The tricky thing about nostalgia and paying homage to the past is making sure your work also has enough new ideas to stand on its own. Safe to say I wasn’t quite sure how Cosmic Star Heroine was going to pull off this difficult balancing act. Zeboyd Games billed it as their own take on 16-bit classics such as Phantasy Star and Chrono Trigger, the sort of comparison that brings a hefty set of expectations with it. Thankfully Cosmic Star Heroine does just enough to set itself apart from the pack.
The setting for Cosmic Star Heroine is one of espionage on an intergalactic scale. The game’s protagonist Alyssa L'Salle being an agent for API, an organization poised at fighting crime and dealing with the criminal underworld. Or at least, that’s how it would appear on the surface; as soon Alyssa finds herself at the center of a massive conspiracy in which the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.
While I wouldn’t recommend Cosmic Star Heroine for its plot alone, there’s enough charm to the writing that I was fully engaged the entire time. It’s a lighthearted fun space adventure that never takes itself too seriously, and it’s better for it. The best part of the writing is the interaction between party members. I particularly liked Alyssa's gentle ribbing of the computer whizz Dave, as his sassy attitude calls for it sometimes. The dialog and conversations between the party really stuck with me when the credits inevitably rolled.
The highlight of Cosmic Star Heroine is without a doubt the combat system. Enemy encounters in this game are excellently paced and force you to think hard about which party members to use at a given time. Every battle you’ll start out with a set of abilities and you have a single use for most of them before you must enter a defensive stance. For example, if you use a powerful offensive attack, you’ll have to use your defensive stance you recharge that ability. While defending you can’t use any other abilities until both the enemies and the rest of your party go through their turns. It means you’ll always have to think on your feet about what attacks to execute and which characters are most variable in a given battle.
Party composition in Cosmic Star Heroine is also very important. You’ll gain many characters to use throughout the game, some will be better at offense, other’s better at healing, some best at applying buffs and so on. Each has certain elemental strengths and weaknesses too, which is important to keep in mind when say an enemy may be weak to fire. Dave, for example, has a lot of attacks geared at exploiting robotic enemies weaknesses, so it’s good to have him as part of the team when you’re facing robotics. The synergy between party members contains a good degree of depth in Cosmic Star Heroine, and if you play on the higher difficulty levels it becomes something you need to always be cognizant of.
One aspect I really appreciate about Cosmic Star Heroine is how it never wants to waste your time. There’s no excessive grinding, no long unskippable cutscenes, no needlessly drawn out expository dialog, and the whole thing will only probably take you 12 hours to complete. That may sound short for an RPG, but it works well here. The game never overstays its welcome, the pacing is excellent. Even when you lose all your party members in a fight, the game gives you the opportunity to restart the battle immediately rather than trudge back to your previous save.
Keeping all this in mind, I would really recommend playing the game on the “heroine” difficulty level. It fleshes out the combat system well enough while also working hand in hand with the pacing. Like most aspects of the game though, it doesn’t waste your time and you can change the difficulty level at any time while you’re playing.
Games that try to act as retro throwbacks to the 16-bit era often run the gambit of coming off disingenuous in their presentation, as more often than not it never quite matches up with actual technical limitations of that era. Cosmic Star Heroine on the other hand nails it, and it’s a beautiful game all around. The visual presentation sets itself apart from its contemporaries in how it’s still influenced by modern titles. An example being the character portraits in dialog that feel like Zeboyd was influenced by the Persona series. The color pallet is always in sync with the cyberpunk setting and it’s always a visual treat. You’ll be visiting three different planets in this game each with their own distinct environments - be it lush jungles, grimy overpopulated cities, or alien civilizations. The art does the various locales justice.
If there was one part of Cosmic Star Heroine that I feel falls a bit short it would be the music. The music was done by HyperDuck Soundworks, and they’ve worked on some pretty high-profile indie games such as Dust: IveAn Elysian Tail. While the music in Cosmic Star Heroine is by no means bad, I couldn’t help but feel that there were no real memorable tracks. It all works well to evoke the sense of nostalgia the game is going for, but the overall soundtrack never elevates itself above just being adequate.
One thing I feel a need to address is the technical polish of the game. While I've heard some murmurs that the game suffered from some bugs at launch, I did not run into any major issues throughout my whole playthrough. The only thing was the game initally crashed when I tried to switch it from full screen to windowed mode on my desktop. Zeboyd has worked hard over the past few weeks bringing various patches to the game and everything appears to be in working order now. So if you have any reservations picking the game up due to concerns over it being unpolished, I wouldn't worry about it.
When Zeboyd Games initially took the idea of Cosmic Star Heroine to kickstarter, they knew they were in it for the long haul. About 4 years have passed since then and a lot about the games industry has changed. Retro throwbacks are even less novel now than they were in 2013, but all the same, I think the studio has succeeded in all that they set out to do. The game has a fantastic combat system, feels distinct from its peers, and never leans on nostalgia too much. If you’re looking for a fun space adventure that’ll remind you of the JRPGs of the 16-bit era, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting experience than Cosmic Star Heroine.
Versions tested: PC