Sea Of Stars review – Chrono Triggered08/28/2023
A new indie homage to SNES classic Chrono Trigger is one of the best-looking games of the year and an ode to 16-bit JRPGs in general.
Not for the first time, we can’t help but wonder what the role-playing landscape would be like if Square Enix’s Chrono Trigger had become the genre-defining hit it deserved to be. Released in 1995 on the SNES (but not in Europe until 2008) it was greeted with critical acclaim but its fast-paced combat, with no random battles, and equally expeditious storytelling had very little impact on any of its contemporaries.
It took it almost five years to get a sequel and in the end Chrono Cross, while not without its merits, was almost nothing like it. Clearly, its moment to effect change has passed but while there’s still no sign of any official new entries the game is a frequent inspiration to indie developers, most recently the excellent Chained Echoes and CrossCode, and now the even more blatant Sea Of Stars.
As welcome as it is to see Western developers acknowledging the brilliance of Chrono Trigger, homages can often be obnoxiously reverent to the source material – the gaming equivalent of a bad tribute band, only in it for the member berries. That’s a trap Sea Of Stars does occasionally fall into but it’s hard not to be pulled along anyway, by its infectious love for old school role-playing.
Our drawing a parallel to Chrono Trigger isn’t any kind of stretch, it’s been openly acknowledged by Canadian developer Sabotage – the same team behind Ninja Gaiden homage The Messenger, to which this is technically a prequel. The plot of Sea Of Stars starts off simply enough, with teenagers Valere and Zale training to become Solstice Warriors and then quickly becoming embroiled in a quest to save the world.
There’s no Chrono Trigger style time travel but there is a lot of exploration, with an eclectic cast of characters that includes chirpy best friend Garl, secretive assassin Seraï, excitable scientist Teaks, and various mere-people and pirates. Everyone’s a trope to some degree, but they’re all quite likeable, even if they and the plot doesn’t really have much depth to them.
In terms of dialogue, the game is in a slightly awkward spot where the script is clearly much better written than any 90s role-player and yet it lacks the artful brevity of the era, with conversations always going on just that bit too long – especially when it comes to the two leads. It doesn’t ruin anything, but it is perhaps the most uncomfortable balance between old school and modern sensibilities in the game.
Apart from the gloriously detailed faux 16-bit graphics, it’s the battle system that sticks closest to Chrono Trigger’s design, with no random battles and combat starting instantly, as your fight where you are instead of segueing to a separate screen. Up to three of your allies can battle at once, but most attacks cand defences can be augmented by pressing the appropriate button at the right time, similar to Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario.
There’s lots of different skills and magic attacks, plus a combo meter to build up, which enables joint attacks. Sea Of Stars also has something called the lock system, where enemies have a symbol next to them showing what kind of attack they’re about to unleash. Use their opposites, in a rock paper scissors fashion, and you can weaken them or even prevent the attack entirely. Many enemies have multiple locks though, which requires you to synch up your attacks with your allies and is very satisfying to pull off.
None of this is revolutionary but it’s a very solid system that has just the right level of complexity without becoming a slog. Impressively, the game also knows the secret sauce to Chrono Trigger’s magic: no level grinding. In theory you can, in both games, but you never need to and that must’ve been a lot harder to balance then the game lets on.
Exploration is another key element and in that respect there’s also clearly a lot of influence from Secret Of Mana, including the occasionally confusing top-down, quasi-isometric viewpoint, which can make it a little difficult to judge perspective and which platforms are above which.
That’s only a minor irritation though and, if anything, exploring for treasure is reminiscent of a 2D Tears Of The Kingdom, where there seems to be a secret around every corner and the signposting is cleverly light-handed. This includes plenty of optional side quests and optional bosses, to the point we’re sure we missed half of it and yet we still ended up playing the game for over 30 hours.
Puzzle-solving isn’t a big part of the game but when they do crop up they’re not entirely trivial, with a lot of old school block-pushing and a clever use of Valere and Zale’s combat powers (one uses sun-based abilities, the other the moon) to change the time of day and unlock new areas.
No matter what its other qualities, the most obvious appeal of Sea Of Stars is the absolutely gorgeous pixel art. The Messenger wasn’t exactly ugly but there was nothing in that to suggest Sabotage could create a game quite this beautiful. It’s difficult to know what to praise more, in terms of the detailed artwork, the superb animation, the fantastic bosses, the dynamic lighting (which never would’ve been possible on an actual SNES), or the sheer variety of locations and enemies.
To complement it all the soundtrack is by Yasunori Mitsuda, co-composer (along with Nobuo Uematsu) of, you guessed it, Chrono Trigger. No expense has been spared and while that is reflected in the price tag it absolutely justifies itself in terms of the quality and size of the game.
Sea Of Stars is definitely expensive for an indie title but, unusually, it’s available day one on both Game Pass and PS Plus Extra, so there’s a good chance you can get to play it for free without paying a penny extra. As if that’s not enough. there’s a free demo on all formats, including Switch, so there’s no excuse to not give it a try. If you do you’ll be rewarded with one of the best Japanese role-players of recent years and further proof that Chrono Trigger deserves to be a whole lot more famous than it is.
Sea Of Stars review summary
In Short: A welcome homage to JRPG classic Chrono Trigger and one of the best-looking 2D games of recent years, even if it’s not really doing anything new.
Pros: Gorgeous pixel art graphics and a great combat system that cleverly mixes elements from multiple 16-bit classics. Excellent map design and tons of secrets and rewards make exploration a pleasure. Great soundtrack.
Cons: Almost all the ideas are borrowed from one game or another and while the combat is fun it’s not particularly deep – with the same complaint being true of the plot and characters.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Release Date: 29th August 2023
Age Rating: 18
*day one on both Game Pass and PlayStation Plus Extra
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