Cosmic Star Heroine is a perfect realization of the talents on display by Zeboyd Games, a studio that has always had a special place in my heart since the release of their Xbox Live Indie Game, Cthulhu Saves The World. An unapologetic love letter to the design and narrative sensibilities of golden age RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star with a distinct combination of offbeat humor, taut storytelling, and the kind of pacing and focus that makes every single element shine. What they may lack in terms of star power and budget, they more than make up for with passion and talent. While it has taken its sweet time to get on store shelves, the game was originally a Kickstarter project that was slated for release in 2014, I can definitively express that Cosmic Star Heroine been worth the wait.
The story revolves around Alyssa L’Salle, an elite agent of the secret government organization, The Agency of Peace and Intelligence. After helping prevent several terrorist attacks and protecting the populace, a horrific threat comes to light during one of her investigations of an abandoned research station on another planet. This leads to L’Salle and her allies going rogue from the API to prevent a plot by a shadowy cabal to enslave the world.
While the plot and setting of the world borrows heavily from various dystopian, sci-fi and cyberpunk storytelling tropes on the surface, Cosmic Star Heroine manages to keep its voice distinctly its own. Settling into its own identity with charming characters and snappy dialogue while also having aesthetic allusions to late 80s cyberpunk fashion and architecture, a mid-90s SNES pixel style with gorgeously animated sprites made more striking by a sunny color palette, and more modern techniques such as a fully voiced song sequence in a club and a social hub straight out of the Mass Effect series. It leads to an experience where a major plot turn can happen, some brief quips can be exchanged, then a boss fight with a giant robot dragon could happen all without feeling out of place or forced. When it comes to confident presentation and impeccable atmosphere, this game comes out laser guns blazing.
The combat encounters are especially absorbing. Every time a battle breaks out, it happens in the same location it was triggered, no transition to an “arena” location which helps keeps everything feeling consistent. While combat still plays out in reliable turn-based fashion, the Style system from Zeboyd’s past projects returns with aplomb. With every attack or action taken, your character builds up Style, which affects how much damage they deal or how much they heal, which gets paid off in a Hyper mode where that style is spent for a devastating strike. In addition to various status affects to help make each manageable like burns, poison, charm, or rust, there are also abilities that keep Style in check like the underground rocker girl having a diva move that lets her take Style from her allies to bolster her own.
Yet with this added momentum and encouragement to fool around, the game does not feel like a tedious grind. At the end of every battle, the entire party is fully restored so there’s no need to be weighed down with an entire drug store’s worth of medicine and revival items. More importantly, each battle feels challenging and entertaining in its own right with a healthy mix of different enemy types and tactics. But most of all, the game is so well-paced I never once found myself stuck on a boss or forced through repetitive battles. The gameplay is lean and focused, which for a genre that too often gets bogged down in such busywork is an absolute delight.
It also helps that the game is chock full of side objectives and three explorable planets bristling with character and detail. This optional content can range between something simple like helping an innocent homeless man from being harrassed by police to clearing out an abandoned police station from infected monstrosities.
Finally, the eleven different party members are all delightfully diverse. They start off simple enough like the snarky hacker that deals in status effects and programming damage on machines or the Gunmancer, who summons guns for every one of her attacks (even for healing), or a guy in a fancy suit that punches with elemental power or a giant insectoid monster. Each and every one of them brings something fresh and interesting to the battlefield and the combo potential kept me coming back.
If there are some problems I do have with Cosmic Star Heroine, they are mostly minor. There are some odd UI and quality of life stuff that happens like occasional bugs and odd instances of clipping through other characters. The worst game-stopping glitch came from a moment where the game crashed when I went to a new area, but this was before a patch went live and it seemed like a freak occurance. Also while in the hub area you can’t easily access what your various party members have equipped, so using the otherwise convenient shop in that location is a hassle.
There is also the matter of the game’s runtime. While the whole experience is clearly a labor of love with some fantastic focus, but it will still only eat up about thirteen hours of your time, and that’s if you go at a leisurely pace. Personally, I prefer an experience that is refined and elegant than one that pads and stretches and delays to hit some arbitrary amount of content, and for fifteen dollars this is better than most experiences that charge four times that amount.
Glitches aside, Cosmic Star Heroine is one of those pleasant experiences made by a talented smaller studio that revels in gaming’s roots. All at once a homage and a refinement of classic RPGs with just enough heart and imagination to rope in players of any age or skill.