Disclaimer: While I did purchase this soundtrack of my own accord, I hold HyperDuck SoundWorks in high regard and am acquainted with Chris Geehan. I will attempt to remain objective in this review, but if the reader detects a hint of bias, this information may explain the source of said bias.
Clocking in at exactly two hours, the soundtrack for Zeboyd Games’ Cosmic Star Heroine may be the most ambitious project the HyperDuck duo has taken on to date. For those unfamiliar, this two-person team has done some great work in the past, including a previous Zeboyd title, (Penny Arcade 4), as well as the indie darling DUST: An Elysian Tail. So what makes CSH stand out?
For starters, the setting and subgenre of this pseudo-JRPG left HyperDuck with no choice but to take their music in fun, new directions. For those of you who haven’t checked out CSH, the game plays like a love letter to some of the best JRPGs of the 16- and 32-bit eras, including (but not limited to) Chrono Trigger, Suikoden, Phantasy Star IV, and Star Ocean. The game sports a large cast of playable characters, each with their own theme song. The three major areas in the game are three planets: Araenu, Rhomu, and Nuluup. Each planet has distinct natural and cultural environs, which call for distinct music in both the calm areas and the dungeons.
And then, of course, there are a bevy of great battle themes. You knew that already, right?
Finally, there’s HyperDuck’s continued working relationship with the incredible Laura Shigihara. Shigihara, who has gone from being a composer and performer to becoming a game developer in her own right (Rakuen), takes on the persona of playable character Lauren in CSH. In one particularly awesome cutscene, Lauren and her band perform a song called “Iikaesu no yo” (translated as “Talk Back”). The lyrics switch between Japanese and English from one line to the next, much like many J-pop and J-rock songs. But the entire feel and beat of this song make it unforgettable. I am reminded of the scene in the movie version of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World when the band The Clash At Demonhead covers Metric’s “Black Sheep.” Be sure to check out the cutscene for yourself.
As cool as that song is, it’s only a taste of what you’ll find on the full 50+ track OST. Right from the start, the soundtrack is full of upbeat, synth-heavy tunes fit for a sci-fi/fantasy title. The first three tracks tell much of the story: title screen music, protagonist Alyssa L’Salle’s theme, and the standard battle theme. The style itself hearkens back to one of HyperDuck’s earliest soundtracks (A.R.E.S.), but with the notable difference of more complex composition and higher quality instrumentation. Some of that, of course, is just better software, but the rest comes in the form of knowing advanced methods for working the synths, whether in recording from a keyboard (performance aspect) or editing after recording (mixing aspect).
If you want to hear some really unforgettable character themes, check out “Bolo Punch” and “The Hustler” on this page. There are so many more, and they’re all great in their own way. But the funky, disco-esque sound of “The Hustler” is probably one of my favorites.
As for environmental music, I gotta give it up for “Araenu.” Strangley, while the planet Araneu is the game’s starting location, its main musical theme appears very late on the soundtrack, long after the theme music for Nuluup and Rhomu. Whatever reasoning HyperDuck had for making the track order only semi-chronological, there’s no question that “Araenu” stands out as one of the best-produced tracks on the entire OST. It’s all about that smoky barroom jazz feel, especially with the brass and saxophone. Many of the environmental themes are strong; some of them are more ethereal, along the lines of what appeared in DUST and Penny Arcade 4. But “Araenu” shines as a special example.
I don’t necessarily like the task of ranking a musician’s work, but if I were hard-pressed to do so with HyperDuck, I think the latest is also the greatest. Cosmic Star Heroine is not only my favorite Zeboyd Games title to date, it’s my favorite soundtrack from HyperDuck to date. The only question that remains in my mind is this: if Zeboyd and HyperDuck join hands again for another title, can they keep up with this level of quality? I had honestly thought that it would be difficult for HyperDuck to outdo their work on DUST — a beautiful soundtrack in its own right. But somehow, they did it anyway with CSH. They hit the sweet spot of high quality and high quantity, and I imagine they spent hundreds of hours putting this all together. If the audio samples strike you in the way they struck me, hit that Bandcamp link above so you can add this soundtrack to your personal library.