Evaluation by comparison is one of the most straightforward strategies a critic can employ. It’s also one of the least nuanced. I say this knowing full well that I often do it myself, so I’m not pointing any fingers here; there are only so many ways to approach reviewing a video game, after all. I preface my critique of Cosmic Star Heroine, a retro-styled JRPG styled after a particular pair of SNES and Genesis classics, with this statement because it doesn’t simply draw inspiration from those games—it explicitly demands to be compared to them.
The product of a successful Kickstarter campaign that concluded in 2013, Cosmic Star Heroine arrives at last in 2017 amongst a plethora of other high-quality RPGs. Rather than go toe-to-toe with its high-budget contemporaries, Cosmic Star Heroine instead seeks to carve out a niche by appealing to people who, like me, grew up during the “golden era” of 16-bit gaming. But by pitching its concept as a fusion of Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star, two games hailed as seminal works in the world of RPGs, Cosmic Star Heroine sets a bar it cannot clear.
This doesn’t mean it’s a bad game; far from it, in fact. Developer Zeboyd Games’ affection for the turn-based RPGs of yesteryear is clear, as is their commitment to minimizing the more frustrating aspects of classic game design. Every encounter is scripted, penalties for death are minimal, and combat is tuned for four distinct difficulty levels that either eliminate grinding or highlight it depending on the player’s preference. Moreover, each of the game’s eleven playable characters has a robust suite of abilities that emphasize synergy, highlighting the care Zeboyd put into designing the battle system. It’s easy to forget how unforgiving RPGs used to be, and Cosmic Star Heroine does much to bring their aesthetic sensibilities into the modern era while leaving less savoury aspects behind.
Yet for all of its posturing, Cosmic Star Heroine doesn’t discard the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia entirely; it’s more like it pops one lens out and looks back at the player with a cheeky grin. I had hoped for a more serious take on an RPG after Zeboyd’s previous work on Cthulhu Saves the World and the final two episodes of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. I didn’t expect it to be a grim piece of science fiction, certainly, but nor did I expect it to be so suffocatingly bogged down in tired attempts at humour. The writing in Cosmic Star Heroine frequently goes beyond homage and into The Big Bang Theory style of referential comedy. “Remember that thing you like? So do we! Here it is again!” Cue laugh track.
In an early dungeon, a puddle of blood is described as “possibly belonging to someone named Chris”. Eyeroll. One sequence requires the player to obtain a dress, Honeybee Inn-style, for the main character to sneak into a minor villain’s mansion—a villain who, incidentally, is known across the galaxy as “The Connoisseur” for his collection of rare artifacts. Eyeroll. Another sequence takes the player to a zombie-infested police station that copies Resident Evil 2‘s R.P.D. down to its statue and piano puzzles. Eyeroll. All of this is punctuated by a relentless deluge of one-liners from the game’s cast, which might be fine if it ever stopped moving long enough to let any plot point simmer. It doesn’t. The writing lacks any sense of restraint or poise.
Don’t even get me started on Dave, the smug, computer-hacking hipster that’s about the most obvious self-insert character this side of DeviantArt. Yikes.
It’s a shame that the writing has such a propensity for inelegance, because Cosmic Star Heroine is rich in sci-fi atmosphere. While its runtime is brief (I earned a Platinum trophy in under ten hours), the game stretches across three small-ish planets, each with distinct biomes and lovingly crafted environments to explore. At times, it evokes Blade Runner and Shadowrun, at others, Chrono Trigger and Terranigma. The Sega CD-inspired anime cutscenes don’t always impress to quite the same degree, but they’re evocative nonetheless.
Complementing the fantastic visual design is a soundtrack by Hyperduck Soundworks, a duo of Irish rockers known for their work on Dust: An Elysian Tale. Saxophone and synth take the lead in warm ambient pieces that sizzle like neon lights, perched high above dystopian city streets; elsewhere, a bass-heavy battle theme is a delicious slice of prog rock heaven. There’s even a vocal rock track by Laura Shigihara (Plants vs. Zombies, Rakuen) that feels like a bilingual riff on Emily Haines of Metric fame. It’s excellent.
Having played all of Zeboyd’s previous games, I can say with certainty that they’ve topped themselves with Cosmic Star Heroine in terms of game mechanics and art design. I only hope they’ll hire a writer next time—the parody approach is tired, and I had to fight to stay interested in the story at every turn. With a little less Dave and a little more attention to detail, the next Zeboyd game has the potential to truly shine bright.