If you've played Sabotage Studio's rather excellent 2018 effort, The Messenger, you'll know this is a dev team that's a dab hand at revisiting retro classics - in this case the likes of Ninja Gaiden - and updating them into slick and entirely modern-feeling experiences that keep the old-school vibes alive whilst providing plenty of innovations and surprises along the way.

We're huge fans of The Messenger, our sister site Nintendo Life gave the Switch version a whopping 9/10, and so we've been counting down the days until their next venture, Sea of Stars, was unleashed upon us. Taking place in the same universe as The Messenger, and serving as a prequel of sorts, (note: you don't need to have played the other game to enjoy this one), Sea of Stars switches side-scrolling action for a homage to classic RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Illusion of Gaia, the sorts of legendary games that you definitely need to be on your A-game to emulate with any chance of ending up with an experience that can be compared favourably.

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Luckily for us then, Sabotage has not only created a game that fully stands up to comparison against its most obvious inspirations, they've crafted a straight-up indie gem that can easily go toe to toe with the very best in this illustrious genre. It's also easily one of the very finest games we've played this year - a year that's seen its fair share of bangers thus far.

Jumping into Sea of Stars, you may at first wonder if you're down for yet another ho-hum, retro-inspired turn-based RPG jaunt - there's certainly no shortage of them knocking around right now. However, give this game just a moment of your time and we promise you're in for a big fat treat. Taking control of Valere and Zale, two special kids imbued with magical Eclipse powers and fated to become Solstice Warriors, the early hours of the game see you train hard under the mentorship of your headmaster. Here the rules of engagement with the enemy are hammered into your head - alongside plenty of sewing - and the game doesn't rush this part, ensuring you've got the basics down whilst building up to an exciting "big door" moment where you finally get unleashed into the world proper.

Taking the combat core of old-school RPGs as its base, Sea Of Stars then enhances its enemy encounters by adding a few nifty mechanics that make every battle feel like a slick mini-puzzle that requires just the right approach to nail in a satisfying and stylish manner. Switching between Valere and Zale, alongside their eager pal Garl and a few other very cool characters along the way (we're keeping things spoiler-free here), battles see you dish out damage via physical and magic attacks. When attacking or defending you can also time a button press to dish out further damage as your assaults land, or to bolster your shields as an enemy connects, and getting the timing down on the defending side of things in particular requires you to watch, read and remember all of your various enemy's attack patterns.

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This makes for combat that keeps you engaged, focused on getting these timings right, and each new enemy brings with it some new special move that you'll need to look out for and anticipate in order to nullify the worst of its effects. Adding to this setup is a clever lock system with various icons appearing beside your foes, giving you a countdown to them pulling off a big attack. Each icon in the lock represents an attack type that's currently available to your party, and so you'll have maybe three turns to hit a foe with two magic attacks of a certain type and then a special skill in order to fully cancel its upcoming assault.

This creates a dynamic where, once you're out of the tutorial and into this game's glorious world proper, every battle requires your full concentration, swapping between party members, balancing your available mana, powering up skills and making sure you're ready to hit those lock sequences in order to either nullify - or at the very least weaken - attacks that can very quickly put an end to your team.

Further to all of this is a boost system that sees physical attacks on your enemies chipping off magic orbs that you can then absorb to power-up your next assault. You can choose to immediately boost or build up through three levels to give any of your skills, magic or physical attacks more oomph, and timing when and where to use these charged up variants can make all the difference, especially against larger foes.

Sea of Stars' combat is exhilarating stuff, genuinely delightful to dig down into, and there's also a nifty Relic system in play to make things a little more accessible for those who wish to tone down aspects of the challenge. Relics allow you to activate a useful visual aid for attack and defense boost timings, refill your mana and health to 100% between battles, and all sorts of other little helping hands that can be switched on or off at your leisure in the menus. As your journey expands and unfolds over the course of roughly 30 hours there's a huge variety of wonderfully vibrant enemies and huge bosses to take on across a world that serves up plenty of diversity in its lush environments.

And these environments don't just look great, they also form the second pillar of Sea of Stars' oh-so-satisfying core gameplay loop. You're not just milling along through deserts and forests and water-worlds on your way to the next big battle, oh no, every area here is a lovingly crafted little puzzle-box that uses the game's top-down viewpoint and a surprising level of manoeuvrability to challenge you. There are lots of treasures, new gear, spells, fancy ingredients, secret areas and more to find in every region, stuff you'll genuinely want to nab in order to aid you in the game's finely-balanced battles and your gang can wall climb, dash, cling to ropes, swim and more in order to reach it all.

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There's so much more freedom to roam and engage with your surroundings than you might expect in a retro-inspired game of this type, and Sea of Stars manages to serve up battles that infuse every other aspect of its gameplay with just the right amount of necessity to have them all feel important and worthwhile. Nothing seems superfluous here, you'll need to find the ingredients to cook meals that sustain you through fights, you'll want to find every spell, weapon and piece of armour you can, and the story -which we won't spoil a second of here as the discovery and surprises are all part of the magic - is a pure joy from start to finish.

There's a cracking core cast of characters to get to know here - Garl is one of our favourite video game pals of the year - and along the way you'll meet and befriend lots of well-written allies and enemies across a world that's jam-packed full of detail, clever design, knowing winks and nods to past classics (including The Messenger) and even a handful of fun minigames, from throwaway efforts such as fishing, to Wheels, the game's signature dice-rolling timesink. Wheels is worthy of special mention here as it really is an entirely separate entity within the game, with its own progression and rewards to dig into when you feel like taking a breather from the campaign proper.

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We could go on here, there's so many lovely little touches, clever puzzles, exhilarating battles, a delightful world map, beautifully animated pixel art, a clever camping and team upgrade system, genuinely emotional moments, plenty of well-judged humour...Sea of Stars gets off to a great start and just keeps piling on the good stuff across its entire running time, making for one of the most satisfying and memorable games we've played in 2023.

There are a ton of heavy-hitting AAA titles arriving over the next few weeks and months, but they'll all do very well to match the genuine joy and excitement that Sabotage Studios has delivered to Game Pass with this indie gem.


Sea of Stars is an exhilarating and absorbing indie gem that serves up delightfully clever turn-based RPG action in a world that's packed full of great characters, fun puzzles and genuine emotional heft. Sabotage Studios served up a bonafide banger with 2018's The Messenger, but this time around they've gone a step further, crafting an RPG adventure that's every bit the equal of the stone-cold classics it takes inspiration from. Don't spoil this one for yourself, dive in as blind as you can and enjoy a truly magical journey that's easily one of the best games you'll play this year and an absolutely essential addition to Xbox Game Pass.