…they’re getting there.
Zeboyd Games is a development studio that’s hard not to root for. It’s one of the few studios bringing professional talent to bare on reviving the look and feel of the golden age of SNES era JRPGs while updating them to reflect modern sensibilities. In an era of independent studios exploring new ideas and mindlessly copying old ones in equal measure, Zeboyd tries to take the best of both approaches. Sadly, for all the good intentions behind Cosmic Star Heroine, it reflects the very real limitations of the development studio that made it.
The game begins with titular star Alyssa La Salle, infiltrating a robotics factory on behalf of a secretive government agency to stop a terrorist attack. Le Salle ultimately discovers sordid motivations of her employer and must defend the galaxy from a new evil with the help of a large cast of characters. The setup is standard for most JRPGs, but Zeboyd’s additions are sadly to the game’s detriment. Most notably is the rushed approach the developer takes to the plot points. CSH feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of a larger game with smaller narratives almost absent and major developments lacking connective tissue to link them together. The broad story beats manage to stay (mostly) consistent, but the lightening speed robs the characters of time to develop. Each of the game’s substantial cast gets a mini mission, but none move past their initial archetype into anything interesting. Nor is the dialogue well written as Zeboyd falls back on the humor of their previous games rather than invest in earnest character development needed for a space opera. The fundamental problem of Cosmic Star Heroine’s narrative is scope where the developer clearly wanted a larger story and cast than they could support. The end result is a narrative and cast that can’t move beyond the basics.
Unlike the story, the gameplay’s ambition largely pays off, but is in sore need of polish before declaring it a success. Fights are patterned off Chrono Trigger without the active time battle system. Instead, characters attack based on their speed relative to their team and then the opposing team takes a turn. The attacks reflect the usual array of elemental weaknesses and status effects, but with the interesting twist of including style points and bursts. Most attacks boost the characters’ style which increases the potency of successive attacks. The style fills up a burst meter which unlocks super powerful moves that deplete style and burst. This creates a tension between increasing style and executing powerful burst attacks. It’s an interesting system, but lacks feedback. Despite having played the game for over 12 hours, I’m still unsure of the exact effect style has and how it changes the damage rolls. Add in a wide variety of attacks and the combat feels deep without helping the player understand that depth. More devoted players will certainly create powerful combos, but less invested gamers will fumble through while periodically wondering why an attack failed.
While much of Cosmic Star Heroine needs more time, the graphics and sound truly shine. The retrofuturistic environments feel gritty and neon in a way that remains true to the 1980s’ vision. The songs create mood while still including a few hummable tunes. It’s hard not to ascribe some of the success of the aesthetic to the scoping that Zeboyd failed to apply to the rest of the game. Environmental assets were clearly designed to be reused so that they could be repeated rather than needing whole new iterations. Songs don’t last very long, but the short dungeons and constant scene shifts ensure that no track wears out its welcome. Smart creation and deployment of the visual and sound design result in these being the stand out elements of the game.
Cosmic Star Heroine isn’t a bad game. For gamers interested in an SNES era JRPG nostalgia trip, CSH will scratch that itch. Unfortunately, the story blemishes and gameplay clumsiness won’t bring new players into the fold. On the broader scale, I hope that Zeboyd Games learns from their first outing into serious JRPG land. They’ve nailed the feel of the era, but need to work on the quality of the story telling if they really want to establish new classics of their own.