I really wanted to write a full review of Sea of Stars. The nostalgia-baiting indie RPG looks gorgeous for fans of isometric pixel art, and the 90s Golden Age of 16-bit RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6.

The RPG has been firmly on my wishlist for years. It was one of only two video games I’ve backed on Kickstarter within the last six years (the other is almost here).

It won Best Indie Game at this year’s The Game Awards.

As of this month, it’s sold over four million copies worldwide.

But over the last few weeks, I’m playing Sea of Stars less and less. It has all the ingredients of an indie game I’ll adore, but after about 15 hours, I think I’m ready to drop it altogether.

It Takes Two

The story stars young warriors, Valere and Zale. Their rare solstice births mark them as Solstice Warriors, able to wield special powers of moon and sun. They’re the only people capable of taking down the powerful Dwellers and the villainous Fleshmancer who creates them.

“Fleshmancer” is a cool title, but my interest in the villains stops there. The game doesn’t really care either. The beginning hour or so is a rote tutorial quest and coming-of-age story, but it’s all a bit slow and boring, and I never get a feel for these protagonists other than generically heroic.

Once we finally leave newbie island the action picks up a bit. Sea of Stars’ combat is a clever evolution of some of the best RPGs of the 90s, including Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG.

Basic attacks generate magic points and knocks glowing energy out of enemies. Magic points can be spent to use skills or spells, while energy can be absorbed to enhance future attacks (or spells).

Dealing and receiving damage generates combo points. Upon reaching certain levels, different party members can trigger combo attacks. A large party-wide healing combo ability is all but necessary in many of the difficult boss fights.

In fact, even regular battles are often quite challenging. Enemies can generate their own big attacks and spells, but our heroes have a chance to reduce or interrupt the attack if they strike them with the right abilities, which are displayed by the enemy.

It’s an interesting system with an annoying flaw: I tend to play more reactively, hording my magic and abilities until I see what the enemies are doing, then hitting them with the right skills. In every boss fight, the boss all but dictates exactly what I do each round in order to counter or survive their big hits.

The linear plot has me traveling from island to island, exploring different areas, and talking to folks in a town. The orchestral music (Yasunori Mitsuda!), elegant menus, and pixel art are phenomenal, perfectly recreating the feeling of playing a classic 16-bit RPG.

Retro RPG

Exploration is also vastly improved over those older games. Sabotage Studios smartly adds climbing, rope-walking, and jumping into the mix, not to mention the usual button and sliding puzzles. Later I gain new travel abilities, such as a grappling rope, which sprinkles in a little metroidvania as I can return to other, previously inaccessible areas.

But despite my nostalgic glee at the sounds and sights of the world, I care not a bit about the story or characters. Without facial animations or voice acting, your writing has to be that much better.

It takes a distressingly long time before we’re introduced to a new party member outside our initial three. Garl, our heroes’ childhood friend, is adorably nice but completely boring in combat, and I was quick to ditch him when the newcomer arrives. Party members can be swapped even in combat, but I rarely found a reason to bring the poor guy back in.

Despite the injection of the new hero, I still found the overall plot and story severely lacking. There’s been exactly one big, memorable event that finally occurred at around 10-12 hours in, but the story failed to fully capitalize on its excitement.

I’m left with a familiar section where I’m given a ship and the freedom to explore different areas. But, most damning of all, I just don’t care to.

If the story lags, the combat needs to make up for it. But the combat system, while awesome at first, has been ponderously slow to progress. My heroes have so few abilities, and gain them at such a painstakingly slow rate, that I end up doing the same abilities (and seeing the same animations) over and over again.

Chrono Tigger and Final Fantasy had much bigger rosters, and in the case of the latter, a full magic system for unlocking new spells. Sea of Stars doesn’t have anything but the few skills on its few heroes.

Sea of Stars may be my biggest disappointment of the year. Not because it’s a bad game, but because I had such high hopes from everything I had seen. It’s profitable yet challenging to channel nostalgic gameplay as an indie studio, and I fear that the designers cared so much about the look of the game, they forgot to make me care about their world.

Sea of Stars is available on PC, PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox. It’s rated E10+.

This article was written by

Eric has been writing for over nine years with bylines at Dicebreaker, Pixelkin, Polygon, PC Gamer, Tabletop Gaming magazine, and more covering movies, TV shows, video games, tabletop games, and tech. He reviews and live streams D&D adventures every week on his YouTube channel. He also makes a mean tuna quesadilla.