Many of the summer months throughout my middle and high school years were spent fully immersed in the stories of various SNES, Genesis, and PSone role-playing games, like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series. Without the stress of school, I could stay up late, remove myself from the worries and struggles of teenage life, and get lost in world-spanning adventures for a while.
You can imagine my happiness now as a full-time student, age 35, spending part of my summer break playing through Zeboyd Games’ latest retro-inspired RPG, Cosmic Star Heroine. I was immediately taken back to my teenage room in Pasadena, Maryland, surrounded by Marilyn Manson and Korn posters, Magic: The Gathering cards strewn across the floor, and stacks of horror and anime VHS tapes covered in a thin layer of dust.
Within minutes, Cosmic Star Heroine drew a comparison to the likes of Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star, primarily in its visual approach, distinguished roster, and the way the game handles the introduction of enemy battles without a break-out segue. It’s not just a love letter to a bygone era, however. In one fell swoop, Zeboyd Games successfully pays homage to some of the greatest role-playing games of all time while setting a new gold standard with their fresh take on traditional turn-based combat.
As special agent Alyssa L’Salle, you’re forced to go rogue after finding yourself in the midst of a major conspiracy. It’s not long before rumors of your death begin to appear on the news and you soon find yourself traversing three different planets, making unlikely allies with a handful of alien races, and, in true RPG fashion, saving the world.
The story, while interesting, doesn’t break any new ground. There’s somewhat predictable plot twists, moments where you’re tasked with earning a town’s trust, and each movement forward is typically gated by a bite-sized dungeon that ends in the inevitable boss encounter. Cosmic Star Heroine’s narrative is fine, if a bit formulaic, though it never feels underwhelming. It serves its purpose in guiding the player along a 12-hour adventure, but it just never went beyond that.
Its cast of characters stands out quite a bit more, ranging from a nerdy hacker who fights with a tablet device to a magic-using head housed inside an exo-suit. Cosmic Star Heroine untethers itself from its inspiration with some imaginative takes on classic roles. Chana, for instance, is a gunmancer who can summon armaments to attack enemies instead of wielding the weapons herself. There’s also a dagger-toting pop singer, a bardic insect armed with the power of song, and a robotic dancer who assists the party by self-destructing.
Where the game becomes more Phantasy Star than Chrono Trigger is in its cyberpunk aesthetic, complete with flashy neons clashing atop darker colors. Zeboyd Games has crafted some of the finest pixels I’ve seen in the medium, with each planet having its own biome and races that felt completely foreign. Not since the Mass Effect series have I played a game so heavily rooted in science-fiction that successfully depicts alien races in an interesting fashion without making them feel too human in nature. There’s a race of bug-like creatures struggling with procreation, a group of beings who infuse their souls into exo-suits upon death in order to keep on living, and even a handful of green kittens capable of speech.
Zeboyd has created a fantastical world full of intriguing characters, but where Cosmic Star Heroine truly excels is with its brilliant take on turn-based combat.
Each character has their own set of abilities that unlock as they reach certain levels, essentially putting them into specific job roles like tank, healer, bard, dancer, etc. Additional abilities (called “programs”) can be accessed by equipping “shields,” similar to Final Fantasy IX, which are not character-specific. Having someone that typically relies on drawing aggro and soaking damage suddenly gaining the ability to heal, inflict poison, or hurl deadly handfuls of money is entirely possible.
What’s interesting is that abilities, programs, and even items (which replenish between battles) can only be used once before they’re locked out, forcing the character to recharge them by using a defend command. Using these abilities also generates a resource called “style” that eventually puts the character into a “hyper” mode that doubles the damage of their next attack.
This turns every battle into a strategic mini-game of ability and turn management, wherein turns are spent using abilities that generate style before unleashing a devastating attack while in hyper mode. Style generators can be used for a number of things, liking inflicting enemies with “vulnerable” to receive additional damage, or causing your next ability to cast on all targets instead of just one. You’ll want to smartly approach every battle as if it’s your last, because one or two wrong moves can easily lead to a dirt nap on higher difficulty settings. Nothing stings more than having to a hyper turn arrive when you’re out of abilities and forced to waste it on a regenerative defend command.
Where certain modern turn-based RPGs end up bogging down their combat system with unnecessary intricacies in order to distinguish themselves (Citizens of Earth comes to mind), Cosmic Star Heroine never crossed into the realm of feeling sluggish. I always looked forward to the next encounter and enjoyed devising new ways of breaking the game by taking advantage of specific party compositions, buff spells, turn management, and one well-timed attack that could one-shot damn near anything.
Cosmic Star Heroine took me back to one of the most memorable eras in gaming history but also proved there are still plenty of ways to build upon its legendary foundation. It wears its inspiration on its sleeve, sure, but doesn’t rely on nostalgia to keep the player intrigued. Instead, it presents fresh, new ideas (that actually work) to create a uniquely beautiful experience.
While I do wish the story had a little more meat to chew on, I absolutely adored its cast and had a few good laughs at many of the game’s item descriptions and comedic nods to other, more familiar video games. The soundtrack is also worthy of praise, with plenty of spacey jazz tunes and other tracks perfectly fitting of the game’s cyberpunk setting, by way of HyperDuck Soundworks (Dust: An Elysian Tale). Cosmic Star Heroine is generously priced at $14.99 and easily offers a dozen hours of cyberpunk space conspiracy goodness that’s sure to please anyone with an affinity toward the 16-bit era of role-playing games.
Just as I used to revisit Chrono Trigger every summer growing up, I look forward to spending a few days next summer with Cosmic Star Heroine and continuing the tradition as an adult.
So, where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation 4 copy of Cosmic Star Heroine provided by the game’s developer, Zeboyd Games. While I’m sometimes given games to critique, I pride myself on providing an unbiased review to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.