IndieRPGs.com Checks Out Cosmic Star Heroine

Hello friends! I’ve once again managed to eke out a few hours of uninterrupted time at home to take a look at an indie RPG sent to me by the developer; this time around, it’s the sci-fi jRPG Cosmic Star Heroine by Zeboyd Games.

With FRAPS a-frappin’ and mouth a-yappin’, I experienced the first 50 minutes or so of the game in such a way as to let you easily follow along:

So–what’d I think?

My initial impressions of Cosmic Star Heroine are broadly positive. I’ll start with the obvious: this is Zeboyd Games’s most visually polished work to date, with some genuinely impressive sprite animations and honest-to-goodness pixel art cut scenes. For a two-person studio, this is quite the accomplishment. HyperDuck SoundWorks also deserves a nod for the soundtrack, which is quality.

But enough about aesthetics: let’s get down to brass tacks. This is a jRPG in the Chrono Trigger mold, with large sprites rendered in 16-bit palettes (or at least, something designed to look like them) as well as visible, avoidable enemy fights that take place right there on the same map you explore on.

CSH’s dialogue strikes me as competently written, and I actively enjoyed the smattering of NPC dialogue I experienced during my time playing. The actual plot hasn’t gripped me yet. Thus far, it’s run-of-the-mill action movie stuff that–while unusual for an RPG–is still not especially interesting on its merits. (I can practically feel the game revving up to throw a “the director of your spy agency has betrayed you” twist at me.) I’m sort of indifferent to the cast as well right now, but I trust that these characters will get developed and grow on me as time goes on, in proper jRPG fashion.

The big thing that I really, really like so far from a narrative standpoint is the game’s setting. Cosmic Star Heroine is aggressively sci-fi; in fact, it might even be properly cyberpunk if it weren’t for an omnipresent pulp sensibility that keeps the game from taking itself too seriously. Cosmic Star Heroine presents a vision of a post-human dystopian future where people still have a sense of humor and interact with one another like actual people, a premise that I find immensely appealing.

Speaking of interaction: Zeboyd were clearly experimenting with alternatives to conventional core jRPG mechanics when they sat down to make this game. It’s something of a truism that a good turn-based combat system forces the player to make meaningful choices on every turn, and Cosmic Star Heroine rises to this challenge by situating itself right next to Cooldown Alley. Most of a character’s combat abilities in CSH are one-use, requiring a periodic “refresh” by having the character defend for a turn. This means that each choice you make limits your choices going forward, and you need to think ahead a bit when deciding what to do next.

Luckily, defending is not a waste of a turn here. CSH takes a design approach to the Defend command that I’ve seen in several other jRPGs recently, lumping in health regeneration (or other bonuses) to make defending tactically useful in and of itself. Moreso than in most traditional jRPGs, Cosmic Star Heroine’s combat is about knowing when to use your abilities for best effect.

Following recent trends in the jRPG space, Cosmic Star Heroine also goes all-in in favor of locating its challenge within individual fights rather than in making the player manage and conserve resources over the course of exploring an area. Player health fully regenerates at the end of any given fight, and consumable items are completely removed from the picture to boot. (This makes a certain amount of sense from a thematic standpoint: in a futuristic world where everything is digital, why should anything degrade?)

The one design choice that I wasn’t able to make sense of during the first hour was perhaps the one most unique to Cosmic Star Heroine: namely, the ever-increasing style gauge, which renders combat increasingly deadly with every turn a fight drags on.

Is the idea to boost combat damage every turn to keep fights from dragging on too long? If so, why couldn’t this be remedied by simply giving characters less health relative to the damage their opponents do? Is it meant to punish players for making suboptimal decisions that result in prolonged fights–and if so, why does it increase the player’s own damage as well? Is it to make fights less predictable by adding a confounding factor into damage calculations? Is it merely meant to mimic the ever-ratcheting tension (and elaborateness of attacks) employed in classic kung fu movie fight scenes? Whatever the reason, I’m not sure that this system achieves its intended purpose–but on the plus side, I didn’t notice it actively detracting from the fights, either. Maybe it’s just one of those things that will make sense if I keep playing.

And as for that: based on what I experienced in that first not-quite-an-hour, I would in fact keep playing. I very much like the setting, and I’m curious to see how the game’s combat system evolves over time (I’m informed that there will be proper combo attacks!)

Cosmic Star Heroine is $14.99, available through Steam, Humble, and the Playstation Store–links to these here.

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