Thierry Boulanger has been thinking about a shared game universe for around 25 years, he says, starting in elementary school. He's been putting this long-ruminating fantasy into game form.
The CEO and creative director at Sabotage, the indie studio behind 2018's The Messenger, said in an interview with Windows Central that for the follow-up, the developers are, of course, going to go deeper into that universe, which goes far beyond the time travel and ninjas introduced in that first game.
On Thursday, Sabotage announced that its follow-up will be Sea of Stars, a turn-based RPG that focuses on characters and a concept introduced in The Messenger. If you remember the two spirits that you run across — one of the sun and one of the moon — then you'll likely be familiar with what Sea of Stars has in store. It'll be a self-contained story in a completely separate genre and it'll be a much larger game, but more importantly, it'll be how Sabotage truly kicks off its potential shared game universe.
"It has many books, if you will — not physical books, but in my mind, there are these important story arcs and important characters," Boulanger said. "The Messenger, the story of the ninja, was one of them. Sea of Stars with the Children of the Solstice is another one, and there are many others."
The Messenger was a critical hit when it was released in 2018 (it currently has an "overwhelmingly positive" rating on Steam with over 3,200 reviews) thanks to its innovative take on the retro platformer. In case you haven't played it, the title starts off as a typical but challenging 8-bit platformer but around halfway through, turns into a 16-bit Metroidvania. This change was met with a mixed reception among critics, but it at least kept the player on their toes. More importantly, it worked into the story, which saw the titular messenger — a ninja — go back in time 500 years. This opened the door to a much larger story behind the one island depicted in The Messenger.
This continues in Sea of Stars, which takes place thousands of years before The Messenger. In a 30-minute hands-off demo shown to press, we got a peek at one island, but there will be many to explore. The game starts letting the player choose between six characters. Here Boulanger picks Valere, a heavy hitter with a staff, but is joined by Zale, a blade dancer that emphasizes agility. Players can choose between one of these Children of the Solstice — people born on either the summer or winter solstice that can perform Eclipse Magic. This is a dual-protagonist story, however, so you'll have both, but only one will lead the party.
The point of the game is to fight the Fleshmancer, an evil alchemist that creates odd, unnatural creatures that wreak havoc across the landscape. You fight these creatures in a series of turn-based battles that force you to use your physical skills and magic to work towards victory. What will change the gameplay up is a semblance of player control. Sea of Stars works to keep the player active during combat despite the turn-based system. For example, you might have to mash a button to charge up an attack or use strategy to counter an enemy spell's different parts (which currently appear in boxes above their head). This goes back to one of Sea of Stars' prime retro influences: Super Mario RPG, or as Boulanger calls it, "the RPG that ruined all other RPGs."
"What that did for me is that in all other RPGs afterward, I was like, 'the animation is playing, but there's no real reason.' We could just see the number because there's nothing I can do to affect the outcome," Boulanger explained. "Then this idea that it's constantly engaging and the player is constantly doing something to affect the outcome. That made for a more compelling experience."
Another odd inspiration for Sea of Stars is something less retro: Uncharted. Just like that AAA title from Naughty Dog, Sea of Stars rewards exploration and replayability. In the demo, for example, Boulanger used Valere to unlock an optional dungeon behind a giant head. The exploration elements are all over the place, from how you can move from place to place to what you can uncover. This creates a sense of the player being in a world that's bigger than themselves, which is something Sabotage began in The Messenger and adds to the size of the universe.
But how big is everything? It's hard to tell at this point since the game is still in early development and won't be out until at least 2022, but the idea is that it'll be bigger and more expansive than The Messenger. The team is undoubtedly larger — up to 16 full-time employees from just a handful on the previous title — so there are more resources. Instead of getting only one island to explore, there will be multiple ones. The full sense of what surprises you can find wasn't conveyed in the demo, but Boulanger likened what players can expect in Sea of Stars to the "sense of wonder exploration" in something like Uncharted or Tomb Raider.
"It's this sense of adventure and discovery and mystery and like, old things that you get moving again, and you realize that you're in a world where there used to be bigger things going on and you're just really, really insignificant compared to that," he said.
The final piece of the proverbial puzzle then is how big is Sea of Stars compared to The Messenger and how much it will add to the overall picture. Boulanger didn't specify how Sea of Stars would tie into the Messenger or how much it'll add to the world. He did mention that it'll be similar to how Sabotage introduced some ideas in the previous title; by having familiar environments and some recurring characters, like the two spirits.
On a larger scale, though, he did hint that Sea of Stars will be adding to the world began in the Messenger and will create more building blocks for that expansive universe he started thinking about when he was a kid. Boulanger hopes that Sabotage can continue to make more games, which will build the universe even greater and create a sense of purpose for players. If The Messenger posited a post-apocalyptic world and forced the ninja to travel 500 years into the past, then there are centuries upon centuries to explore.
"Everything is tied together and it will be increasingly more and more tied together as we progress and eventually it comes to a point where the things converge. The reason why you had to play all these games is kind of revealed or explained. But that's years ahead of us."
Sea of Stars is set to hit PC and consoles in 2022.
While you wait...
If you haven't checked out The Messenger yet and are looking for a new retro-inspired platformer/Metroidvania to sink your teeth into, now is a great time.
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