Sea of Stars is a turn-based RPG prequel to 2018’s The Messenger from Sabotage Studio. I recently had the opportunity to attend a virtual, hands-off demo of the game. I also had the chance to ask the developers some questions I think you might find interesting. Let’s dive in!
Brief History of Sabotage Studio
Founded in 2016, Sabotage Studio mixes retro aesthetics with modern game design. Their first game, The Messenger, debuted on August 30, 2018, and is an action-platformer/Metroidvania. Following The Messenger’s release, Sabotage began working on their “dream game,” a turn-based RPG. Something Sea of Star’s Creative Director, Thierry Boulanger, notes they were “unable to afford” as a start-up. The team at Sabotage Studio has grown from seven to twenty-five people, and Sea of Stars is in its final year of production.
A Vertical-Slice of Sea of Stars’ Story
Sea of Stars takes place on an archipelago, long before the flood that created the lone island in The Messenger. The game features dual protagonists, Zale and Valere, and the player can choose to play as either Solstice Warrior. Zale, born during the Summer Solstice, has the power of the Sun. Valere, born during the Winter Solstice, has the power of the Moon. Becoming a Solstice Warrior requires one to be born during a solstice.
Zale and Valere are joining forces and combining their powers to produce Eclipse Magic, the magic that can defeat the creations of the evil alchemist, the Fleshmancer. Both characters had completed their training during the presentation and were out in the world.
Our heroes had rented a room in the port town of Brisk, where they met a pirate captain that offered a boat ride in exchange for a magic coin. All we had to do was fetch the coin from a dead wizard’s lab. That would secure the boat ride to an island, where we would meet up with other Solstice Warriors. The goal was to defeat a “bigger, more elite monster” called a Dweller under an eclipse.
Boulanger noted that playing The Messenger is not required, and there’s nothing you won’t understand. The game features nods to The Messenger, but there will be equal takeaways if you play Sea of Stars first.
Sabotage Studio appears to have crafted a truly intriguing story with Sea of Stars. This preview was spoiler-free and surface-level but based on what I saw, I feel like we hardly scratched the surface.
Before heading out, we stopped to visit Merchants that sold armor, equipment, and ingredients for cooking. Armor and equipment are also found by searching cabinets, chests, and drawers throughout the world. You find recipes for cooking instead of randomly discovering recipes through trial and error, like in Breath of the Wild. The player can find recipes or buy them from chefs in town.
Boulanger pointed out that Solstice Warriors can control the time of day. While exploring the world, a button press can accelerate time, causing the dynamic lighting system to cast shadows. The music changes from day to night and some puzzles require the player to play with light and shadows.
After a brief conversation with the pirate captain, we accepted the quest, and the pirate crew joined our Cargo. The same menu that displays the active party also shows the current Cargo. You don’t see them roaming around the world like the party, and Boulanger noted that they couldn’t fight with you. They’re with you just for the active quest.
After leaving the town, we entered the world map. Here we had a bird’s eye view of Brisk and the rest of the island. Boulanger pointed out that Sleeper Island gets its name from the sleeping dragon coiled around the mountain. There are holes in the mountain that allow wind to pass through. Wind blowing through these holes produces a melody that soothes the dragon, resulting in its slumber. Boulanger noted that it could mean trouble if the dragon were to awaken.
We then approached the Abandoned Wizard’s Lab, where the pirate crew helped us through the door with a bit of magic, a lot of brawn, and some dynamite. After blowing a hole in the abandoned lab, the pirate mage joined our Cargo again while the rest of the crew went back to town.
At this time, Boulanger mentioned why we only see two party members outside of combat and campfires. He said the third character would be included at release but isn’t necessary during development for production’s sake. Boulanger added, “There are literally no unknowns [that go] into integrating [the third character]… We’re focusing on bosses and cutscenes and all the things that demand animations. During the tail-end of production, we’ll be handling [adding the third character].”
The arcane wizard’s lab is a series of floating floors in an endless void of illusion. To obtain the magic coin, we solved puzzles and navigated illusions. In the first room, there was a campfire and a save station. We found a chest that granted us a green crystal, which we placed on a pedestal. A green beam refracted through the prism in the center of the room and opened a green portal.
Later in the playthrough, the green crystal was removed and replaced with a blue crystal. Passing through the blue portal took us to a completely different room in the lab. I can already see how some of these puzzles could get interesting!
The green portal took us to a room where the first combat encounter occurred. Boulanger reiterated that Sea of Stars doesn’t have random encounters. Each combat encounter will happen in the space the enemy occupies. Coming in direct contact with an enemy initiates a combat encounter. Dodging enemy attacks prevents combat encounters.
The combat in Sea of Stars is fully turn-based. There are no timers, and whoever gets the jump on the enemy makes the first move. Boulanger noted that combat is about strategy and skill. Combat is lite to encourage playing around with synergies. After initiating an attack, you can time your hits with a button press to deal bonus damage. Conversely, if there’s an incoming attack, a button press can lessen the damage from the enemy attack.
Keeping the player engaged and the gameplay momentum going was the thought process behind no enemy encounters and active turn-based combat. One of the most remarkable ways this is achieved is the Moonerang attack. When used, adequately timed button presses keep the attack going, but the speed of its ricochets increases. Feeling the world and keeping the player immersed seems to be a point of focus for Sabotage Studio with Sea of Stars.
Boulanger added, “The way we approach everything that has to do with [User Interface] or any interface is that it will be between the game and the player. For us, putting something in the interface is essentially failing to have something in the game directly and organically for the player to interact with.”
Party members’ attacks can generate boost charges, and the next member can absorb the boost and add magic to their next attack. Garl, the third party member, can hurl enemies closer to one another. Grouping enemies together allows splash damage to affect multiple enemies at once. During the area-of-effect attack, I noticed that there was a window of time where rapidly pressing a button could charge the attack for more damage.
In addition to standard attacks, Sun and Moon damage types take advantage of an enemy’s weakness. However, those damage types also come into play when enemies are preparing spells or more dangerous attacks. The enemy will display a bar of icons with different damage types when casting. Every time you do damage that coincides with one of the damage type icons, it decreases the power of the spell/attack the enemy is preparing.
Boulanger mentioned that there would not be Skill Trees in the game but said there are six playable characters. Each character has its damage type and utility that synergizes the combat experience. Adding a new character to your party grants access to their skills, almost acting like a new Skill Tree.
Experience points are bound to the group. Every level requires 100 XP to level up. There is a rubber band on XP to keep you aligned with the game’s story. Enemies will get you up to speed in new areas, and in old areas, they will give you less experience.
I asked if the game would be accessible to players that hadn’t played a game like Sea of Stars before, and Boulanger mentioned that the game would not feature difficulty settings. Instead, equipping Trinkets allows for more modular and nuanced difficulty options. For example, the Amulet of Onboarding increased Health Points by seventy percent and refilled health by fifty percent after combat. Alternatively, the Gambler’s Earring decreases Health Points by seventy percent but grants a two-times bonus on timed hits and blocks.
Traversal doesn’t appear to be limited by much. You can climb and hoist up ledges, as well as swim. Boulanger added, “We really wanted to build a world that you feel like you can touch. So anything that looks like a ledge or a place you can go, you can.”
While at campfires, your party can rest and replenish their health. You can also save your progress and ask party members for tips if you’re lost. Instead of healing with potions, you do so with food cooked at campfires. As mentioned before, you can buy meals and ingredients before heading out on a quest. But while you’re on a quest, you will find ingredients to cook more meals if you run out. Some meals heal the entire party, and others focus on individuals.
The gameplay in Sea of Stars looks immersive and gripping. I didn’t notice any bugs or hiccups during this vertical slice of gameplay. I honestly cannot wait to embark on this adventure for myself!
Keeping It Reel
Combining red and blue crystals created a purple beam at the prism in the Abandoned Wizard’s Lab. Doing so opened a portal that led to a fishing hole. Here Boulanger showed off the fishing mini-game in Sea of Stars.
The player casts their line, and a button press will drop the lure above a fish they wish to catch. While reeling in a big one, the line flashes red if the line is about to break. But manage to get the fish to the dock, and it’s all yours. The player can jump into the water and swim to corral fish near the pier to make fishing more accessible, but the trade-off comes down to time consumption.
For a mini-game that is often an after-thought, Sabotage Studio has made fishing simpler and deeper (from a gameplay perspective). When I mentioned this, Boulanger said, “A fishing mini-game should be in-tune with the rest of the game… It was honestly more challenging than the combat. There are so many fishing mini-games out there, and no one is happy with any of them, yet they still play them.”
Their goal was to make fishing more in-tune with the gameplay experience, and they succeeded. Every aspect of the process is gamified in an incredibly pleasing way. Boulanger added that they might continue to iterate on the mini-game, but they are happy with it. I honestly cannot wait to spend time fishing in Sea of Stars!
I asked if Sea of Stars features larger lakes with “better” fish further out, requiring better catch-up equipment. To which Boulanger said, “Absolutely.” Get hyped!
Sea of Melody
During the demo, Boulanger pointed out that the Coral Cascades area was the first area where guest composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, contributed. Mitsuda is contributing “around ten tracks” to Sea of Stars. We did not venture into the Coral Cascades during the demo, so I cannot comment on his contributions. Yasunori Mitsuda composed tracks for classic games like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Xeno Gears.
Boulanger mentioned that the conversation with Mitsuda started with “a polite email,” where they provided a concise pitch, some screenshots, and the game’s general direction.
I will say, the music in this game is top-notch. Sabotage has matched the music with the vibe for each area. The attention to detail shown throughout the game extends to the soundtrack.
I didn’t have a chance to ask every question I had prepared for the demo, so I asked them afterward. Here are the questions and responses I received:
Q: The interactivity during the attack sequences is something I’ve never seen before in a turn-based game like Sea of Stars, where did the idea/inspiration for that come from?
A (Thierry): Super Mario RPG is the biggest inspiration here, along with the follow-up Mario & Luigi games for handled consoles
Q: I believe I noticed there weren’t any cosmetic changes to the sprites when new armor was equipped, which with pixel art is totally understandable. Is Armor purely statistic?
A (Thierry): Indeed, given that everything is hand-drawn frame by frame and that animation is by far what we spend the most on, any changes to the character’s appearances would cause huge delays on the game. We happen to prefer the retro feel of a consistent signature look for each character anyway. That being said some palette or color swaps are easy to do and may be considered down the line if players are interested in that for a future update.
Q: Some of your Kickstarter goals allowed backers to get involved with the development of Sea of Stars, how has community-based collaboration affected the game’s development?
A (Thierry): Other than recurring feedback passes on early looks at some elements of the game, the big one has been the design of the Cryptwalker character. This NPC will be greeting adventurers in the Crypt where backer’s monuments will be found. The Cryptwalker was designed based
Q: The Limited Run retail location is opening later this year, do you have any plans for the retail store to carry physical copies of Sea of Stars?
A (Thierry): Still too early to tell, but that sure sounds fun!
Q: Any news on the game coming to PlayStation and Xbox? If so/if that works out, will there be a Platinum trophy on PlayStation? If so, how much consideration is being put into trophies/achievements/etc.?
A (Thierry): There will be announcements in the Spring including platform(s?). When it comes to achievement-type mechanics, we will look at what goes towards creating the experience we think is best and implement it first as a 100% in-game system, then let that kick into a platform’s system functionalities when there is a fit.
Q: Has the team returned to the studio? If so, how has returning to the studio affected the development cycle?
A (Thierry): At the time of this question, no, but by the time people read this it should be a yes! Following the guidelines of Québec’s government, the current plan is to go back on February 28th.
Sea of Stars arrives on Nintendo Switch and PC around Holiday 2022!
What are you looking forward to the most in Sea of Stars? Fishing? Combat? The story? Let us know in the comments below!