Nostalgia is a powerful emotional driver, so it’s no surprise people make so many attempts to recapture the cherished moments and memories of their pasts. Video games are no exception to this phenomenon, and the last decade or so has seen an influx of games aiming to pay tribute to what many consider the golden age of RPGs: the 16-bit era. Cosmic Star Heroine is one such tribute looking to invoke the specter of bygone classics like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star. Is it another half-hearted attempt to cash in our nostalgia or a heartfelt tribute to the jewels of our video game past?.
Cosmic Star Heroine opens with Alyssa L’Salle, secret agent for the Agency of Peace & Intelligence, infiltrating a corporation’s headquarters on a hostage rescue mission. Just when the situation seems resolved, it’s revealed that the criminals’ actual goal was to detonate a mass casualty-inducing explosive inside the building. This leaves our heroine with little choice but to risk her life by finding the device, defusing it, and escaping in one piece.
It’s a stylish and engaging opening that’s as fantastically 16-bit-era as promised, and the retro visuals and music portend the aesthetically pleasing adventure awaiting players as they guide Alyssa through Cosmic Star Heroine’s narrative. Keep a sharp lookout for that narrative, however, lest it fly by you as it blazes toward the story’s climax. Blink, and you could very well miss it.
One of the features marketed by the developer is that it has “brisk pacing that respects your time!” Indeed, Cosmic Star Heroine shows little appetite for exposition or fleshing out most elements of its story or world-building. In fact, the massive betrayal that most games build up to actually occurs at the very beginning of the story and before you get to know (or care about) any of the characters. From this betrayal, you’re pulled through the story at a breakneck pace, at times jumping through multiple consecutive dungeons with little narrative to show for it. It’s hard to tell whether this really was an intentional design choice or the result of limited resources, but the cookie-cutter story with bland and undeveloped characters is without a doubt the game’s weakest attribute.
The battle system is a bit of a mixed bag, though I suspect your mileage may vary based on the four difficulty levels Cosmic Star Heroine offers. I played on Heroine, the second-to-highest difficulty, and battles felt mostly well-balanced in terms of challenge and strategy. Battles take place on the area map with enemies that can be avoided if you so choose. Instead of a typical magic or skill point system, Cosmic Star Heroine structures combat around singular skill and item usage. Specifically, most skills can only be used once before you need to use the character’s “reset” skill to recharge them.
The impact of each skill is determined by several factors. First, characters stack “Style” through the duration of the battle that acts to enhance the strength of executed skills. The higher the Style, the stronger the attack or heal. Second, characters can go into Hyper mode where their skills’ effects are doubled. Third, enemies can be inflicted with the “vulnerable” status ailment that increases the damage they take from your next attack. Finally, some attacks have elemental properties that align with enemy weaknesses, such as water and fire. The end result of all of this means that, when properly sequenced, your attacks can cause ridiculous amounts of satisfyingly preplanned carnage. It’s a delightful little battle system that is simple yet complex and keeps battles feeling fresh throughout your playthrough.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is hindered a bit by an initial tutorial data dump at the beginning of the game and (at the time of this writing) lack of an in-game tutorial menu or digital manual. You’ll figure it out eventually, but constructs like enemy “ailment HP” remain frustratingly opaque until the very end. Additionally, and I feel obligated to call this out because of how this feature was marketed, the “multi-character combo techniques” only boil down to Alyssa having one combo attack with each party member. There’s a fine line between critiquing a game for what it is and unfairly dinging it for what it isn’t, but certain expectations were set by the developer that don’t really pan out. A Chrono Trigger-like combo system is one such expectation that went unmet.
Dungeons are visually appealing, but they’re generally short and mostly dull affairs in and of themselves. There are some elementary puzzle-like requirements to a few of them, but otherwise you’re getting from point A to point B and simply advancing the narrative. On the topic of visuals, the 16-bit graphics are well done, quite varied, and the character sprites in particular have an indelible charm. Likewise, the soundtrack by HyperDuck SoundWorks enhances the game’s overall aesthetic value exponentially with its eclectic mix of horns, funky pop synths, and Western-esque guitar strums.
While the 16-bit-RPG-throwback genre is certainly not lacking for participants, Cosmic Star Heroine stands near the head of the class in terms of accurately capturing the audiovisual essence of the era. It falls short on invoking the character and captivating allure of the worlds imagined by the forebearers it aims to honor, however. It’s a solid game in its own right, but going in understanding it’s more homage than classic will temper expectations and enable you to appreciate it for what it is rather than what it is not. After all, even the best cover bands aren’t able to completely emulate the enduring magic of their source material.