Cosmic Star Heroine Review
As a refresher, I didn’t care for Breath of Death VII or Cthulhu Saves the World despite all the praise I’ve seen both receive, and that’s kept me from delving into the Penny Arcade games that developer Zeboyd Games produced after those first two. Every video about Cosmic Star Heroine intrigued me, though, with it seeming to draw inspiration from best-game-ever Chrono Trigger while putting its own spin on things, and so I bought it with the intention of seeing how it stacks up against some of my favorites in the genre. Its opening few hours proved mildly amusing, if a bit underwhelming given my high expectations, but the game soon after won me over in a big way to the point where countless softlocks, bugs, and typos couldn’t stop me from playing. While the way you get into combat is reminiscent of the encounters in Chrono Trigger, its biggest takeaway from that game is instead rock-solid pacing that avoids wasting your time with nonsense padding, and there are a handful of features taken from other games that are equally welcome. All of this coalesces into something that’s simultaneously a brilliant homage to classic jRPGs and strong entry in the genre in its own right.
The writing is what middle ground looks like
Breath of Death and Cthulhu were parody games, full stop. They kind of had their own stories, but they mostly existed as comedy games that relied on various tropes established in other games without contributing much on their own. That’s not inherently a bad thing, of course, but it’s worth pointing out if only as a contrast to how Cosmic Star Heroine goes about things, balancing humor and seriousness while telling its own story. Having said that, the beginning of the game doesn’t strike that balance quite as well as I’d hoped going in, and this is what gave me the initial impression that this was going to be another game full of nothing but jokes. There’s just something about the danger and mystery of the early-game events mixed with the flippancy of the characters present that doesn’t quite mesh.
And then new characters started joining up. I know exactly when my opinion of the game switched, and it was when Lauren showed up, her being a musician who has the greatest intro I can recall in a game. That might be overselling it, of course, but so much effort was obviously put into it that my early expectations of what the rest of the game would be like were smashed. It doesn’t hurt that Lauren has a lighthearted demeanor and can poke fun while avoiding pushing too far into “outright comedy” territory. Other characters fare similarly, all having their own unique personality quirks that fuel the comedic moments without detracting from the serious ones. It’s difficult to put into words how this ends up coming across, though calling it a more serious Earthbound or more silly Chrono Trigger wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
The plot is that main character Alyssa L’Salle is an agent for the Agency of Peace and Intelligence, and as tends to be the case with such things, she has to go rogue to stop a plot that her former agency (you know, the one with the not-at-all suspicious name) is a part of. That isn’t a spoiler—this happens incredibly early in the game and is spelled out on the game’s store pages. Anyway, things happen after that point and the plot is constantly being complicated by unexpected new developments, and you eventually end up with access to three very different planets that you can travel to at will and explore for new items and NPCs between missions that further the story.
A few of the games that Cosmic Star Heroine borrows from (but not all)
That bit about exploring for new NPCs is probably confusing without context, so I’ll start with that: much like in Breath of Fire 2, you eventually end up with a safe haven (in this case a space ship) that you can send certain NPCs to. Some of these NPCs are hidden during sidequests or can only be found in side areas, but once found they join you on your ship and can be freely talked to between missions. This reminded me of Bahamut Lagoon more than anything, with all ship characters’ text changing after each mission and incrementing in amusing ways. My personal favorite is the woman in the cafeteria who keeps getting hit on by your 70s-style disco robot party member and is totally not into it. Some recruitable NPCs or party members will also open up sidequests that you can take, and at least one of these leads to you meeting a character from Breath of Death VII. In fact, the game is stuffed with characters from BoD7 and Cthulhu Saves the World, and while several of these meetings could potentially be confusing for someone unfamiliar with those games’ characters, I nevertheless appreciated it. You can even recruit one of them onto your ship, which is awesome.
Then there’s the big, obvious inspiration most likely to be mentioned and recognized by most, that being Chrono Trigger. Cosmic Star Heroine has no random battles, with enemies being visible on the map until you come into contact with them, at which point combat is initiated. That’s the most readily apparent takeaway, though it’s slightly deceptive; not only do the two games have completely different combat systems, but defeated enemies respawn in Chrono Trigger while defeated enemies remain dead in Cosmic Star Heroine. There are actually quite a few moments that pay homage to Chrono Trigger in less obvious ways, though, such as there being a festival with several distractions you can take part in. There’s also a boss fight where the lights turn on as you pass by them, clearly a reference to the Magus boss fight, as well as an enemy space ship that shows up in one angle almost exactly the way the Black Omen shows up. Some of the background music even has a bass bend that’s very CT, though it’s difficult to tell if that’s coincidence or not. All of these little touches add a lot to the end experience, and they’re just rare enough that they don’t overwhelm the game.
Combat’s unlike anything I can recall playing
If Cosmic Star Heroine’s combat is lifted from something else, then it’s something that I’m wholly unfamiliar with; given the bits that seem to have been derived from mechanics in Breath of Death and Cthulhu Saves the World, I’m tempted to think that the mechanics here are entirely original. Whatever the case, combat appears daunting at first glance, but is actually surprisingly intuitive once you’ve picked up a few of the basics. Your characters gain new combat moves as they level up, and these fit into a 4×2 grid (and can be swapped out for new ones once you have more than you can equip) that can be selected from during combat on a character’s turn rather than simply being able to attack. Some of these moves are buffs that increase stats, some are heals, and others are attacks, with every character having their own unique set of potential moves. The interesting—and initially overwhelming—bit of this is that very few of these moves can be reused, with most being disabled after a first use until being “recharged.” Each character comes with a recharge move in their bottom-right grid slot and these usually act as a defend command, so longer fights require planning ahead to use certain moves when they’re most effective and damaging rather than throwing everything at the wall right away.
If that sounds tedious, I should probably mention that I played on the “agent” difficulty (it appeared to be the easier of two difficulties that could be considered “normal” and thus best suited to a first playthrough) and recharging was only a factor in a few prolonged encounters. Most fights could be finished before any characters burned through their moves. The harder difficulties sound like they include more difficult enemies and could therefore make this element of combat more of an annoyance, but it’s also worth mentioning that the difficulty level can be changed at any time, allowing one to work around that if it were to become a problem.
Getting back into the combat, there are a few additional things you have to keep in mind when considering which moves to use. The first is “style,” which functions a bit like the combo meter in previous Zeboyd games in that performing most moves increases a percentage counter, and the higher it goes, the stronger your attacks become and the easier it is to inflict ailments on enemies (with ailments being an entirely different thing, gradually whittling down enemy resistances until they’re successful rather than being a hit/miss sort of thing). Then there are “burst” attacks that function like the combo break abilities in those previous games, resetting your style points back to zero but doing crippling amounts of damage to enemies. And of course, enemies also have style points, so they become more dangerous as combat goes along (though nowhere near as fast as was the case in previous games). Another thing that style does is that it allows you to remain alive for one turn after receiving a fatal blow, provided it’s high enough. You do extra damage on this turn, so you can choose to either go out with a bang or try to heal yourself out of negative damage. If you choose the latter and fail to heal yourself back into positive territory, that character goes down for the battle. This is one of those beautiful little wrinkles that can turn low health scenarios into a risk-versus-reward situation, especially when it comes to some of the more difficult boss fights.
Finally, there’s “hyper,” which is basically a guaranteed critical; each character has a hyper bar with a certain number of notches—and some equipment can reduce the number of notches—and each turn, that character has one notch filled. Once a character has all of their notches filled, they get a glowing aura around them and do double damage while having an increased chance of inflicting an ailment (presumably because their ailment also does double damage to the enemy’s resistance against it). Putting all of that together, you can look at your character portraits and see that a character is two turns away from going hyper, then decide that it’s best to use weaker attacks to build up style points so that you can use an elemental attack that the enemy is weak against once that character goes hyper. Or maybe you’re facing an enemy who does a lot of damage but doesn’t have a lot of hit points, so you launch everything you’ve got at it right away. In that last example, you might instead choose to build up style points to survive being knocked into negative hit points, saving a special move that does triple damage in that situation to reduce the burden on other characters. It’s all situational, and it allows combat to feel varied throughout as you gain new abilities that complement other characters’ new abilities.
Items, equipment, and further combat strategy
All of that probably sounds intimidating, but it’s something you pick up on fairly early and serves as a solid base layer for everything else you can do in combat. I talked about the grid of moves already, but you also have the “item” and “program” panels that open up even more that you can do. Items are one of the more interesting elements in Cosmic Star Heroine because, unlike most jRPGs, they’re reusable items that can be used once in each combat encounter. All characters have their health restored between encounters, and this means that items effectively become moves shared between all characters that can’t be recharged. These can restore health, inflict a “vulnerable” status on an enemy (which causes the next attack against them to do double damage), increase the party’s style points, and even set off a bomb that damages all enemies or enemies in a certain radius. It all depends on what you equip into your items, though like the grid of moves, you can only equip so many to bring into combat. I was never able to equip more than 4, which made the fact that there are 8 slots a bit confusing, but maybe more are available on different difficulty modes or something.
Before I talk about programs, I have to first talk about equipment. Each character can equip a weapon (unique to them), a shield (freely equipped on anyone), and an accessory (also unique to each character), and these determine all kinds of things. For example, I eventually equipped Lauren with knives that granted her immunity to status effects, while another character was outfitted with a gun that increased her fire damage—something that proved massively helpful given her hugely damaging fire attacks. Accessories also often offer benefits unique to that character, such as giving a character who sings songs that damage enemies or heal the party each turn the ability to sing without end, allowing you to perform moves that would normally end the current song without actually disabling it. Things like this can make a huge impact.
Finally and most relevantly, there are shields. Each character has a number of stats that are raised with each level-up, and while equipping shields often confers passive benefits, they often also come with special moves (called “programs”) that a character can use if their “Hackitude” stat is high enough. Even old shields can become massively helpful because of the programs they enable you to make use of, from a move that causes all enemies to become vulnerable to special “unite” attacks Alyssa can use with other party members. Unite attacks ended up being my favorites, and in the right situations with the right buffs, I was doing around 47,000 points of damage.
This is the buggiest game I’ve ever played
I’ve played Troika games such as Arcanum and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines unpatched, as well as all of the Infinity Engine games (which had that annoying “so and so is busy” bug) and Knights of the Old Republic 2. Up to this point, the buggiest game I’d ever played had been Shadowrun: Dragonfall, but I can now say that Cosmic Star Heroine has easily surpassed it. It’s the first game I can recall crashing on my PS4—though in fairness, I did have the good sense to avoid things like No Man’s Sky that were notorious for that—and that’s actually one of the lesser bugs I faced. This section isn’t going to speak well of the game’s current quality, but I suppose you could consider the fact that none of the following bugs soured my perception of the game a ringing endorsement of everything outside of those bugs and problems. Oh, and typos. There are a lot of typos. Also, these are problems encountered in the first couple days after release, and while the fact that many of them are bound to be fixed in time doesn’t give it a pass for releasing with so many issues, it’s still bound to be in a much better state down the line once these problems are taken care of.
The obvious beginning point would be the embedded videos above and to the right, with the one above being a compilation of graphical bugs I found and the one to the right being an annoying bug where trying to get out of a conversation starts it all over again. That last one was infuriating early on, and it’s almost like it registers the button release as a button press or something, causing you to go through the same conversation over and over and over again. Then there are the more serious bugs that softlocked the game. The one that I managed to reproduce (but that I only recorded the aftermath of because of how random it was) involved poisoning an enemy. For some reason, poison damages enemies at strange times, and if poison damage kills an enemy as they go to attack you, the game softlocks, forcing you to quit out and reload your last save. That’s only slightly less annoying than the cursor softlock, which might as well be totally random. It seemed to only happen to me in boss fights, but I’d go to attack, only for the cursor to freeze and make it impossible to confirm or quit out of the attack. Yet again, the only solution was to quit out and reload the last save. If you’re seeing a pattern, my advice for playing this game is to save as often as humanly possible because everything can and will go wrong.
Also annoying: I went to fight a boss during a sidequest, only for the game to freeze for a few seconds, then act like I had beaten it. This made it impossible to actually fight the thing. I can’t help but feel like I missed out on some pre-fight conversation or something, which sucks considering how hugely relevant this particular sidequest is to certain developments toward the end of the game. Then there are the text glitches, of which I got two videos but can only share one because of potential spoilers in the other. Basically, what happens is that the beginning of a line of text is cut off, and I have no idea what causes this. It definitely happens more than the two times I managed to record, though. In fact, at the potential spoiler place, a robot supposedly upgrades your bag, and the text glitched out like that. Actually, that might be why I could only equip 4 items in my inventory, now that I think about it. We’re still only getting started, though: at one point, the wrong character responds to a line of dialogue, causing said character to talk to himself. Also, if you’re on the crew deck on your ship and go around talking to people, going down to the lower deck will cause the elevator backdrop to scroll down, revealing the starry background behind it. Oh, and I just found another video of a softlock. There’s actually a graphical glitch happening there, too; if you watch the top of the background, there’s a point where it disappears, no doubt as it’s warped back down to get the scrolling effect. You probably shouldn’t be able to see the top part of the background suddenly disappearing, though. Another glitch, albeit a harmless one, is that a defeated boss comes back to life and can’t be interacted with once you defeat it if you return to that location afterward. Also harmless are a few menu bugs, such as the colors that show you whether a shield’s stats are better or worse than what’s currently equipped briefly turning back to a neutral gray if you check the shield’s programs and passive perks. In another case, there’s no description or sound effect when checking one of a weapon’s perks. There are also a few points where there are no barriers where there probably should be, so you can run really far out of bounds and have to run all the way back (I’m continually running up, then start zigging and zagging to indicate that I’m moving back down). Finally and most harmlessly of all, there are one or two locations where buttons can be pressed multiple times, causing weirdness like a treasure box reappearing to fall over and over again. Of course, all of this isn’t even getting into the missing text (two NPCs say “Placeholder” instead of having actual text) or any of the numerous typos plaguing the game.
At least the save situation is decent, though
Those bugs would have driven me crazy if this game had a save system where you could only save at certain points, but fortunately/mercifully, you can save at any time outside of combat or conversation in one of the game’s four save slots. I’d have preferred there being more save slots so that I could have made a save before buggy points and waited for a patch to see if there was anything there that I missed out on, personally, but that’s nitpicking that’s most likely irrelevant to anyone who’s not reviewing the game, and the flexibility of the save system goes a long way toward mitigating the endless number of bugs it’s possible to stumble onto. I made sure to save on almost every new screen, just to be sure, and while that’s (usually) a bad habit and unnecessary precaution born from years of quicksave reliance, it saved me in a big way here.
The music is mostly great, and the graphics have personality
Cosmic Star Heroine has this cheery fanfare that has a lot of energy behind it, and I don’t really care for that sort of thing, but it’s done well. There were little things that bugged me about certain tracks, though, like how one combat track sounded like its cymbals were clipping. No idea if they actually were or if the cymbals in question merely sound weird like that, but it caught my attention. Really, it wasn’t until Lauren’s intro and the cool music that played during it that I started to be won over by the music. Or if you want to be really specific, the version that plays in the club before her introduction. Too cool. But hey, there are also other tracks with a lot of personality. I’m especially fond of this track, which eventually morphs into the kind of thing you could imagine playing during an underwater Donkey Kong Country stage. The entire soundtrack may not have grabbed me, but there were certainly standouts that had me wandering around areas listening instead of continuing to play, and I’d call that a win. As for the graphics, the sprites are really well done. The backgrounds also have a lot of detail in them, but they kind of seem dirty. That’s hard to put into words, but the dithering tends to be haphazard and the background elements sometimes look like some kind of smoothing brush was used rather than areas using a limited color palette. I suppose that comes down to taste more than anything; those who believe there’s one true way of doing sprite art may very well find themselves going crazy over this, but I easily tuned it out. There are also cutscenes like the video of Lauren’s intro that play throughout the game, and the amount of work that must have gone into them is staggering. I can’t recall seeing anything like it in a game, and it has a striking, unique look to it, even if the occasional choppiness of these scenes took awhile to get used to at first.