The Messenger made a notable impact when it arrived back in 2018, with its sharp design and Ninja Gaiden-inspired gameplay also giving way to a major twist and very modern design. In that case developer Sabotage captured the imagination of retro gamers and those looking for a strong - and hugely entertaining - challenge. It was published by the powerhouse Devolver Digital, but Sabotage is self-publishing its next title that will have been 4+ years in the working by the time it arrives later this year - Sea of Stars.
While the acclaim of The Messenger, and the publicity heft that Devolver Digital can bring, would tempt many studios to do a simple follow-up and spin the wheel again, there's much to admire about the approach of Sabotage. While Sea of Stars has some ties to the studio's breakout hit, they're in the same 'universe', the gameplay and feel is a major diversion. This time we have an RPG with varied approaches - a lot of gameplay is top-down and relatively close to the action as you move through towns and dungeons, sometimes it zooms out for world traversal and so on.
The areas we were shown were similar to those in our original write-up, below, though we'll outline the updated build we saw as well. For us, though, this preview opportunity became a chance to look at the evolution of the game, and the impressive scope it's now showing.
What was clear to us in the preview area is that Sabotage retains the same humour, style and attention to detail that was so impressive in The Messenger. The art design is fantastic, and from an opening village to a clever dungeon that played around with light refraction, the animation and visuals were top-tier. Characters have excellent personalities as well, with a similar light and breezy approach to dialogue evident in the interactions we saw.
The success of the studio's first game, alongside a Kickstarter campaign that was a triumph, has allowed the studio to truly make the game it wants. Thierry Boulanger, president & creative director at Sabotage Studio, was taking us through the preview and explained that the company had put all its profits from The Messenger, along with the Kickstarter funds, into the project. As we'd go on to discuss this not only allowed the team to expand from around 8 people to more than 20, but it gave the game its true scope.
Sea of Stars, courtesy of fan support and funds raised, is looking like an impressive RPG not just in terms of its core game but also the smaller details. We spoke a lot about the importance of side quests and minigames for fleshing out the experience, optional goodies for those that want more. With cooking, fishing, a minigame called 'Wheels' and more, what we see is a game that will feel alive.
Another standout impression from the gameplay was the game's movement, traversal and battles. There's a lovely flow to them, with Sabotage modernising the genre and stepping away from grid-based movement. You can climb and jump around the environment, while battles are triggered in the world without any cutaway to a battle screen. The camera zooms in and off you go, into skill-based encounters that bring the likes of Super Mario RPG and its conceptual successors (Mario & Luigi, Paper Mario) to mind. Depending on a character's abilities you can parry attacks, pick up enemies to throw them together, gather power to unleash magic and more. The battles looked fun, creative and dynamic.
The overall impression from the demo was extremely positive, then; this is certainly a game to watch closely. Once the gameplay was finished we had an interview with Thierry Boulanger, which you can see below.
What have been the most notable evolutions since the Kickstarter campaign, did that success change the scope of the project?
The first thing it allowed, and this is a very broad term, but I'd say systems. So originally it was going to be closer to - if you don't mind the reference - Illusion of Gaia, a bit shorter and more linear. Permadeath enemies, finite XP, things like that. Now we've been able to go with full scope it's allowed things like more inventory, the ability to cook, gather, and go back to previous places for more sidequests and things like that. It essentially allowed the full vision, so you can touch it more, have your own side adventures. That's stuff we would have had to set aside or do in a more minimalistic way.
Even in the mechanics you've shown there's a lot of room for experimentation in things like the cooking, is that an example?
Absolutely. Also it let us look at those systems, so if we send you to do something you'll stumble upon other things that you can grab, use later and so on. So you can go "oh I've been wanting to make this". There'll also be an official small game that you play when you go to taverns and things like that. It'll have its own layer of collectables and the ability to customise things a little bit. It's all optional, but we heard from the demo where it was just navigation and combat, "can I do more, is there a reason to stay, like fishing and so on". It's all these things you can do for 0 minutes or 10 hours, depending on how you're feeling. You live inside the world more.
We hope our take is fresh enough - either through re-thinking things or keeping others that have aged well - and giving a distilled contemporary version of what was great about those ideas, while also bringing what's interesting today.
We saw in official details you mentioned 'wheels', is that the game?
Yes that's it! Ok, wow (laughs).
I read it somewhere, I think on the official game page! How important are these extras in terms of enhancing the impact of the game. For example there are a number of retro-inspired RPGs on the market, so does this extra scope help in terms of getting noticed and fans being excited?
Absolutely. It becomes its own meta, its own way to play the game. Some players maybe, but a lot of players you wouldn't expect them to be "oh yeah I care so much about Wheels that I'll spend hours playing it". But even for players that want to get on and complete the quest, when you're finished you might want an excuse to go back.
This idea that even when you're 'done' with the game maybe you want to hear more music, or didn't cook every meal, maybe I can still fish, or maybe I can figure out that cryptic clue now. And of course in the tavern you may think "ok let's give Wheels another round now that the story's done". So adding this other stuff means that you can just spend time sailing around, playing a minigame more, go fishing in new sports. It's an excuse to spend more time with the game.
In terms of inspiration for the game, it's easy for fans and critics to say "oh this retro-styled game is like this", but what would you say have been the biggest sources of inspiration for your team, and how have you worked in the creative process to then apply your own spin on those classic ideas?
To start with the minigames and activities we've put in, you always want them to fit in with the wider game. So let's take fishing in Hades. It's not very involved, it's a quicktime button press, but that works really well in the flow of a fast-paced action game. But in our fishing game the closest thing is Breath of Fire 3. That's the kind of game where you're meant to take your time and you should want a bit of depth. It's not that either one of those two is 'better', but they both do a good job of being in tune with the game they're part of. That's true for Wheels and even things like the sailing.
In the gameplay you've shown the influences can certainly be quite wide. When I read about the skill-based battles it made me think of Mario & Luigi or Paper Mario, which was reinforced in the gameplay you've shown me. It's a real blend of influences.
It's always about the simplicity in what you do, right? Of course there's depth where it makes sense when we're presenting a boss fight or something like that, but in general we're presenting a toy that we expect you to play with.
Absolutely, 100%. It's funny, as a big RPG fan, and as RPGs were being announced, I thought "is that going to be the one with Chrono Trigger encounters and Super Mario RPG gameplay?" That mix never - at least to my knowledge - existed, I always thought it'd be amazing because those two elements are so good. And I guess now we get to make it, and that's where it comes from.
Just like with The Messenger, with the genre we want to present our 'definitive edition'. If there are enough areas to improve upon then there's enough subject matter to present something - although it calls back to other things that are known. We hope our take is fresh enough - either through re-thinking things or keeping others that have aged well - and giving a distilled contemporary version of what was great about those ideas, while also bringing what's interesting today. I mean, we'll see how it goes! But that's our best guess at it.
Thinking about things like the way we've done fishing, or our general approach, Paper Mario is a good one to think about. It's always about the simplicity in what you do, right? Of course there's depth where it makes sense when we're presenting a boss fight or something like that, but in general we're presenting a toy that we expect you to play with. So when you turn over a stone there should be something under it.
In terms of the development experience, has it been at all different this time as you're self publishing? Does it change the approach in any way?
In terms of the creative process, no. Because Devolver are very good when it comes to that, you retain 100% of it. Of course they vet what you're making to see if they vibe with it, but that's it. So in terms of creative freedom we're in the same place, which is the place to be with 100% freedom.
But yes, in terms of self-publishing, it does change a lot in terms of things like financing, which we had to figure out on our own. But now having a name to ourselves, after The Messenger, and the means to ramp up the team, my partner Phil is full-time as executive producer, marketing, taking over the publishing side. It's a lot more effort, but we also have a bigger team and people dedicated to that full time. So it doesn't impact production, and if anything we own all the milestones, the decisions. It's very good for us.
I have to say though, getting a publisher at least once is a great idea. It put us on the map in ways that we can now play off and have a fanbase, which helped a lot with something like the Kickstarter.
Finally, how significant a moment was it for you all when the game headlined Nintendo's Indie World in December? Also, how important is the Switch audience to a game like this, with its style and relationship with retro genres?
For sure, it was unreal the reception we got and the amount of views and everything. The place this game comes from, even on a purely emotional standpoint, it should live on a Nintendo platform. We never shied away from the fact we want this game to be thought of that way.
So many of the inspirations come from Nintendo and that '90s era. And yeah, ever since we started we had people asking "can you announce it for Switch, just announce it for Switch!" It was great to confirm that, it was a huge week for us.
We'd like to thank Thierry Boulanger for his time, and Sabotage / Tinsley PR for arranging the preview session.