It has been a while since we last heard about Zeboyd Games, the developers behind Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World. Back in 2013, Zeboyd turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for Cosmic Star Heroine, a plucky RPG done in a nostalgic 16-bit style. The original plan was to finish development and release in 2014. The expected release window was pushed back to sometime “in 2015 when it’s good & done and has been approved by all platform holders.” I had a chance to play through the demo they brought to E3 this year and I was left with an itch to see where the adventure went.
Cosmic Star Heroine lends its 16-bit charms to the story of Alyssa L’Salle, a top secret agent for the galactic empire. L’Salle has saved the galaxy on numerous occasions and is by all accounts an unknown hero to many throughout the empire. However, on her most recent mission she discovers information about her government that she was never meant to know and the powers that be decide to reveal her identity to the world. Though this earns her hordes of adoring fans, it also means that every enemy she has ever made while saving the galaxy now knows whose blood they need to spill for some revenge. Hopping between the three hub worlds of Araenu, Nuluup, and Rhomu, players have to help L’Salle stay one step ahead of her enemies while trying to save the galaxy one last time.
Taking cues from the RPGs of old, Zeboyd aims to bring more modern game design ideas to what players have come to expect from retro RPGs. The combat has been reworked to flow naturally and to reward tactics over zoned-out grinding. The world alternates between linear and open-ended segments to allow for a number of entertaining sidequests. Later in the game, players will even be able to upgrade their ship. While the aesthetic appears decidedly old-school, complete with Sega CD-style cutscenes, the underlying design clearly plays with the tropes established over the last few decades. Zeboyd has always injected humor into its games, and Cosmic Star Heroine made me laugh several times with winks and nods at the absurdity of RPG tropes while also making use of them to great effect. Treasure chests stand as a fine testament to this. While moving through areas, I came across a number of chests and items, only one or two of which proved to be useful, like a laser cannon so amazing that the party stopped to talk about how incredible it was. The remaining chests had various lines of text about how a previous adventurer must have found it first or how something edible two centuries ago had become a nasty gelatinous mass.
The level I played revolved around a research facility in the depths of a jungle. L’Salle and her companions had worked their way to the gates of the building, but found them locked. I began to explore the branching paths into the surrounding trees and shrubbery, eventually coming across a strange looking plant. Interacting with the plant initiated an amusing exchange of dialogue between party members and then launched me into battle against the conspicuous bit of vegetation.
The turn-based combat in Cosmic Star Heroine feels surprisingly satisfying. Like Chrono Trigger, there are no transitions between exploration and battle; both take place on the same screen. Once battle begins, turn order is shown on a bar on the right side of the screen. Each party member can equip seven abilities and a single defend move that recharges the other abilities. With some exceptions, most abilities may only be used once before they need to be recharged. On top of this, characters can use programs that act as secondary abilities. This leads to a delicate balancing act between when to use each skill and choosing the best moment to recharge abilities.
Battles also have an interesting dynamic labeled “style.” As players use abilities, they gain style points and their abilities become more effective. Certain moves “burst,” consuming all style points for a colossal effect. This adds another factor to consider when selecting which abilities to use. Moves that inflict status ailments are more effective when at high style, while a burst ability might do enough damage to finally take down that boss you’ve been fighting for the last ten minutes. Combat rewards planning and patience.
While the demo I played only had two characters plus L’Salle in the party, up to three can come with Alyssa at any given time. Eleven characters can be recruited total. Planning which characters to bring with you on missions will be important in the completed game as L’salle will be able to team up to perform one or two combination attacks with each party member. Of the characters I saw, my favorite was Chahn, a shrine maiden turned agent in the far future who uses gunmancy, the ability to summon guns, in combat. Using one of those skills for the first time probably ranks as one of my favorite moments in any RPG.
While I am talking about the battles, it is important to mention the music. Cosmic Star Heroine’s soundtrack is being taken care of by Hyperduck Soundworks, well known in the video game remix community and for their work on Dust: An Elysian Tale, Scrolls, and Penny-Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4. Their work in Cosmic Star Heroine is fantastic. I’ll probably be picking up the soundtrack when it is inevitably released. Over 40 tracks are planned for the game, not including songs that may play during cutscenes.
One of the promises made in the initial Kickstarter pitch was that Cosmic Star Heroine would respect players’ time by making interactions meaningful and minimizing grinding. While I certainly encountered more than a few battles, I didn’t have that eye-rolling “here we go again” moment. Because you can see each group of enemies ahead and because those monsters don’t respawn, each victory feels like a tangible gain. You’re opening more areas to explore. Leveling occurs at a brisk pace and feels very balanced.
My time with Cosmic Star Heroine was quite a rollercoaster. I was ambushed by forest creatures, came across a bunch of slaughtered terrorists, broke into the research center, and went toe-to-toe with the rogue experiment that had been ripping apart the elite teams sent in to put it down. To be perfectly blunt, Cosmic Star Heroine is the kind of RPG that sucks you in and doesn’t want to let go. I love Zeboyd’s past work, which initially put Cosmic Star Heroine on my radar, but it has now jumped up my priority list quite a bit after some hands-on time.
Cosmic Star Heroine will release sometime in 2015 for PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita.
Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 06/29/15