RPG in the world. Needless to say that, with only a few commands and a fairly bite-sized roster of playable heroes, there isn’t a massive amount to wrap your head around — especially when it comes to combat scenarios. Granted, the combat becomes a little more of a headache much later on in the story, but for the most part, it’s basically reapplying the same tactics for the sake of nudging nearer and nearer to the next crossroads in the narrative.
In total, it took me around twenty-five hours to mop up just about everything there was to see and do in the charming world of Sea of Stars. Was this enough time to build a genuine and organic relationship with its heroes? Absolutely. Could there have been a bit more drizzled on top for the sake of fleshing out the lore? Perhaps. That said, at no point did I ever feel robbed, nor left out of a much larger discussion, for that matter. If anything, it all felt right; it wasn’t unnecessarily long, but bang on the money, all things considered.
I’ll be one of the first to admit that, while the story and its various plot points aren’t overly dramatic or the least bit convincing, there’s still something awfully appealing about the world of Sea of Stars and its many, many aspects. Mechanically, it plays out as well as what you’d expect from a turn-based platforming game with a pixel overlay — and that’s, you know, fine. Truth is, it doesn’t do anything more than what’s expected of it, which means you can pretty much roll out all the punches and anticipate the stops without having to onboard any convoluted learning curves.
In spite of its relatively elementary storyline, Sea of Stars is still a whole ocean of fun, and not to mention something any old school SNES die-hard will want to visit — if only to scratch that post-heyday itch between heavier IPs. Sure, it’s a little dated and familiar, but that’s precisely what makes it the heartfelt love letter that it is — and it works, tenfold.
Of course, if you’re new to the niche market of cutesy sprites and structured turn-based combat, then you’ll probably find several other homages that tick all the same boxes as Sea of Stars. That being said, there’s still something so incredibly satisfying and wholesome about the world of the Solstice Warriors, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the camaraderie between Zale and Valere just as much as any other two-piece on the indie gaming market. And so, as far as beginner-friendly RPGs go, Sea of Stars truly is a near-perfect anchor point for anyone looking to dip their toes in.
Sea of Stars Review (Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, Switch & PC)
Sew Me Another
Sea of Stars is as nostalgic as it is homely, and it does a fantastic job of reviving just about everything we came to know and love about the SNES era — which is a boon in itself. Sure, it’s a little familiar, but at the end of the day, if we can have the opportunity to return to the ‘90s for a short while, then hey — sign us up for another round.