Cosmic Star Heroine Review

Cosmic Star Heroine was originally unveiled alongside a Kickstarter way back in October of 2013 where it was poised to be both a loving throwback of RPG of the late 16-bit era such as Lunar: Eternal Blue, Phantasy Star, and Chrono Trigger, while also defying many of the genre norms in order to offer a more engaging and streamlined experience.  Not unlike the prior titles from its two-man developer, Zeboyd Games, such as Cthulhu Saves The World.  I certainly held high hopes for this game, having backed it three and a half years ago, but after going through it to completion, I could not help but feel a little underwhelmed

Cosmic Star Heroine Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4
Developer/Publisher: Zebody Games

The title centers around Alyssa L’Salle, secret agent and titular Cosmic Star Heroine as she uncovers a conspiracy, discovering that the head of her agency has malicious intentions and takes it upon herself to take them down.  Thereby branding herself a fugitive and setting off a storyline centered around accumulating a talented crew of party members in order to save the galaxy.  

It is a pretty standard storyline in both concept and in structure, as Alyssa’s exploits and search have her journeying across three planets, encountering new characters, and overcoming obstacles in her journey, culminating to her meeting up with an anti-government resistance group and allowing the game to break away from its largely linear first half.  Which gives way to a fairly straight forward and linear second half, with a main path that is only ever only ever paused for characters to indulge in a small optional divergent, all of which are quite brief, or a roadblock used to keep the game feeling fresh and interesting while also abiding by the transitional JRPG structure of towns proceeding into dungeons, proceeding into more towns.

As for the actual storytelling and characterizations employed throughout this tale, I actually struggle to muster very strong feelings about it.  It is clearly a more ambitious effort from Zeboyd as they are attempting to mirror the stories of classic 16-bit RPGs, but despite the occasional quips and a cast of characters who, while not really fleshed out, all had some palpable personality, it all felt more than a little dry.  Very little is surprising or unexpected throughout the story, the characters all fit into firm archetypes, and while a final twist tries to reinvigorate the story, it was largely predictable and mostly served to annoy me as it removed my favorite supporting character from the party.  

If anything, I found a lot of the story to feel a bit by the numbers, which is very odd for what was ultimately a passion project, and a little too fixated on representing the aforementioned era instead of really taking it to a new level, or building upon it substantially.  The closest to that are instances of humor, which I found to be less common than in other Zebody titles, and a few western sensibilities thrown in there.  

Instead, the majority of innovations seem to have been placed in the turn based combat system.  Firstly, instead of presenting players with a wide variety of moves, each character only has access to 8 abilities, which are limited in their use, and only reusable upon defending to recharge every ability, aside from a few single-use abilities introduced later in the game.  Each ability also generates a set amount of Style, a stat that determines the strength of a character’s moves, and is used to allow characters to enter desperation mode upon losing all their health.  A last stand where the characters can unleash a more powerful version of their abilities, or heal themselves at a reduced rate, allowing them to continue fighting with their remaining Style.

As battles go on, characters also build Hyper over a set number of turns, allowing them to unleash a more powerful version of their abilities, which can be used to deal massive damage is paired with various buffs and debuffs.  It is a reliable, unique, and enjoyable gameplay system that manages to avoid much of the repetition found in the combat systems of other JRPGs, while requiring a decent level of strategy and forethought in order to get through battles unscathed, especially since the game doesn’t feature any random battles.  This makes the encounters in Cosmic Star Heroine more strategic, interesting, and nuanced than a lot of contemporaries of the genre, as enemies are regularly shifted around, and each battle offers something a little different than the last.  Also, HP heals after every battle, because this is a Zeboyd game.

The level of strategy is further supported by the sheer number of abilities available between the ten playable characters, all of whom feel tangibly different than each other, and warrant a different approach to combat that is further customizable to the loadout of skills the player selected.  That being said, I struggled to understand the most effective ways to use certain characters, as some simply felt far worse or far better than others.  Whether that be due to their ultimate stats, or a collection of abilities that I struggled to understand the optimal use for.  I mean, the dancing robot man Clarke’s moveset is built around them consistently falling in battle, and half of the abilities for the bounty hunter Z’xorv seem to be built around him poisoning himself.

On the opposite end, I also struggled to compose of a team devoid of certain incredibly useful characters, most notably the cyborg alien cockroach Psybe and the resistance leader Arete, given how practical and adaptable their abilities ultimately were for me.  Using characters such as these, I was able to formulate a strategy that allowed me to coast through just about every battle I encountered during the second half of the game, as I had damage automatically dealing to every enemy, an indefinite regeneration skill applied to my entire party, and a super move dealing upwards of 25,000 damage every three turns with a single character, in a game where the final boss has about 120,000 HP.

While I appreciated this, and felt clever for discovering such a dominant strategy, combat started to feel a little underwhelming after this, especially considering I was playing on what is extensively the hard difficulty setting, only seconded to the “Super-Spy” difficulty, which is supposed to be downright brutal.  Aside from some surprisingly tough early fights, the only times where I encountered much trouble were the optional super bosses, Cthulhu and Dem, along with another optional boss that could wipe every party member’s HP to 1.  I actually never even revived a single character throughout the entire game as deaths happened so uncommonly I did not want to dedicate an ability slot to a revive skill, and there is not a revive item.

On that note, items in Cosmic Star Heroine replenish after every battle, are each limited to a single use, and the team party may equip up to four at a time.  While this is a novel concept, items unfortunately become obsolete as the game goes on.  As characters gain and earn progressively better and better abilities, items fall by the wayside as their numbers fail to grow beyond a paltry amount, and their usefulness drops considerable.  For example, some characters eventually gain the ability to inflict vulnerable or poison on multiple foes, but the items that inflict those conditions do not receive such an update.  

In addition to this, characters also gain access to a series of Programs, special abilities that are assigned to equipable shields and allow characters to make use of unique abilities if they have the prerequisite amount of “Hackitude”.  These are tied to the sole form of armor for this game, Shields, which offer a wide variety of strategy altering programs to characters in addition to some passive bonuses.  Yet for some reason are also subject to equipment scaling that makes the majority of shields worthless by the end of the game.

This mechanic ultimately annoyed me throughout the experience, as I felt that my movesets were being forced into obsolescence, that character customization was limited because of this, and that despite having higher numbers, certain subsequent movesets made characters slightly less fun to use.  This is also handled with weapons to a lesser degree, as each new piece of gear offers some unique passive effect.  Both of these are intended to create a sense of choice, but it felt more like the game was forcing me to say goodbye to equipment I had grown attached to.  What makes this all so much more frustrating is how one piece of equipment, a shield for Alyssa that allows her to do combo moves, does scale, yet nothing else does.

As for the user interface, Cosmic Star Heroine falls in line with the other games under the Zeboyd banner by being slightly annoying to use.  Changing abilities feels clunkier than it should, shields sometimes do not properly compare their defense stats properly, and there’s also no way to see the mechanical statistics behind programs granted to characters by their shields, when the same treatment is offered to abilities.  There is also no way to view the tutorial information in game, though that will come in a later patch, no way to view the party’s inventory, which is just bizarre, and shops do not signify whether or not items are in the player’s inventory.

There is also no quest log, which I actually felt was fairly warranted considering the large number of minor quests available in this game.  From simply exploring a distant cavern, a series of underwhelming loyalty missions, lending somebody money, or recruiting support characters after Alyssa gets her ship.  The later being a minor feature that I used to give my characters a small regen buff and barely touched afterwards.  These pile up exponentially as time goes on, and trying to both figure them out and keep track of them made for a consistently irritating time, with the worst example being a required side quest I accidentally glitched my way through.

Basically, in order to get in somewhere, Alyssa needs to acquire a dress, and to do that, she needs to get a dress voucher.  She is intended to get a lucky coin from somebody and give it to a homeless man on the street outside, where he is mixed in with ten other NPCs, thereby granting her a dress voucher.  Except I did not find the homeless man until hours later, after I went to the required location with the lucky coin in the non existent inventory and was let in, with Alyssa wearing the dress she never obtained.

That is certainly the biggest bug I’ve encountered in the game, but considering how the game has been patched at an almost daily rate, it’s not surprising to know that there are a lot of bugs.  Some sound effects only play sometimes while others don’t play at all, there were times Alyssa almost got stuck on a part of the environment, times where parts of the background were placed in the foreground, and one time where the game staggered after an animation did not properly play out, soft locked, and continued to do so until the next day’s patch was released.  The menus sometimes glitch when saying whether or not a shield or weapon is better, and even the new game menu has a glitch if you try moving the cursor upwards.

However, the most common bug has to be the map collision, as it was not uncommon for me to encounter background elements that were in the foreground, or instances where a character’s sprites ended up clipping through the 2D backdrop.  Many of these have been fixed in the time I’ve been writing this review, but I’m certain many still remain.  It’s actually quite unfortunate as I really do like the environments of this game.  They avoid using proper tilesets, while still clearly repurposing environmental assets, yet the areas featured here all feel realized to some extent and are genuinely pleasing to look at as they capture an appealing 16-bit aesthetic while expressing a unique art style previously seen in Rain-Slick 4.

Character sprites hold a similar level of quality, possessing both a great level of variety, with the enemy and NPC counts both being surprisingly high, and the animation applied to them being a step above what I would have expected of a game that looked like this.  There are also quite a few Sega CD styled cutscenes that go to perpetuate the unique style of the game, while offering a very appreciated visual throwback.  While the soundtrack builds and carries the wide variety of tones and atmospheres the game is trying to evoke, and will warrant further listening from me whenever the Bandcamp codes are distributed.

Despite having more than a scattering of issues with the title, I still thoroughly enjoyed Cosmic Star Heroine.  Its engaging combat system, flashes of the world it is trying to build, and general presentation all mark a quality game as well as a sizable evolution for its developers.  But despite that, the overarching feeling I had when playing Cosmic Star Heroine was that I was playing a Beta version of it.  I don’t feel that the game was properly playtested, bug tested, and, based on the announced additional content, part of me feels that it was released in an unfinished state.  After patches are released and the game is further refined with them, however, I’m sure that many of my qualms will lessen, and the game will be dramatically closer to being a truly great RPG.

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