Peace and intelligence for all!
Developer: Zeboyd Games
Publisher: Zeboyd Games
Released: April 12, 2017
Cosmic Star Heroine relies on you being old enough to remember games that came on big clunky cartridges and had cutting-edge 16-bit technology. Thankfully there’s a place in my heart for the old-school RPGs of the SNES era. I’ve gone back to Chrono Trigger a few times in recent years, not to mention Earthbound and Final Fantasy, and despite their flaws becoming more apparent with age, they still deserve to be remembered as truly great games. Cosmic Star Heroine feels as though it’s trying very hard to take all the best parts of those classic games, without relying on outdated mechanics that don’t do anything to improve the experience. And despite some notable flaws, it really does achieve something special.
Developed by Zeboyd Games, Cosmic Star Heroine finds you following the adventures of Alyssa, a secret agent working for the API, or “Agency of Peace and Intelligence”. As with any good retro-inspired secret agent story, your investigations slowly uncover grand conspiracies and terrible secrets as the API reveals itself to perhaps not be the shining beacon of justice it claims to be. Thankfully Alyssa won’t be alone as she travels across the various worlds humanity has spread to, like any good RPG protagonist she is imbued with an almost mystical charisma that draws people to her cause with hardly a question asked.
Joining her on her travels is a cast of diverse companions, thrown at you almost faster than you can keep up. Each character has their own distinct playstyle, but are also straightforward enough to allow for each strategy to be easily grasped. Chahn the Gunmancer, for example, is able to summon a variety of firearms to heal and harm in equal measure, while Sue the gruff “Man in Black” is able to pummel foes with well-timed punches that lead to powerful combo attacks. Things get much weirder when dancing robots and alien bounty hunters join the fray, but the bizarre nature of your friends never seems out of place, nor does their adamant loyalty to Alyssa’s cause.
As you progress through the story, you’ll often find the playable characters forcibly swapped as the plot dictates. Thankfully, the game developers worked hard to ensure that you can rapidly learn to adapt to characters you’d not used much previously. Having said that, there are a few times where this polish is noticeably thinner, and that very nearly ruins the experience. In particular, the speed that new party members are encountered leaves almost no time for your companions to evolve beyond their most basic personality traits.
Though not a dire flaw in itself, the pacing of the game can feel startlingly rushed at times, showing you an exciting new location brimming with personality, only to whisk you away mere minutes later as you blast across the galaxy. If they hadn’t teased at the locations being so intriguing I wouldn’t be quite so frustrated, but being pulled along by the simplistic and flashy story gets jarring when you barely get a break before being thrown into the next fight on the next world.
Though some RPGs make their name through phenomenal storytelling, Cosmic Star Heroine seems to realize its plot is less than vital to enjoying the game, and instead shines brightest when you’re engaged in combat with a bizarre medley of foes. Starting with insurgents and robot dogs, I was soon fighting everything from ghost fish to genetic experiments controlled by little robot spiders. The combat system retains familiar concepts like elemental weaknesses and ailments like “stun” or “disarm”, but also takes fresh spin on some of the more common RPG tropes. Many RPG players would well understand that fear of using your items at the wrong time, even if the item in question is a basic potion or tool vital to your success.
But in a brilliant move, Cosmic Star Heroine makes all items re-usable, though each one will only refresh at the end of combat. The abilities of your parties equipped “Shields”, which essentially function as the characters armour, work the same way, as do your party members themselves to a degree. Your party will regain all hit points and lose all ailments when the battle is over, mitigating the need to stop and stock up every few minutes during a string of tough encounters. Each party member can slot up to 8 attacks or abilities beyond your items and equipped shields, but although these also tend to be one-use, each character has a special defensive ability that refreshes their 8 attacks if they’ve been used in the fight.
To add to these mechanics, each character builds up a “Style” percentage each turn. Using new moves each turn quickly increases their Style, which in turn boosts the power of your attacks or success of inflicting ailments. Special “Burst Attacks” will drain all your Style to unleash extremely powerful attacks or effects, though this also means your following moves will have lower damage. Intriguingly, each enemy also builds up style, making long fights become increasingly deadly as they drag out.
On top of Style, each character has a “Hyper Mode” that builds up each turn, indicated by small pips on their portrait. On the turn that their pips fill up completely, the character is given double damage to any attack they make. Timing their Hyper Mode properly can cause some devastating effects, especially if you’ve spent the previous turns setting up the foe for your Hyper attack!
There are some points in this game that can disarm even the most well-prepared player, however. Any old-school RPG fan will remember how unfair some fights could be, especially secret bosses or special trials that weren’t mandatory to complete the game. Cosmic Star Heroine is no different, but due to its streamlined nature, it’s entirely possible for you to be trapped with an atrociously difficult opponent with nothing to do but repeatedly struggle to find a winning tactic as the game relentlessly reminds you of your party’s feeble mortality.
These difficulty surges all but vanish on easier modes, but if you’re like me and can be a little stubborn about changing game difficulty part way into a playthrough, be ready to pull your hair out as some of the most unexpectedly brutal encounters repeatedly thrash you until you beg for a mercy that will never be given. Just to rub salt into the wound, you’ll desperately claw your way through that nightmarishly difficult fight, only to run into the same useless mooks you’ve been pummelling non-stop since you started the game. If combat wasn’t usually such a stellar part of this game I don’t think I’d be so bitter about these betrayals, but the frustration still sticks with me, and the knowledge that I didn’t really have a choice but to do what I did doesn’t help.
For better or for worse, Cosmic Star Heroine reminds me of the very games it seeks to emulate. Though it skilfully avoids some of the more well-worn issues that plague 16-bit era RPGs, it manages to find its own flaws that come very close to ruining the whole experience. Thankfully its eclectic characters, wonderfully retro sci-fi worlds, and intelligent combat all work to make this game well worth the play. Just don’t expect Mass Effect backstories for your party, and be ready to lower the difficulty if the combat becomes too unforgiving.
Alyssa’s tale of evil agencies and science-fantasy is one well worth playing, just be ready to take the bad with the great.
Writer: Jack Soric
Editor: Joseph Diskett