For a good portion of the world's population, all we really want in life is the nice and easy path of least resistance. The hustle and bustle of adult life takes its toll on many of our souls, and the longing for the simple, nostalgic days of our childhood becomes our safe place that we can retreat to when the pressures become too much. Rarely do we find this more prevalent than in the world of video games, especially in modern times when keeping up with AAA releases, indie favorites, and all forms of games in between feels more like a chore rather than a hobby or something that is supposed to be enjoyable.
If you've followed my tastes over the last five years of writing for TechnoBuffalo, you'll know that my mind often wanders to lazy summer vacations where familiar names such as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Lufia captured my imagination and sent me on adventures far beyond my mundane human existence. In this regard, I am the perfect audience for Zeboyd Games' Cosmic Star Heroine, a Kickstarter success story that pitched itself as a throwback to the biggest JRPGs of the 16-bit era.
Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star, Suikoden, you name it, Zeboyd's latest probably speaks to you.
Granted, a lot of throwback JRPGs that have succeeded on Kickstarter initially promised to deliver such an experience, but Zeboyd's campaign was special because it had already brought us this sentimental escape with four previous games. Cosmic Star Heroine faced a lot of pressure with an extended development phase underneath it to become the studio's most ambitious game to date, and for the most part, it succeeds.
I'll just come out and get this out of the way. Cosmic Star Heroine is pretty much Chrono Trigger, but yeah… it's no Chrono Trigger. From the animation of the character sprites to the pacing of battles to the lack of random fights to even how the characters shrink while traversing the world map, every piece of this game is inspired by Square Enix's classic masterpiece.
Can you really fault a game for not living up to its inspiration, though? Made on a tight budget by a team of just a few artists and designers? No, not really. Zeboyd Games gives it the old college try, and it shines in its original content at least.
It's Chrono Trigger… but it's no Chrono Trigger
To its credit, Cosmic Star Heroine balances itself between inciting memories of your childhood favorites and telling a unique story, but, as with most throwbacks, it comes up short when compared to those same classics.
Players take control of Alyssa L'Salle, a super cool lady spy under the employment of Agency of Peace & Intelligence. She terminates her loyalties after she uncovers horrible conspiracies carried out by her superiors, and in turn, she goes rogue with a group of plucky allies and works behind the scenes to uncover the ugly side of her planetary system. As you might expect, very similarly to Chrono Trigger, the game unfolds over a course of very episodic missions in which L'Salle and her friends explore new regions and planets, dive into underwater facilities, and battle monsters and soldiers alike.
Where Chrono Trigger uses a time travel element to tell its story though, Cosmic Star Heroine crosses space, and it is here where the game struggles. Alyssa's journeys take her to far-reaching planets, but the scale of the game feels very small thanks to its clockwork structure. Very rarely do these missions ever contain a grand sense of the larger setting and culture operating around her. The team rolls up with an objective, bum rushes the dungeon, accomplishes its goal with a quick cutscene, and before you know it, you're onto the next!Maybe you can talk to a few NPCs, but most of the time, the quick pacing doesn't allow players to just sit and soak up everything that this world offers.
Maybe you can talk to a few NPCs and get to know your teammates better at the Suikoden-esque home base you acquire later in the game, but most of the time, the quick pacing doesn't allow players to just sit and soak up everything that this world offers.
Which is a shame because it does offer a very interesting setting, one where science and magic clash as the dominant force in the world, and one where ghosts, aliens, and robots all share the same realm of existence. Alyssa also recruits a crew of likable characters, including a dancing robot, a bounty hunter alien, a hapless police officer, and a punk rocker rebel. You'll find your favorites, mix and match their abilities, and come to enjoy their companionship.
For its part, Zeboyd delivers on its promise of pure sci-fi fun and escapism. Cosmic Star Heroine has a few problems in the storytelling department, mostly in pacing and in its wordy text boxes that get a little too clever for my tastes at times. However, it's a tale that I would like to experience again at my own pace without the pressures of pushing through for a review.
A spin on the tried and true
All of the main pieces and part of a classic JRPG can be found here. You take control of a protagonist, recruit allies to your cause, visit towns and dungeons, solve the occasional puzzle, and of course, battle monsters! These customs are impossible to break away from without departing too far away from the inspirational material, and doing so would remove its right to call itself a "throwback."
Luckily, Zeboyd doesn't have to. It avoids being crammed into the antiquities of classic JRPG design by busting out one of the best and most original battle systems that an RPG has seen in many years.
That's no understatement. Cosmic Star Heroine's battle system is really fantastic, a genuine reinvention of the tried and true JRPG menu fighting and something that we've never really seen in thirty years of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. It differs from the establishment by scrapping the usual "Fight," "Magic, "Item," and "Run," commands and replaces them with unique, one-purpose abilities. Abilities range from simple actions like bashing an enemy with your stick and healing HP to more complex buffs like granting your next attack to target all enemies instead of just one.
Each character can bring eight of these abilities into battle, and the core of the battle system revolves around being able to use them only once. After an attack is used, it is spent, and it can only be used again if a character wastes a turn with the defense ability. This refreshes a character's arsenal back to normal. Simply putting, spamming "Ultima" or "Luminaire" won't help you here. You'll have to plan out effective attacks using pure brain power.
For example, the protagonist Alyssa primarily uses water attacks against her opponents, and if an opponent is weak to water, you'll obviously want to dish those attacks as quickly as you can to end the fight, right? Well, not exactly. Cosmic Star Heroine also adds an element to the fray known as the Hyper meter, and this allows for a powered up attack every three or four rounds, depending on the character.
Maybe instead of bum rushing that opponent with a water spell now, you can use Alyssa's other ability, boosting her own or an ally's damage for three turns. That way, when her Hyper meter fills up the next turn, not only will she get the damage boost from it, she'll also benefit from the previous round's boost as well. Alyssa will capitalize on double triggers and dish out much more significant damage than a simple water blast would do.
Alyssa isn't fighting alone, either! In the meantime, her teammates without water attacks can whittle away at the enemies by setting up defenses, preparing their own powerful attacks, or aiding Alyssa by blasting opponents with debuffs and negative status ailments. In the example above, "Vulnerable" would open up the doors for even more water damage against that opponent, probably killing it outright instead of taking one or two.
The combinations are endless! Some allies can boost another ally's Hyper meter to alter the timing of a planned attack. Some allies come with the ability to steal Hyper from their own allies to give themselves two ultra attacks in a row. Healing, too, plays a big part of all these setups. For example, an enemy might slap a crucial ally with a negative status or knock them within an inch of their life. What do you do? Risk letting that ally get killed? Use a Hyper round to fully heal the ally and abandon your well planned super attack?
Risks and rewards play heavily into Cosmic Star Heroine's complex battles, even some of the smaller, nonconsequential fights.
It's easier than it sounds, but for those who tire from Final Fantasy VI's style of rotating between normal attacks and all-powerful magic, the clearest strength in Cosmic Star Heroine comes from swapping up combat and finding ways to manipulate all of its intricacies, especially Hyper mode, to dish out as much damage on an enemy as possible.
For example, the stars align! Your buffs hold strong, the enemy is weak to your attack element, Hyper mode is flashing and waiting, and your ultimate attack plays out exactly as you planned it. Oh, it's so satisfying to see it work out properly.
And even when you fail, Cosmic Star Heroine delivers a rush! A derailed plan or unexpected deadly attack will leave players scrambling to realign the flow of battle in their favor, and this is where the brain really comes into play. Heal here, rebuff there, boost your attacker's Hyper mode… but not TOO fast because he or she won't get the required buff if the attack is pulled off too soon. Even better than landing an ultimate attack is recovering from a failed one to drop an even larger force of destruction on an enemy!
And, of course, the game rewards you for style. Beat an enemy with a proper combination, get an experience boost at the end. Not bad!
What are our options?
I say this a lot recently, but the only thing that could really make Cosmic Star Heroine in its current state any better is a portable version. I don't want to play something like this glued to a television anymore. The palm of my hands, a pair of headphones, and a nice chair would make for a better escape. Luckily, Zeboyd Games is prepping a PS Vita version for release down the line, so this is why I am recommending a "Wait" result in the review.
If you've got a Vita, wait for that option instead.
Outside of that, I wholeheartedly recommend Cosmic Star Heroine. I wouldn't call it perfect because it does have a few problems in the pacing and written dialogue portion of its storytelling, but this is often made up for with an exciting plot and heart-thumping scenarios. I got clipped into the map once and had to restart my game, and another weird choice is that you must stand annoyingly close to characters in order to talk to them. Plenty of smaller gripes hold it back from being a true contender.
But that oh-so-satisfying battle system just makes all the difference!
Cosmic Star Heroine is a winner, even if you're too young to have experienced the games it references. Check it out.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of this game from the company for the purpose of the review. We completed it before beginning this review.