Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.
Typically I tell my wife about most every game I play. It’s important for married couples to have common experiences and things to talk about, I think. However, I didn’t mention to her that I was playing Cosmic Star Heroine courtesy of Zeboyd Games (Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World). You can imagine my surprise then when she remarked, after hearing the music coming from my Nintendo Switch, “What is this, the 90’s?”
Cosmic Star Heroine was conceived as a throwback to the heyday of the 90’s, when the console wars were at their most furious and the beneficiaries of Sega and Nintendo duking it out were the consumers, the only decade when the 16-bit age reached its zenith and the 3D era was born. ‘Twas evidently a decade so remarkable that we are still standing in the shadow of its apparition.
Heck, I still see a bit of Sega versus Nintendo repartee now and then!
Many of us who have played games for so long a time have wondered what it would be like if development had never ceased for the iconic consoles of gaming’s rich heritage. We have seen delightful answers to that question in games like Shovel Knight and Undertale. It says something about the current state of the gaming industry, however, that only a handful of gems stand out amid the sea of “retro throwback”, “pixel art” games on the market today.
It seems to me that for so many titles, those phrases represent mere buzzwords. Pixel art can frequently seem superficial, an afterthought (or forethought) implemented to pander rather than establish or focus the specificity of a game’s overall design choices. Obviously, there’s money to be made off of nostalgia. For people who find themselves confronted by a lack of free time and a veritable swarm of titles to potentially pick up and play (which, let’s be honest: it’s 2018 and that’s everybody), nostalgia is a deciding factor.
However, not every game sates that sensation. Looking like a game from the 80’s or 90’s isn’t enough. Just as with literature, film, and music, there must be some deeper level of operation in terms of thematic value, complexity, intent, and engagement to qualify the work as more than just pulp fiction or a forgettable popcorn flick. My, that sounded pretentious… All I really mean is that a work must have some underlying qualities to support and justify its more immediate qualities (i.e. graphics in video games), if it wants to avoid the lighter, less substantial fare of its entertainment category (though enjoying such things is far from a crime).
So where does Cosmic Star Heroine fall? Evidently, after all, this was one of its primary features when it was first introduced to me. If its any indication, many of my associates told me I should play Cosmic Star because it was so much like Chrono Trigger (a game it most assuredly shares design choices with).
It is a self-styled Japanese-style RPG, albeit one developed in the West, yet I think it does an incredible job of living up to the influences it aspires to and providing adequate gameplay substance beneath its surface-level qualities to uphold and validate the retro-throwback appeal. Those that know me will understand that that’s really the highest praise I could give to a retro-throwback video game.
Officially, Cosmic Star Heroine boasts “The best of classic and modern RPGs!”
To my mind, this statement appears true. The game takes the balanced linearity/openness, the focus, the overall presentation, the 16-bit aesthetic, and the traditional storytelling and tropes of 90’s JRPGs and combines them with modern conveniences to move the player along at a respectable pace without having to get hung up on too much difficulty, menu-shifting, grinding, random battles, and immoderate stat allocation.
Its battle system is especially evocative of that great decade in gaming history. Characters do not have a ton of customization available to them and they essentially have innate elemental affinities, though they each come with a huge selection of abilities, skills, and spells. Still, the game itself doesn’t impose too much upon the player or their time. It has a robustness of combat and tradition with modern indie concision, without the tedium of the current open-world RPG structure and its endless laundry lists of to-dos.
I’ll spelunk deeper in the combat in the 8-bit Review below, but I think it’s safe to say for now that Cosmic Star Heroine is every bit as satisfying for 90’s JRPG fans as you could hope, yet it maintains a sleek sensibility toward time management and brevity.
Cosmic Star centers on the Heroine, Alyssa L’Salle, an agent of the API (Agency of Peace and Intelligence) who pulls no punches and is ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and who appears to definitely enjoy her job. Smirk!
Together with Chahn and Dave, a gunmancer and a hacker, both fellow agents, Alyssa stops a group of terrorists from blowing up the city and returns to headquarters to receive her next assignment. It isn’t long afterward that a rapid series of events unfold in this sci-fi world and the trio discovers that an illegal mind-control device is being coveted by Director Steele of the API in order to bring ultimate peace and order to the galaxy by removing free will. Complete with allusions to becoming omnipotent and the power of darkness, this is very much a 90’s-style storyline.
Alyssa meets many friends across the galaxy. Really, one of Cosmic Star Heroines’ strengths is in its multitudinous characters.
Alyssa, Chahn, and Dave I’ve already mentioned. They’re your starting crew. Borisusovsky (otherwise known as Sue) is a mountain of a man dressed to impress. He uses his martial arts and bare fists to wield power earth-affinity damage. Lauran is the flashy singer of an indie band from the slums who specializes in wind and poison attacks. Finn is a young member of the Araenu Police and Alyssa’s cousin who finds himself upholding what is right on a galactic scale.
Arete is a mysterious woman who is a leading member of a powerful rebel faction. Almost mechanical in her logic and precision, she uses a seeing-eye drone in battle (and she’s also my least favorite character). Clarke is a dancing machine, literally, a rogue robot with a few loose screws who is obsessed with cutting loose. Psybe is an insectoid cyborg, a member of a telepathic race known as the Scimerex. Orson is a Nuluupian private eye uniquely attuned to spectral and astral abilities due to the metaphysics of his race.
Finally, there’s my favorite character: Z’xorv, an alien bounty hunter who cares about nothing but the kill. He masters a variety of ice-related powers but he takes an all-or-nothing stance in battle with skills that will nearly kill himself but deal massive damage.
All in all, it’s a huge cast of playable characters and everyone gets at least one scene to shine, though not all of them are as developed they might have been in a longer game. Many of them are one-note but I think most are fairly memorable, especially in the context of JRPGs where it seems like the most memorable trait is a character’s hair color. At least there are interesting non-human characters here, as in classic JRPGs of yore.
The 8-bit Review
Cosmic Star Heroine actually combines two retro references from the past. The first is the most obvious: the 16-bit era visuals prevalent in battle, the overworld, dungeons, and character sprites. The second is in the cutscenes, which have been described as reminiscent of the early CD-ROM console era. The official webpage cites the Sega CD and Turbo Duo, specifically. While I found the former of the two references the most convincing and eye-catching, with fluid and frequently detailed sprites and pixel animations overlaid on interesting backdrops, I thought the latter had the occasional stumble.
The cutscenes (and the backgrounds) don’t always blend well with the 16-bit graphics, though, since they’re pixelated themselves, they appear to mislead to the contrary at first. The characters rendered in the cutscenes sometimes appear awkward, an effect which bleeds over into the dialogue portraits. Finn’s Picassoan visage was the worst offender here.
However, Cosmic Star only utilizes cutscenes infrequently and many of them look great with an eye for telling the story with cinematography, leading one’s curiosity along. Taking the entire visual experience as a whole, it’s clean, refined, and colorful. It may not be the most 16-bit accurate presentation ever but I don’t think historical hardware accuracy was as much a concern as in other indies, and so it sits comfortably in the retro throwback section of modern gaming as an appealing gem.
The soundtrack by HyperDuck SoundWorks (Dust: An Elysian Tail, Precipice of Darkness 4) possesses surprising scale and scope for a relatively short RPG. I didn’t catch too many songs which repeated throughout the game, though of course the array of battle themes will be the most memorable since they are the most repeated, and that’s to Cosmic Star Heroine’s benefit.
Considering the diverse alien locations and sci-fi dungeons, the soundtrack’s 100+ hours of music is not just appropriate but crucial in giving the player a sense of the culture of this universe. I completed the main storyline in about 12 hours, so that seems like a truly luxurious amount of music.
Even with tacking on just over a handful of a few extra hours for clean up, side quests, and odds and ends (collecting support characters on your ship a la Suikoden), the complete soundtrack is longer than the game itself. But because we spend so brief a time on Nuluup and on the Leviathan and in the API HQ, the music is of vast importance to inform us what this universe and all of its places are like. That’s a heavy weight to carry but this OST performs splendidly. In my mind, it’s one of the highlights of the game next to its battle system.
Speaking of the battle system, it’s incredible with what simplicity Cosmic Star elegantly breathes new life into old-fashioned turn-based combat. Let me start with what it doesn’t change: four of your party members (FFIV) exchange blows with enemies fought in the environment and not on a separate screen (Chrono Trigger) with a handy column on the right side of the screen display turn order (FFX). I’m sure some of the features I’m about to name will seem familiar, too, but they are innovative in their exact combination:
Perhaps the best and biggest change to the old turn-based battle formula is the ditching of MP. Instead of using up magic or skill points for your attacks, each and every one of your characters’ attacks (physical or magical) are consumable, meaning when they use an attack they cannot use it again (unless the attack specifically says “reusable”). Eventually, you’ll run out of attacks and then you have to defend, which will recharge all of a character’s abilities. Knowing when to recharge is essential and since each character only gets one action per turn, the battles play out much more strategically than your average action RPG today. It’s much more like a game of chess, anticipating your opponents’ moves and planning out how you want to attack in advance. Other things like consumable items that can only be used once per battle and abilities which play into each other like buffs (Chahn has an ability which makes her next ability affect the entire party, for instance) ensure you think about each move before having to spend time recharging.
Additionally, Cosmic Star introduces a style system. This directly counteracts the more ponderous nature of strategic gameplay and guarantees battles don’t get bogged down but play out at a great pace. Style is accumulated by every actor in a battle (your party members and their enemies). As style increases over time, gained through attacking, an actor’s abilities becoming more potent. This means that enemies will continually get stronger the longer a battle drags on! That’s definitely something to beware of, especially in the more grueling boss battles. Further, plenty of abilities give you wiggle room when it comes to style: you can use certain abilities which generate extra style or you can expend all of your style with burst attacks to inflict some major damage, for example.
Thirdly, further contributing to the game’s battling dynamism, there’s hyper mode. Hyper mode triggers after a character takes a certain number of turns and a full hyper bar is consumed when that character attacks with one, but it increases their damage potential dramatically. This also promotes planning ahead. One of my favorite strategies was to use Alyssa’s Inspire ability to increase her damage for the next three turns, then unleash havoc and reserve her strongest attack for that third turn.
If you do face defeat, which I did about a half dozen times in the first half of the game on “Heroine” difficulty, you can immediately start the battle over again without having to return to your save. Since saving is done manually from your start menu, that’s a bonus for those used to auto-saves who may potentially forget to save their game. Brilliant
Seems like a fair trade-off, Clarke.
All of this comes together to create a battle system that doesn’t become as tiresome as quickly. I have played a ton of classic RPGs and JRPGs but this one managed to give me an experience which felt perfectly balanced, equal parts tradition and equal parts innovation. Because there are so many playable characters and because each character has such a wide array of unique abilities, there is a lot to experiment with, many new strategies to discover, and combinations of party members to try out and excel with. My favorite party set up was Alyssa, Chahn, Z’xorv, and Psybe.
As a final gameplay note, I encountered very few technical issues playing the Nintendo Switch version of this game. I have heard a lot of issues were reported but I only had to restart the game once after getting stuck between a couple of chairs… no joke.
If you’d like to skip plot SPOILERS, Ctrl+F Challenge to head straightway to the next section…
The actual story gets going when Alyssa, Chahn, and Dave uncover a conspiracy climbing all the way to the top of the API. Director Steele himself is after a mysterious maguffin that can control minds. Not only is such technology illegal, but it’s incredibly dangerous in the hands of a calculating madman wielding the power of the Agency of Peace and Intelligence. Alyssa and her companions immediately recognize that they must be on the right side of history and they decide to go rogue, fleeing the API HQ for the slums and beginning their adventure as fugitives and vigilantes of sorts.
Questions of the value of free will probably will seem familiar to fans of the JRPG genre, as may a variety of other themes and devices within Cosmic Star Heroine. The game’s story plays out in a fairly predictable, albeit hurried, manner. It ushers the player from one stage to the next without much chance for its characters to reflect or exhibit inner struggle. This is not a game you should approach looking for pathos or gut-wrenching drama. It has its moments, sure, but it seemed to me more like a high adventure. And there’s nothing wrong with that; we may assume that stories in games have to pack a real emotional punch in order to be worthy of mention, but the odd fantasy adventure can easily be just as successful as entertainment. Plus, this one has the added benefit of nostalgia for those JRPG stories in the 90’s.
Characters forced in and out of the party by the constraints of the narrative (and [SPOILERS: highlight to reveal] permadeath) is reminiscent of Final Fantasy IV, another classic JRPG with which Cosmic Star shares many narrative similarities: consider that both Cecil and Alyssa are high ranking combat agents in their respective governments who find themselves quickly disillusioned with the figureheads of their patriotism. It’s almost as if one could summarize Cosmic Star in the barest words as Chrono Trigger’s gameplay with Final Fantasy IV’s premise. Some comparisons could be drawn with Final Fantasy VII as well: think of the anti-capitalist themes between Midgar and Araenu.
For me, the final scenes of Cosmic Star lacked any shock value but they were ripe with delicious familiarity. That stuff is custom-made candy for those of us who grew up on 90’s gaming.
A boy named Sue.
Cosmic Star Heroine features four difficulty modes, a nice feature for those looking for a vigorous RPG experience and conversely those who are just in it to win it for the story. Tourist is the easiest difficulty mode and it’s there to get you through the tale as quickly and painlessly as possible while still giving you the opportunity to interact with enemies; it’s a step above watching a Let’s Play, essentially. Agent and Heroine are the two middle difficulties and I’ve read that on occasion they can both seem like “normal” difficulty modes. I played most of the game on Heroine and bumped it down to Agent for a few fights. Heroine mode ensured I got my patootie handed to me, especially early on in the game before my characters knew their most advanced abilities.
Super Spy is there but it seems to be more the equivalent of an extreme mode than merely a hard mode. I’m not even sure that that thing is possible to beat. It makes even the earliest fights excruciating.
If you are having too much trouble, you can always adjust the difficulty anytime while playing the game.
Being a linear RPG, Cosmic Star Heroine doesn’t appear to have much replay value in terms of beating the game and starting a new game immediately thereafter. It unfortunately doesn’t lift the New Game Plus feature from Chrono Trigger. So why am I giving it a higher replayability score? Because given the average context of the JRPG, playing the game once is normal.
The replay value, therefore, comes from all the extras you can navigate. I was actually surprised by how much there is to do by the time you reach the final chapters of the game. Locating handy support agents for your spaceship is a surprising addition to the game and someday I swear I’ll beat Cthulhu, a super tough extra boss!
This may be a combination of many recognizable influences, but Cosmic Star Heroine puts them together in new and interesting ways. It manages to improve upon systems that have been around for over 20 years, innovating through fusing old ideas together. Simultaneously old-fashioned and modern, with only a handful of rough edges to speak of, it’s no wonder that Cosmic Star has received the kind of generally positive reception that it has thus far.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I am delighted to have finally played this game and I am happy to thank Zeboyd Games for furnishing us with a copy of their game for this critique. Cosmic Star Heroine can be your next nostalgia fix and it’s perfectly playable on the Nintendo Switch, the portability of which helped me complete this RPG at an even more reasonable pace. The occasional graphical oddity isn’t much to gripe about in the presence of a taste of a bygone age, an engaging battle system, and a host of playable characters, the game’s biggest strengths. This one comes recommended by Red.
SEE YOU SPACE HEROINE . . .
Aggregated Score: 7.4
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