Review: Cosmic Star Heroine

Cosmic Star Heroine sprang to life thanks to Kickstarter, and gave the folks at Zeboyd Games a chance to craft their most epic adventure yet. It’s an overhead RPG with a bit of a cyber punk Phantasy Star vibe to it mixed in with a bit of Chrono Trigger. It takes the best elements of what worked in the past, but modernizes the experience and makes everything far more enjoyable due to trimming a lot of the fat present in RPGs of old. It’s an incredible adventure from beginning to end.

Zeboyd’s prior work with RPGs relied on a lot of parody, but Cosmic Star focuses on making you care about the characters and the world. It’s not a sterile adventure by any means though — there is a lot of humor thrown in with the dialogue and a bit of camp as well thanks to the character roster. Your default roster includes Alyssa the serious agent and her friend Chahn before Dave the hacker joins the fray, and then you’ll be joined by a slick-looking bald dude named Sue who loves to punch, and even a singer friend of the group in Lauren who attacks with poison and mic drops.

The cast of characters is diverse, and only gets weirder as your enemy pool grows. After a while, you’ll explore a creepy area and that’s where things get really interesting. You get a bit of Alien-esque drama with a mysterious being killing everything in sight, and it’s made even weirder when robots show up to re-animate the dead and poison you in the process. You topple the beasts in the area, grab mysterious technology, and that’s when things get rolling.

Your agency is revealed to be far more than you bargained for, and going on the lam allows you to reconnect with old friends and make new ones while also helping about the community. A brief section in the slums shows a world with a homeless shelter full of people from all walks of life. One knows Sue, while another reveals that they want to own a shop and will ask for the money – you can either say yes or no, but it builds up the world you’re in as being far more than static and gives most of the characters in it some kind of character instead of just having them as NPCs who do nothing but fill space.

Cosmic Star‘s battle system is incredible, and one of the best-flowing for a turn-based RPG that I’ve used in quite some time. The right-hand side shows the turn order, so you can get an idea for when your preferred characters are up — or plan for a certain enemy’s attack. For example, if I see a poison-inflicting character coming up on the enemy side next, I know that I should aim to have the status-curing ray ready to go for Chahn to ensure that the team doesn’t take too much damage. Fortunately, if anyone on the team has negative HP, that doesn’t have to be the end for them.

HP can be negative, but as long as the character still has a command left that isn’t pure defense, they can stay alive in a desperation state. They can then be healed and be good as new after the next character’s turn. This may seem tough, but nearly every character can act as a healer if need be. This allows you to mix up battles and try out different characters in ways that might be considered unconventional. Using the hacker as a healer makes sense on the surface since he is less physical – but keeping him in just that role makes things harder because of how valuable his shock attack is on robots.

A row-based system gives you access to every command instantly — and you can tailor the actual layout to suit your whims. With Lauren, I usually like to keep her opening attack as the first one since it does so much damage and can give you an early advantage. However, by default, it’s in the second slot on the top row — so to speed things up, I just moved it to the first slot. For the most part, the default layout for the characters worked fine though — and it’s just a matter of personal preference since everyone is going to play this game somewhat differently.

There’s so much freedom with this system and the game itself is very flexible. Items refill with a single defense turn, and that holds true for spells. This means you never have to worry about balancing item stock vs. MP, or ever needing to worry about either thing at all since the turn system’s defense slot allows you to refill any super-essential commands in a character’s arsenal. It’s a fairly balanced system and the game itself is quite user-friendly. The interface is clean, and being able to adjust the difficulty on the field is nice too. If you have a boss battle that you just can’t overcome, you can always just make sure to save often, load up a save before the battle, and then go for an easier difficulty. Make sure to save though — because the game has no save points, so manual saves are the only way to go.

From goons to giant kaiju monsters, the game’s enemy variety is surprisingly robust, and it’s definitely aided by the game not overwhelming you with a ton of combat. Battles are either pertinent to the story or a means to an end to find chests and unlock new items. Small puzzles also allow you to do that and save on having to spend big bucks to get things later on. The character roster is nearly as diverse as the enemy count, and you can alternate characters whenever you want from chapter seven and beyond – which allows you to also rely on support characters. Being kind to others also pays off in this area, as your freeing of some people from their current problems can lead to them giving you a battle-changing assist in a boss battle.

Cosmic Star Heroine is gorgeous on the whole — even with some flaws showing up from time to time. It uses 16-bit style sprites with 32-bit level color – resulting in a richness that simply wasn’t possible in the days of the Genesis and SNES. The FMVs used manage to both evoke the PC Engine CD and Sega CD, but are far higher-fidelity. They’re also brief and get to the point in a hurry while still absorbing you a bit more in the world. The characters all stand out thanks to diverse designs, and the environments keep within usual conventions — like slums, a Western-inspired area, casinos, and the like.

Character animation is surprisingly good most of the time — but small glitches to flare up from time to time. There are points where characters will just not animate properly, and result in you still being able to do attacks — but they won’t show up properly visually until that person leaves the party and rejoins later. There are smaller problems, like having text overlays where they seemingly shouldn’t be — with a particular problem coming up where Lauren’s song lyrics are shown over dialogue text despite the song not actually playing at that point. It’s a bit rough around the edges in some ways, but on the whole, the graphics are stunning.

Musically, Cosmic Star Heroine delivers an enjoyable soundtrack at all times. Sci-fi music is used to underscore the space-based moments, while other area-appropriate songs fill your speakers as well. The slums give you a depressing soundtrack that is light on happiness until you meet Lauren – and while her key song may not have lyrics that make a whole lot of sense on the surface, it is fun to listen to. There’s no voiced dialogue here, which may disappoint some, but with this game going for a 16-bit style, it would be out of place and I had far more fun imagining the voices than I would have had just hearing them aloud.

Closing Comments:

Cosmic Star Heroine does for the 16-bit JRPG what Shovel Knight did for 8-bit platformers. It takes everything that worked about them to remind you of why those games are classics, but builds upon that foundation with a modern-day sensibility by eliminating filler. Everything you do serves a greater purpose, and the game never feels like it’s wasting your time. Combat is a dream, with a brisk pace to battles ensuring that you never have a dull moment. Cosmic Star Heroine is a must-own for anyone who loves or has ever loved JRPGs. Lapsed fans of the genre will be reminded of just how great things can be with that framework, and anyone who never had a chance to experience them will be able to see what made them work.