So I’ve used the words “homage” and “tribute” to death in my reviews, and, based on the titles that come to the Nintendo Switch, it hasn’t totally been without cause. People love to make games that are simply dripping with the ichor of titles gone by, be they Zelda-flavored explorations, Metroid shaped chasms or even Mario-inspired platformers. But there’s a word that sometimes sums up the effect a bit more effectively, giving plenty of credence to the original while still acknowledging the hard work of this new product. That word is pastiche, and I don’t use it often enough to properly convey the effect of a game. Thankfully, Zeboyd Games has, in the past, made parodies that didn’t quite fit the title: Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII are fun, in their own right, but not quite there. But, with Cosmic Star Heroine, the company officially creates a pastiche of 16-bit JRPGS, creating their own fantastic work while still getting in some ribbing and humor at the old school games.
Cosmic Star Heroine is primarily about Alyssa L’Salle, who is the top agent at the Agency of Peace & Intelligence. The Agency’s primary goal is to keep the galaxy safe, making sure to root out evils, thwart terrorist plots and making good decisions for everyone involved. Alyssa works with a small collective of people, including the slightly roguish Chahn, a gunmancer that can control a series of kickass pistols with her mind. Alyssa was good at her job, loved doing it, never really questioned her position of being on the “right” side of things…UNTIL THE DAY SHE DID. Alyssa, after about an hour and change of gameplay, will uncover a conspiracy so horrific that she is forced to abandon her Agency and some of her colleagues, fighting against two-sided stories and deep secrets to uncover the truth and save the galaxy! And if you can’t see the seething, ridiculous level of tropes going on here, I’m almost envious that you haven’t dabbled in as many sci-fi movies/books/games as I have.
Right out the gate, if you’re not into retreading common foils and plot elements, then you might need to stop reading the review immediately. Cosmic Star Heroine has a ton of heart, original themes and ideas and genuine moments, but they are all built on top of a framework that’s purposely referential. This isn’t just a callout to the SNES versions of JRPGS, this looks and feels like it could have existed in that era, seamlessly, bumping somewhere between Seventh Saga and Secret of Evermore. Zeboyd Games makes no apologies about the clear influences from titles like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger and, to a lesser extent, Cosmic Fantasy 2. The big fascination and enjoyment from the game comes from being drawn in by the familiar aesthetic and design and then, immediately, realizing what’s original and different.
Firstly, Cosmic Star Heroine has a pretty solid setup when it comes to combat. Turn based though it may be, each character develops certain skills and attacks as they level up, and some skills can only be used once per battle (with the occasional “defend” option to recharge the skills). Moreover, as you use attacks and items, you build up your Style, which, when maxed out, you can deliver an extra powerful hit or heal. Additionally, the inclusion of Desperation: a chance for certain characters to have one final gambit when their HP drops below zero, either to immediately heal themselves or put it all into a last, ultra-powerful attack that can decide the winner or loser. This is on top of the already well known ideas of elemental weaknesses and resistances, equipment, status ailments, consumable item-based boosts and synergizing with party members to deliver different flavored attacks. It might be well trodden in some places, but Cosmic Star Heroine delivers the goods.
Additionally, I frigging adore the art style of the game. Not only are the sprites on the overworld straight out of a great Final Fantasy fan game, the portraits and cut scenes feel even older, evoking memories of anime from the early 80s. This is where the game shows more influence from the Turbo Duo era, and that’s not a bad thing. The flair with design gives better understanding and legitimacy to the tropes and occasionally predictable plot turns, which work out okay because that’s what the game is intending to deliver. There are a series of games that have been released on smartphones and various handheld game consoles that all seek to emulate the look and feel of games from yesteryear with a couple of small tweaks added in. A complex crafting system, for example, or a gatcha system based on either in app purchases or coins found throughout the game world. Some people look to these titles as good examples of what modern imitation of retro RPGs could or should be like, and Cosmic Star Heroine defeats this argument with almost no strain or effort. The camp, combined with a careful handling of source ideas, help to create something that’s sincere, successful and, in a pinch, a good role model.
Best of all, Zeboyd understands that fans may not all be created equally, and the scaling difficulty system is in place, available to be changed at any time, and really lives up to its name. The four level slider goes from “Tourist” to “Super-Spy,” and you had best take these watermarks seriously. If you honestly just want to enjoy the plot, the twists and turns, and the journey towards saving civilization from the future, stick the difficulty on Tourist. Sure, you can still strategize if you want to, but the amount of damage that you take is laughable, combined with your own heroes being overpowered to an almost unfair point. As an experiment, I took one of the first major bosses that you encounter (a massive energy dragon mecha) and replayed it on all four levels. A Tourist is able to wreck the thing without using any items or, if you’re really good with well-timed status ailments, no healing spells. Heroine is probably the sweet spot for the game: a nice challenge, asking you to figure out weaknesses and timing on the fly without too heavy of a penalty. Super-Spy is just bananas, and even advertised as “not for the first playthrough.” You basically need to have things memorized, know exactly what fights you’ll be encountering, and, even then, you gotta be ready to eat your damn shoe to survive. No matter how much you were a badass in other games, you really don’t want to go to Super-Spy at first.
But there’s just one thing that Cosmic Star Heroine manages to capture perfectly, and it’s the atmosphere of the classic JRPG. Specifically, and it must be said, this feels like it captures the very best elements of Chrono Trigger. Most encounters you can see coming and potentially avoid, but there are a couple that jump out of nowhere. Learning and balancing the strengths and weaknesses of your party, coupled with those of the foes you face, lead to faster leveling and better results. Exploration, even a little, can unearth great treasures that make the game smoother and more fun. There’s charm and humor intermixed with a solid story and storytelling, and you find yourself eager to actually interact with different items. Zeboyd has also put in a ton of game references peppered throughout, from modern titles to classics (the Resident Evil joke near the beginning is one of my favorites). Despite being a game made today, this feels like I would have saved up allowance for months, or at least begged for my birthday, to own this game back in the 90s. And that’s not because it looks older or has a kickass soundtrack: it’s because it breathes and exudes the spirit of what made those games great. Memorable characters and settings, shocking encounters, a desire to grind up levels without becoming bored…it’s all here.
It goes without saying that Cosmic Star Heroine is a must get, and, in the summer of Switch JRPGs, this manages to stand out and draw attention in spite of not being a AAA title or coming from Square Enix. If you want to keep your head above water and not drown in amazing games, grab Cosmic Star Heroine immediately: it’s got you for about 13 hours, which is more than decent, and you won’t regret it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.