Listen to the article as an audio sidecast over on the Clod of War podcast 1
Cosmic Star Heroine 2 is a journey back into the world of 16-bit JRPG’s, with a cybernetic eye firmly focused on the future of streamlining mechanics and story for modern players. The retro styled, turn based party adventure is deftly crafted to invoke nostalgia whilst providing the warm glow of admiration at just how enjoyable and smooth the gameplay feels. The 1980’s cyberpunk theme of the game rounds off the slick package, accompanied by a stirring emotive soundtrack by Hyperduck Soundworks.
Developed by Zeboyd Games 3, veterans of previous RPGs such as Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World and four incarnations of Penny Arcade’s On the Precipice of Darkness. They kickstarted the game at the beginning of 2014 with a view to releasing at the end of the same year. A total of 6,400 people backed it for a healthy sum of around $132,689. This was obviously a title that the Zeboyd fans really wanted.
After a lengthy and troublesome period of development, the game was finally released in April 2017. I’m so pleased that the Zeboyd team managed to craft this gem of a game, and in such good shape. Since release on the PC the game is now available on most Playstation platforms, the PS4 and the Vita, with an Xbox and Switch version in the making. The epic cyber adventures of A’lyssa and her companions deserves as wider audience as possible.
Cosmic Star Heroine is a traditional JRPG with all the usual tropes and nonsense removed. It delivers an engagingly clever cyberpunk spy story, woven around a roster of endearing personalities and their unique futuristic skills. As the story develops a cast of eleven characters will come into play and you’ll be able to mix and match their strengths into a cohesive team of four.
During combat the tactical choices available to you are refreshingly numerous, even at the start of the game, with only a few characters, you can experiment with their interlocking abilities, items, or programs.
Each character can have up to eight abilities in their skill slots pulled from their total number of skills acquired through levelling up. Apart from a basic attack ability that can be reused, most abilities have only a single charge and to use them again in battle you need to recharge them with a defensive ability. You have seven skill slots for customisation and a defensive slot for skill rechargers.
All characters in your party have access to a shared but limited item inventory. You collect items from loot chests during your adventures, and once slotted they have a single charge during any given battle. They recharge between battles.
As part of the equipment system, each character will have a shield and stored within that are programs. If the characters “Hackitude” stat is high enough to meet the program requirement, then they’ll be able to run the single-charge program. Programs also recharge between battles. A character can equip different shields to make available a selection of programs, however they need to be tech-savvy enough to be able to execute their code in battle.
Accessories are another piece of equipment and are generally slight stat modifiers or boosts to particular skills.
Weapons tend to be geared around each characters unique fighting style, so A’Lyssa will use better and better versions of the charged Cyber-Bo fighting stick, Chahn uses her pistols with her Gunmancy skill to summon multiple firearms and unleash a deadly hail of cyber bullets, and Dave the techie guy uses a tablet to hack. The weapon, skills, fighting style and the characterisation are so tightly woven that changing weapon types would dilute the special relation you form with the character.
One of the more appealing features of the combat is that it simply opens into the area where you engaged the enemy. It does away with the tropey jolt to immersion, of being whisked into a separate almost unrecognisable area to deal with the battle. You actually fight, at the place where you initiated combat. There are no random battles, you see all enemies in the immediate area, and you can attempt to avoid them, or bump into them to engage.
Turn based combat is kept fresh and pacey, by interleaving two “boost” mechanics over the top of the skills/items and programs systems.
The first is called “Style” and it is a percentage representation of your increasing proficiency during combat, it grows the more moves you make. More Style means you inflict more damage and have a better chance at landing negative ailments onto the enemy. However, enemies gain Style as the battle progresses too, so the more protracted the combat, the harder it becomes. If your Style is 100% you are effectively doing twice the damage. If your Style is over 50% when your character takes a fatal hit, they shift into a “desperation” mode, where they can survive one more round and if healed (at a reduced efficiency) they evade death.
The second is called “Hyper” and it is a true staged boost, whereby each character has a segmented or pipped bar beneath their health, and on each turn they gain a “Hyper point” that fills a segment or pip. When the Hyper bar is full the character goes into “Hyper mode” (the character UI lights up glowing yellow) where their damage and ailment success doubles.
Since you know the turn order, and you can see the Hyper bar filling, you can plan devastatingly boosted attacks using the Hyper mode at the right time on the right skill.
The gradual increase of a characters efficiency through Style and the cyclic planning of co-ordinating Hyper mode hits between characters really adds a lot of higher level strategy and satisfaction to the combat than just popping off offensive and defensive skills.
Some of the set peice action is choreographed well and drops surprises on you in terms of scale and presentation. One of my early favourites being your battle with an enemy who pilots a large multi-sectioned mech, and later you take part in a kaiju style mech/monster battle yourself.
The pixel art is stunningly hand crafted with adorably animated cut scenes. One of my favourite character introductions, is that of Lauren, leading into an indie band concert, an emotive video and a battle afterwards. Memorable moments, cementing the ethos of the character with some good art direction.
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The planetary exploration never feels like a chore, exploring the area is worth while to find additional items to add to your arsenal. You’re always focused on the next storied objective, but you have time and space to admire, adore and immerse yourself in the pixel art cyber future.
Soundwise its a real homage to 80’s cyberpunk electronica and it exquisitely sets the thematic tone for whole adventure. Hyperduck SoundWorks 6 have really composed a high octane future sound for the meatspace of our nostalgic past, and it is aurally beautiful and tragically poetic like tears in rain.
Cosmic Star Heroine is a real pleasure to play, evoking simpler times but enhancing our memories, with newer streamlined, less tropey, upgrades to our combat, to our characterisations, to our stories, to our expectations.
However, be warned, it will give you a unquenchable thirst for the Cyberpunk & SciFi future and you’ll spend the rest of your time searching for games that will satiate your tech-heavy dystopian craving.
For more insights into the game, check out Episode 58 of the Nintendo Duel Screen Podcast 7.