Roger Ebert once said that “criticism is a destructive activity.” In many ways, this is true, as we have more fun reading (and writing) bad reviews than we do glowing ones. There’s a kind of existential schadenfreude to trashing something. It makes those of us who don’t create feel better about our lack of contribution to the arts and endeavors we enjoy.
Critics also have the power to elevate. To shine a light in a crowded field and direct our attention to something we may have otherwise overlooked. For Xbox fans, this means turning our gaze away from the gargantuan hype around Starfield to another game that, as far as the critics are concerned, is a superior title.
Sea of Stars, a charming retro-inspired RPG currently sits at 88 on metacritic, and 89 on opencritic. Starfield, a colossal space epic from the minds behind Skyrim, sits at 83 and 86 respectively. Without the critical acclaim, it’s hard to imagine how Sea of Stars would’ve been able to get any attention at all when Bethesda was hoovering up all the oxygen and marketing dollars in the room. So, what makes Sea of Stars so special?
It’s not like Sabotage Studios is venturing into uncharted territory. There have been countless SNES-esque RPGs to come out of the indie scene in the last decade. Today’s game devs grew up with the likes of Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Dragon Quest. Those influences aren’t hard to find; however, they are hard to master. (Even in the SNES era, there were turds like Drakkhen.) What Sea of Stars understands so well is the details. Every layer of the game is thoughtfully crafted so that, the harder you look, the more you find.
It starts with the visuals. Sprites and pixels have a bit of a handicap for older gamers because of the nostalgia factor, but there are plenty of players who were raised in the 3D era that fall in love with the retro style. One look at Sea of Stars and it’s easy to see why. It’s a beautiful game, full of vibrant colors and flawless design choices. The character animations are perfect, but even small stuff like NPC profile pictures and the reflections cast by lakes and rivers are full of eye candy, too.
Sea of Stars doesn’t just look good, it sounds good too. The OST has 200 tracks, all of them are gorgeous. Eric W. Brown developed much of the music, but Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger fame also contributed to the project. It isn’t just the orchestral swells that shine either, even things like the addictive fishing minigame have great sound design. It’s a headphones-on experience.
Then there’s the gameplay itself. Like most RPGs, the story can feel a bit predictable — who hasn’t been a world-saving hero at this point in their gaming career? — but there’s still plenty of heart and great writing in the margins for side quests and colorful characters. The combat sings, too. A turn-based system with some QTE elements and an exceptional combo mechanic delivers that old-school feel with a modern pace. Everything from grinding minions to battling bosses feels right.
Top-to-bottom, Sea of Stars is a thoughtfully polished package. It ticks all the nostalgia boxes you’d expect based on the aesthetics, but also understands it’s 2023 and we’re playing stuff like Starfield too. It knows how to hold your attention and rewards you for going along for the ride.