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The art of Sea of Stars: a sea of pixels

The beautiful pixel art of Sea of Stars will dazzle players when the game launches in August.

The pixel art revival has been anything if not divisive. Many believe that modern pixel art is a distinct art style that lets artists pay tribute to games of past. That’s true even if the pixel art itself isn’t trying to emulate a specific game or console. Others think that pixel art has run its course and other art styles should be emphasized instead. Whatever side you’re on, you can’t deny that the art of the upcoming RPG Sea of Stars isn’t eye-catching.

Developed by Sabotage Studios, this follow-up to the 2019 platformer The Messenger continues the retro-tinged gameplay and visuals. Even with a new genre, it pays the same homage to retro pixel art and gameplay. It takes influence from several classic 90s RPGs — specifically, the 16-bit games of the SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo.

While not directly copying their art styles, it pays tribute to several games specifically. Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger especially come to mind, even as the game also does its own thing. Finding the right balance between inspiration and innovation is always a challenge.

Thankfully, the art team working on Sea of Stars has cracked the code wonderfully. Before the game launches on August 29, let’s take a look at the artwork and why it’s such a treat to behold.

A message from the past

The Messenger
Sabotage Studio’s The Messenger paid homage to pixel art of the 90s.

It’s not hard to see why Sea of Stars goes for a retro pixel art look when you consider the developer. Sabotage Studio released their first game, The Messenger, in 2019. While that game is a platformer and not an RPG, its art style is what’s more relevant for our discussion today.

The Messenger took specific inspiration from 8-bit and 16-bit platformers, with Ninja Gaiden being the most obvious influence. The sprites and animations pay distinct homage to the games of this era. Everything from the characters to the locations to the items encapsulates that style.

You can tell, of course, that the game is a little more hi-def than an actual 8-bit or 16-bit game. For instance, it has a larger color palette and better layering capabilities than anything on the NES or SNES. Yet that speaks to the larger goal of an art style like this. It’s not just replicating the pixel artwork of the 90s; it’s rendering it in modern fidelity with higher resolution.

Sea of Stars takes place in the same universe as The Messenger. Given that fact, it’s understandable why Sabotage Studio would want to retain the same retro look. However, they aimed to switch up the gameplay, which meant adapting the art style to match.

Sea of Stars takes inspiration from 90s RPG art

The characters look like they came out of the SNES era.

Take a look at Sea of Stars for even a single minute and you’ll immediately recognize its 90s RPG influence. The classic turn-based combat that’s almost directly lifted out of Chrono Trigger is a dead giveaway. Even the overworld movement seems to come right out of a Super Nintendo RPG.

That’s true of the art as well, as Sea of Stars basically looks like a 90s RPG rendered in HD. With an isometric viewpoint and a grid-based level design, the world of Sea of Stars is rendered exactly like an old-school RPG. Just with, you know, more modern graphics.

Again, the goal of Sabotage Studio wasn’t to create a classic role-playing title. It was to expand the universe of The Messenger with a brand-new RPG experience. The art style definitely takes inspiration from retro titles, but Sea of Stars manages to make its own mark.

To see why this game rises above its influences, let’s talk about the ways in which the art style feels more modern.

Stars above, sights below

Sea of Stars Nighttime
With its complex lighting and visual effects, Sea of Stars looks fantastic in the art department.

Sea of Stars is a beautiful game, as you might have guessed from looking at the screenshots. However, it’s not necessarily the pixel art that makes it a feast for the eyes. That’s just the medium the artists chose to create its sprites. Putting them together into a beautiful game is another beast entirely.

As you can see in the image above, Sea of Stars doesn’t just paint a bunch of pixels and calls it a day. There’s some clever modern visual effects that emphasize the sprites and environments. You can see the dynamic lighting on display, with colored highlights for characters and brighter parts of the scenery. We’ve also seen the ability to change between night and day at whim, which grants even more complex shading.

This puts the art of Sea of Stars on a different plane entirely. You obviously couldn’t create effects like this on the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis. The hardware just couldn’t support it — not without massive amounts of updates, anyway.

It also speaks to the numerous ways you can tackle retro pixel art. Sea of Stars takes inspiration from retro games but doesn’t fully commit to an old-school graphic style. Other games deliberately restrict their resolution and color palettes to match that of old-school hardware. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other; it just means that the pixel art landscape is diverse, which is a great thing.

Put it into motion

Sea of Stars Combat
In battle, the animations get their chance to shine.

Of course, the art of Sea of Stars is already impressive in a static form. It looks even better when you see it in motion, however.

The character animations are a great representation of retro character movement, with simple sprite changes counting for a lot of expressiveness. The environments don’t just look pretty on their own, too. Many of the locations you visit have animated sprites and objects, including lights, fauna, and mechanisms. It makes this world truly come alive, even when you can count every single pixel.

One of the most important aspects of the animation is making the attacks look right. Obviously, you want your moves in an RPG to pop off the screen. But considering this game makes use of timed hits for extra damage, you need to communicate to the player when exactly an attack connects. That’s where the talent at work on this game shines brightly.

See the art of Sea of Stars in action

Sea of Stars Art 2
No matter where your adventure takes you, Sea of Stars is a sight to behold.

From the screenshots, gameplay previews, and demos released so far, Sea of Stars looks to deliver on all fronts in the art department. It’s a distinct visual style that manages to honor the legacy of 90s RPGs while not being afraid to craft its own individual statement. And if nothing else, it makes the game stand out amongst other indie RPGs hitting the market.

Sea of Stars is developed and published by Sabotage Studio. It will launch for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam on August 29. You can check out a free gameplay demo on Nintendo Switch and Steam today!

Are you looking forward to Sea of Stars? Let us know!

Daniel Hein

Daniel Hein is either A) a lifelong video game fanatic, writer, and storyteller just sharing his thoughts on things, or B) some kind of werewolf creature. We're not quite sure which yet. He also makes mediocre video game retrospectives (and other content!) on YouTube where you can watch him babble on for hours about nothing.
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