Cosmic Star Heroine

So, I clearly haven’t updated things for a while. This was for two reasons. One: the Indie Game Making Contest returned after a few years and I had an idea for a short game; I was feeling some fatigue from my current game project, so I said “why not?” and decided to delve right in.

Secondly: I caught COVID-19. I’ve pretty much been in agony for at least a week, by now. At one point, I was stuck in bed because my body was too out of it to move around. The only thing that saved me from being fucked financially was from my participation in the Queer Games Bundle, so hey, thanks to everyone that bought that.

But you know what? Being stuck in bed was the perfect opportunity to play something from my backlog that could be good for this blog. And so, I finally got around to playing something I only touched for ten minutes back in 2017: the PS4 version of Cosmic Star Heroine.

Cosmic Star Heroine is a 2017 turn-based RPG by Zeboyd Games. So, I have played a few of Zeboyd Games’ stuff before. Most of their output have been simple comedy RPGs, with Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World being their representative works. They also made two Penny Arcade games during the period where gaming webcomics had clout.

However, then came Cosmic Star Heroine. While the footprints of their earlier works can be found in this game, Cosmic Star Heroine’s come out to be the studio’s most defining work. It’s bigger and way more ambitious – at least, in some aspects – and it was high time for me to finally check it out.

You play as Alyssa, an agent of the Earth’s Agency of Peace & Intelligence, who goes around keeping the peace as a supercop. After foiling a terrorist plot, she’s assigned the task of retrieving experimental mind control technology that a terrorist organization’s looking for and… whoops! Turns out her boss wants to use the technology to enforce an authoritarian rule of peace over the galaxy! Maybe being a supercop for something called the Agency of Peace & Intelligence is bad, actually. And so, she becomes enemy of the state and joins the terrorists to keep the technology out of the hands of evil and be the true hero of justice she sees herself to be.

That sounds like a cool story, right? Well. We’ll get to that.

Cosmic Star Heroine’s combat brings some turn-based goodness with its own unique quirks to differentiate itself from other games. For one thing, Cosmic Star Heroine brings in the style system. Using most moves builds up style, and the more style you have, the more effective a move can get; additionally, having a high style lets a character survive a fatal hit and lets them survive if they can heal back into the positives.

Of course, enemies build up style too, which means that screwing around could lead to enemies rapidly building up the strength to steamroll you. This is actually pretty reflective of Zeboyd Games’ earlier original RPGs, which had enemies grow progressively stronger with every turn. Of course, this time you get to take advantage of the same system – though, this means that getting knocked down is more brutal than it would normally be, since your style will be set back a bunch.

There is no “MP” system, but most moves can only be used once. A moveset must then be recharged through a guard move, which creates a sense of flow with moving between offensive and defensive play. That recharge move can also be changed to something else depending on the character for different effects, like Arete getting a free attack in on all enemies and Psybe buffing the party’s attack.

Of course, you shouldn’t use your moves willy-nilly, and that’s enforced by the hyper system. After a set amount of turns (which is different for every character), they go into a hyper mode that charges the power of whatever’s used even further that turn. Ideally, you’d be using weaker moves to build up style so that a stronger one would be used within hyper as a combo maneuver, so you have to plan your move usage in advance. You can be setting up for those combos, or if the situation calls for it, you can use up that hyper to heal up an ally for a lot if they really need that healing..

I do have a problem with the battle system though, and it’s that there’s really no way to track buffs. You can keep track of status effects, but anything that isn’t a status effect goes unrecorded. It’s debatably not a big deal because you can so very easily reuse stuff Chahn’s defense buffs whenever as long as it’s available, but also, if much of the combat relies on planning out your skill usage turns in advance, the game should enable you to keep track of the state of the party over those turns.

Overall though, the battle system in Cosmic Star Heroine is solid and offers a fantastic sense of flow to the fighting. Further aiding it is that you don’t really have to worry about resources like you usually would. Items are once-a-battle use things (unless you use it with certain abilities), and the party is healed to full after every battle. All encounters are on the map so they can potentially be avoided, and they’re permanently gone after being cleared.

Grinding is also not an issue since reserve party members also level with the active ones, though you won’t be informed if anyone not in use learns a new skill, so you’re on your own for that, and man there’s a lot of skills. Besides switching around skills and items, you’d also be switching around shields. While it’d be easy to just stick with the shields that give the best defense, most of them also provide bonus skills and passives that are unlocked depending on your stats, so it may be worth sticking with worse stats for the sake of an expanded skillset. Overall, party stuff is welcoming while offering a lot of customizability.

Now, another thing to praise about the game is the visuals. The game’s pixel art is just fucking gorgeous. The character animations are expressive and while I’ll have some Thoughts on the characters later, I do like the character designs. But really, Cosmic Star Heroine’s visual style most shines in its environments. The environments look very solid, which makes me appreciate battles happening directly on the map instead of a separate screen even more. This is easily Cosmic Star Heroine’s strongest aspect.

Though, that’s not to say that the music department is slacking, either. Hyperduck Soundworks’ soundtrack is pretty strong stuff fitting within the sensibilities of older JRPGs while capturing the setting’s sci-fi flair. Each character also has their own theme, though for most of them you’ll only be hearing them in short bursts because they only play in scenes that focus on them. Overall though, the soundtrack is pretty good. The overall sound design of the game could use some work, like sound effects being louder or quiet than they should or animations lacking sound effects to accentuate them, but I can deal with it.

So hey, you may be wondering: what do I think about Cosmic Star Heroine’s story? I usually talk way more about the story than the gameplay when I talk about RPGs on this site, so surely, I must have a lot to say, right?

Well, I do have a bunch to say, but it’s not going to be a plot analysis. The thing is, I easily consider the writing to be the weakest part of Cosmic Star Heroine.

I found it really hard to be invested in anything at all. I’m not exactly asking for there to be big emotional stakes, just something to be invested in. Like, what does the conflict mean to this character? Or hell, they don’t even need to have stakes, I’d just like it if they said something interesting about something that happens.

And the unfortunate part of Cosmic Star Heroine is that the characters… just aren’t there.

The main character, Alyssa, has a neat design, sure, but she isn’t interesting. Interesting things happen to her like being set up to die as a martyr by the API, but it does not affect her at all. There’s a really absurd sequence of events where she almost gets assassinated, almost gets assassinated again by an unrelated guy, then joins that assassin to fight a giant mech which she then uses to fight a giant monster. This all sounds super important, right? Well, there’s no lasting impact on either her or the world. I’m not even asking for character development from it, I want her or someone else to say something about it because it was just such a bizarrely paced series of events that I was convinced that Covid was fucking my perception up until I checked it out again on youtube.

The assorted party members you get in the game don’t fare much better. If you don’t like a character on first impression, too bad, because for most of them that’s unlikely to change. Like, Finn could just get excised from the plot completely, because his only actual role is to give you an extra Guy to help Alyssa out during her multiple assassination attempts and he’s ride and die with Alyssa afterward for no real reason.

I’ve played a bunch of SaGa: Scarlet Grace, and that very much is a game that’s combat first, everything else second – to the point that exploration is just walking around on a picture. However, even with the minimal plot and character development, there was still a sense of things Happening in the game. Interesting things pop up, like different factions fighting over some churro vendor creating a tower to honor the gods, and seeing that questline through has the permanent consequence of a tower overlooking things and a new party member. You affect the world and get something meaningful from it, which makes me feel invested. Meanwhile in Cosmic Star Heroine, Sue is like “oh yeah, I have a son in prison, maybe we should save him, I dunno, up to you boss” as a completely optional thing that doesn’t change anything besides giving some equipment, I guess.

I feel that stuff like this would be more forgivable for different games, and it’s because Cosmic Star Heroine creates the impression that things should matter more. Because like, on the surface, interesting things are happening. There’s that stuff I mentioned earlier with Alyssa, but the whole general plot of keeping mind control technology out of the hands of an organization that the galaxy sees as benevolent? That should be cool! All these things create the impression of a serious sci-fi story, which paints my expectations of what I should expect from the game, and in general, the game does not live up to any of the expectations the game sets.

Like, you know what? If Cosmic Star Heroine was a game with far lower stakes and was just about a crew of people going around solving space crimes, I don’t think I’d have minded as much, because the context wouldn’t lead me into reading things that aren’t there. Or, maybe have the same stakes but introduce them later on so that tension can be built instead of Alyssa realizing her boss is evil within the first 3 hours. Do the assassin stuff but keep the initial hit ambiguous to leave some mystery hanging in the air. You know, do something.

I just felt… no drive to keep playing this game. I usually resolve to see the end of a game, but I feel like getting more than 12 hours into a game and losing interest in it says enough about the core experience. There’s just no narrative hook keeping me going, and there aren’t any characters that I particularly stan to make me want to see things through for their sake. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that one of the lead developers saw my tweet asking if it’s worth finishing the game and suggested that I just bail. Like, thank you, but also, I’m very sorry.

I will say, I was more into the game’s story in the first few hours. This is partly because all the stakes aren’t laid out yet, but also partly because there’s actual character banter here. Your initial party members have a clear history with Alyssa and have a rapport that’s just absent from most other party members. In fact, I actively dreaded getting new party members because that’s time that could have been spent having the other, pre-existing party members around.

This might come down to personal taste, but I really prefer having a small but strong central cast over a large one that’s more concept than character.

Of course, I’m saying this as somebody who is mainly drawn in by the story part of RPGs. While I think some things need more polishing, the rest of the package is actually pretty solid. The battle system is good, its presentation is good, and if that’s all you need, Cosmic Star Heroine may be a game for you.

Ultimately, Cosmic Star Heroine’s quality depends on what you want out of your RPGs. I can easily say that it’s not for me, but I can definitely see why other people can get really into it. Zeboyd Games is currently making a new RPG, This Way Madness Lies, a magical girl themed RPG, and while I can count on the game having strong gameplay, I hope that it’s better in the story department.

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