As posed in the closing comments of our review of Picnic Panic — the delightful (and free) DLC add-on for the equally-delightful The Messenger — when it finally came down to working on what was next: would developers Sabotage “do the thing” again? Or would they do “a thing”…just not the thing that came before? If that sentence sounds a touch basic and you’re lacking the necessary context, consider it both a reference as much an appreciation for what was easily one of the game’s more startling successes. Namely, the strength of its writing and the revelation of how a seemingly modest throwback to 8-bit action-platforming ended up being one of 2018’s most quirky, intriguing and funny scripts for a game. Let alone a personal highlight of the year overall. A game that, in actuality, wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself despite best efforts to establish a world, a running mythos/lore. To just about put a few cracks in the fourth wall, but not outright break it entirely, nor boast of its implied, comedic timing. With a debut title that was as laugh-out-loud enjoyable with its writing as it was challengingly-addictive in its platforming gameplay, how would Sabotage approach the dreaded, anxious task of architecting the follow-up? Would they potentially play it safe and offer us a sequel or would they try their hands at an entirely different genre?
The answer, technically, is both to some degree. While The Messenger II remains but a figment of our/my wishfully-thinking imagination, we’re not exactly vacating this world Sabotage have established either. The focus this time, though a prequel in some respects — set hundreds of thousands of years before the events of The Messenger — is its own stand-alone tale. Taking the form of overhead, turn-based RPG Sea of Stars. A game, billed as an appreciation for the SNES/Genesis-era RPGs it may be, actually carries more an affinity for the kind of handheld, GBA-styled entries like Mother 3 and Mario & Luigi alike. Regardless of how specific you want to nail the potential influences here, even from as incredibly early a build we were invited to see prior to today’s announcement — by the studio’s own admittance, the project only in active development for roughly two months — Sea of Stars already feels like it’s on a steady course for greatness.
To prove, like its brethren, that it’s no mere throwback. That Sabotage are coming at this with nostalgic passion sure, but are adding to that with some intriguing gameplay twists that are guaranteed to make Sea of Stars’ overhead presentation come off more an accompaniment to its meatier mechanical impressions, rather than the driving factor. A large part of Sea of Stars‘ immediate and immense appeal, from a mere pitch standpoint, is Sabotage’s clear intent to plant this firmly in the realm of modern day expectation. That their players, their fans, not only want but expect a level of detail and polish with the worlds they’re building — the Universe they’re expanding upon. A winding, interconnected realm whose story is in fact a result of some tiny slither of world-building from The Messenger itself, as is revealed.
The direction this time does appear to veer a touch away from the occasional silliness and light-hearted, self-berating jabs The Messenger was more than happy to inflict upon itself. Thanks in large parts to a certain Shopkeeper. There are still some referential nods in places, acknowledgment of RPGs long-and-winding road of tropes and cliches alike. One area in the early build even has the word “Torment” in its name. But with Sea of Stars‘ emphasis this time on slightly darker and more gruesome implications — on top of perhaps the tragic implications that link this with the established base of The Messenger’s own tale — it’s evident Sabotage don’t want to simply confide in comfort. Not only that, in approaching a genre such as the RPG, the game isn’t as much about the volume of its challenge, rather how that challenge is overcome. As Sabotage’s Creative Director, Thierry Boulanger, explains when asked about the nature of the progression, Sea of Stars‘ challenge — its combat and the eventual threat that boss battles pose — are less about meeting a requirement level, and more about mastery of particular rhythms and patterns. That’s not to say that the threat of being beaten into submission is non-existent here or that character levels are entirely absent either. But again, Sabotage’s philosophy isn’t to merely replicate what’s come before. Instead, much like their debut, in a way that imitation if you will is merely a veil to what is in actuality, a more complex series of conundrums and scenarios to decipher.
This approach pops up in no clearer form than with the way Sea of Stars allows players to prepare for what’s coming. Maybe even neutralize the threat of an enemy’s charged-up attack. How this works can actually be compared favorably to something like Octopath Traveler‘s “Break” system and the way, with Sea of Stars, players know from the off of what’s coming their way. How they must pick the right abilities/elements to counter. The gist is that upon an enemy beginning to charge an attack, both a timer icon (indicating how many turns it’ll take for that attack to land) and a set number of elemental icons appear over the enemy. It’s then up to the player to rid the enemy of these icons in order to stop the attack.
Naturally, as is commonplace in RPGs, the role of your player-character and the move-set they pose varies. Some attacks your standard one-hit strike, others however incorporating QTE-styled command prompts. Boulanger elaborates on this, commenting on how Sea of Stars‘ combat is a constant weighing up of one’s options in preparation for the next encounter. Referencing the game’s eventual ensemble of six characters to choose from — with three active per party — and that dealing with such deadly attacks isn’t so much about matching the correct icon, but may also be determined by which class of character best suits the situation. One character who can attack multiple times — thus ridding one enemy of the accompanying icons — may prove useful, but what of someone who has a larger area-of-effect? One who can attack multiple enemies, albeit through one, sweeping strike?
How complex attack patterns get — and even what form or manner such variety manifests in — does however remain an unanswered question. As is the potential for how dynamic and further contextual the scenarios for combat may get. As proposed to the developers during one’s Q&A: if a player engages while next to a cliff or an area with obvious verticality — maybe even just some environmental variety like water, overgrowth or simply trees, will encounters accommodate and reflect this? Would players come up against foes floating over them, hiding in certain terrain, and generally speaking, provide some additional dilemmas for the player to think over outside of simply clearing a screen? To this, Boulanger states that this isn’t the case…for now. And that’s the crux to what Sea of Stars is as present; such is the nature of the game’s early state, there’s a point in our discussion where Boulanger even asks to not take his spitballing of ideas as official features to expect.
Even still, for an admittedly early state this is, Sea of Stars already has a vibrant look about it. A technical foundation that comes up no better than when the game deviates to the night half in its day-night, in-game cycle. The use of lighting, the way certain colors, environmental objects hum and glow in tiny luminescent pockets — something that’s charming yes, but allows the game to feel lush without necessarily feeling over-indulgent or losing its way. What’s more, it shows Sabotage going the extra mile in creating a game that follows on in that same design philosophy that allowed The Messenger to shine: a rekindling of past joys with modern-day technology helping to push it even further. The way shadows are dynamically cast and how light distortion in water actually ripples and morphs character sprites — two uses Boulanger highlights as proof Sabotage are once more balancing past and present in their approach. That avoidance of such blinding zeal again is what I respect from developers and it’s pleasing, even from the first impressions, to see Sabotage once more recognizing that importance. Fine it may be to stage a spectacle, it’s the nuance of its presentation as much its gameplay mechanics, where players are bound to narrow in on.
But the trek hereon will be an interesting one to keep tabs on; by Sabotage’s own declaration, this is a project that likely won’t see full release anytime soon. Yet even from such a tailored slice of early gameplay, Sabotage evidently have a sound foundation already established on a technical front and more importantly some curious little ideas on how they’ll spruce up the RPG template, having done so well at that approach with the platformer standard previous. Will Sabotage’s more lax focus on deadpan humor and the injection of more evidently darker tones offer a fair alternative to their otherwise on-point writing prior? As far as core principles go, Sea of Stars looks to be following on from what The Messenger excellently posed: that for all its love for days gone, that’s no excuse to deny players a world they had to earn to see to full extent. So many questions and alluded hints remain of course in this early phase, but fans of Sabotage should feel confident with what the team are cooking up here. Amidst this interconnected, expanding “Sabotage Universe” the developers are hoping to build for themselves. Sea of Stars is planned to release across PC and consoles sometime in 2022.