(Disclaimer, I guess: I backed Cosmic Star Heroine on Kickstarter - the 464th person to do so - and these impressions are based on the PS4 copy I received from that. Also, I have a pseudonym in the Spy Directory. Bonus points if you can figure out which one is me.
I should also add that I have not finished the game. As the title indicates, these are my first impressions based on finishing the first planet of the game - which felt like a point by which I’ve gotten a reasonable feel for the game!)
I backed Cosmic Star Heroine in a hurry back in 2013 (2013!) based almost entirely on the premise of a sci-fi RPG from Zeboyd Games with what seemed like a number of nods towards Chrono Trigger and Suikoden. And then, I sort of forgot about it for a few years. In April, the codes from the KS fell into my lap, where I proceeded to ignore them for about a month because of some other game I was playing. Then, this past weekend, I found myself with a few hours to kill and Cosmic Star Heroine looking at me accusingly from my PS4′s installed game library, and decided to take it for a spin.
Right off the bat, I want to applaud Zeboyd Games for including two things I think should probably be baseline in RPGs (J or W or any other kind) these days:
- The ability to save the game literally anywhere. (This was even one of the bullet points of the Kickstarter campaign, come to think of it.)
- In-game adjustable difficulty.
The first one’s just a real timesaver. That second one’s especially important, though, given the brutality of the game’s highest difficulty setting. I should probably have known what I was in for when I discovered there was a trophy for beating the first fight in the game on the highest setting. On the other hand, the others could probably use some tweaking - the highest difficulty is ballbreaking, but the one below it is engaging, but not what I would call challenging. I’m pretty glad I didn’t start any lower.
Duking it out
The combat system is very technical, and throws a lot of what would have been 16-bit JRPG standbys out the window. Consumables? Gone. MP? Gone. Bosses immune to status effects? Mostly gone. Dying at 0 HP? Sorta gone. You’re left with characters who have very diverse skill sets, which are extremely customizable:
- Each character learns a bunch of skills, of which you can pick seven at a time; the eighth is always some form of the Defend command. These are mostly one-use (all characters seem to have one reusable skill, and sometimes accessories can make a skill reusable), but your Defend skill (which is reusable and can have additional effects unique to that character besides just defending - one character early on defends the entire party when they block, while another does damage to all enemies when they defend) recharges your one-shot skills.
- Rather than being consumables whose levels you have to monitor and ration, items are equipped to the whole party; they can be used once per battle, then cannot be recharged.
- Shields are one of the primary pieces of equipment for all characters; they tend to add an additional passive skill or two, and then various active skills based on that character’s “Hackitude” ranking (yes, that’s seriously one of the stats) that are also usable once per combat.
Attacks that inflict status effects don’t always work; however, each enemy has a type of HP associated with a status effect - “Stun HP,” for instance, which is reduced invisibly by stun abilities even if they don’t work. So if you try to stun something and it doesn’t work, you’ve still accomplished something - lowering its stun HP - and eventually it will work.
Additionally, your heroes don’t necessarily get taken out of the fight at 0 HP - taking a variety of actions in combat builds your Style points, and if you have a high enough Style, you’ll go into negative HP instead of dying to a lethal blow. However, you’ll die at the end of your next turn, and you have a penalty to healing yourself, so it pays to keep a variety of healing effects around.
The only real issue I have with the combat system is that there is almost no tension between battles. I can’t quite decide how I feel about this. Each battle is like a self-contained puzzle (at first), but between battles, your health refills to full. There are no worries of “how many more times can I cast Cure” or “how many potions did I bring” or “will I make it to that save point?” If you make it through a fight, you’re good until the next one. If you find non-boss fights kind of trivial, as I have so far, you may find dungeon-y parts of the game kind of boring.
Story and setting
Two of the promises from the original campaign were a sci-fi setting and “brisk pacing that respects your time!” Cosmic Star Heroine has one of these in spades, but I feel like the other one kind of falls flat on its face.
The game definitely has a different feel than its predecessors, and even goes harder on its sci-fi roots than Phantasy Star, which had a more “sci-fantasy” feel - there are people here who imbue their fists with elemental earth or command a deluge of water to drown their foes, but the science fiction side of the setting is definitely the primary aspect in play.
And since this is a sci-fi game, the characters’ “classes” are flavorful, and their skill sets all reflect that as well. Alyssa’s not just some generic hero, she’s a super-spy who fights with a metal bo that is also somehow a cannon. Her friend’s a “gunmancer”: she replicates guns, teleports them to people, and fires them seemingly with … her mind? Magic? It’s not clear. She can even shoot health back into you. Rather than an offensive magician, you’ve got a hacker who literally hacks the planet, as well as being especially useful in tinkering with robotic foes.
My problem lies with the “brisk pacing.” Now, maybe this is just an artifact of where I’m at in the game - I’ve just left the starting planet, having acquired my own spaceship, and so I have a feeling the game is about to open up to me. However, the story up to this point hasn’t felt brisk; it’s felt rushed. The first planet is so atmospheric and cool - it’s a planet of near-permanent nighttime, with a cool cyberpunk-esque aesthetic and a lot of quirky features (like Chrono Trigger’s Millenial Faire, but here it’s a freedom festival that just happens to run all the time).
There’s a lot of world-building going on here, I think, but it’s hard to say because I’m left with no time to enjoy it. From the word “go,” Alyssa is rushed from point A to point B to point C with no time to really take in her surroundings; first she’s a hero spy, then she’s burned, then she’s on the run, then there’s a nightclub, more running, a festival, a fight with a giant mech, another fight with a giant mech, a secret base, the destruction of the secret base, then we’ve hijacked a spaceship and we’re off - and all of that is done in maybe two hours. Whew!
There’s brisk, and then there’s the pacing of someone’s first RPG Maker game, and so far CSH has veered dangerously towards the latter. I’m hoping it gets better later on.
Also, and this is more of a tiny specific quibble, there’s one point at the beginning of your whirlwind trip across the first planet where one character is clearly leaving just so you can add a different fourth character to the party, but their reason for doing so - it’s literally “I have something I just remembered I have to do” - is so weirdly sudden and ill-explained that I half expected them to betray me upon their return. It’s abrupt and kind of jarring; I wasn’t a fan.
That said, the writing is usually pretty good - barring the pacing issues and Sue’s weird departure - and parts of it are chock full of sly nods to other JRPGs or just standard of the kind of humor Zeboyd is good at.
Music of the spheres?
Huge fan of what Hyperduck did with the CSH soundtrack. This soundtrack is super cool - it’s got a lot of synth, in places it’s jazzy, at one point there’s a nightclub with a fully voiced song (half in Japanese, half in English) set to a cutscene that would not have looked out of place on something like the Sega CD. The soundtrack’s superb work and I recommend checking it out even if you never check out the game.
(Sorry the sound on this is potato quality, but it’s seemingly the only version of this cutscene on Youtube.)
So in the end, do I feel like I got my money for what I kicked in early on? Absolutely. I have some issues with the “brisk pacing” and the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a difficulty setting between “engaging” and “almost unfairly brutal,” but going all-in on a science fiction setting was a super cool decision. The dialogue is good, the music is great; I may not be having the best time between battles when in a ‘dungeon’ but the battles themselves, especially bosses, are enough to keep me engaged. I’ll definitely be finishing this one, though it may take a back seat to my second playthrough of Persona 5 and my umpteenth playthrough of Nier Automata. Still, between these three, it’s been a good year for RPGs.
Even if the running theme is “took way longer than expected to deliver.” ;)