by Jed Pressgrove
There’s a reason Cosmic Star Heroine has an uncomplicated, unpretentious, unemotional spy plot: developer Zeboyd Games sees turn-based combat as an artform that can almost single-handedly justify the existence of a game. Sure, Cosmic Star Heroine has an interesting cast (the 11 playable characters include a nature-loving private eye, a robot who hits on both sexes, and a bounty hunter who recalls Final Fantasy VI’s Shadow and the Japanese movie alien Zeiram), as well as some well-designed settings enriched by HyperDuck’s catchy soundtrack (like the night-club location that benefits from this pop smartbomb). But all of these things ultimately amount to gift wrapping as Cosmic Star Heroine zips toward the next series of fights that demand a unique type of forward-thinking play.
On the surface, Cosmic Star Heroine is a Chrono Trigger wannabe, as seen in the way the characters run, the style of the overworld map, and the enemy encounters. The latter element in particular is a necessary rather than nostalgic design choice: unlike a traditional Final Fantasy, which randomly transports you to a stage for battle, Cosmic Star Heroine always allows you to see your foes, and once you get too close to them, you transition immediately into combat mode — your immediate surroundings are the arena. This borrowed concept complements the fast pace of the story, which, in one wittily frantic sequence, has you fend off a bounty hunter right before battling a huge mech that you then pilot to kill a city-threatening monster.
Following the lead of Zeboyd’s previous games (the best of which was Penny Arcade 3), Cosmic Star Heroine streamlines the typical turn-based RPG experience to make it more urgent and less repetitive. There are a limited number of enemies, characters automatically heal after victory, opponents become more powerful with each new set of turns, and so forth. Cosmic Star Heroine takes its predecessors’ groundwork to another meticulous level, however. Most actions, whether a simple physical attack or a healing move, can only be used once before the player is forced to defend and recharge all abilities. In order to win efficiently (which is a concern given enemies’ ever-increasing strength), you not only have to think ahead but also remember the single techniques you’ve depleted.
The need to think of your moves as perishables puts Cosmic Star Heroine on a rare strategic plane given that turn-based RPGs, even with the variable of magic/ability points, tend to encourage players to spam the most effective techniques. Zeboyd’s complication of the formula doesn’t end there. In most cases, you gain “style” as you perform moves. Because style gradually increases the effectiveness of your actions, it could be smart to avoid unleashing certain weapons until later in the battle. Characters also become “hyper” on specific turns, during which you receive a significant multiplier effect. There’s always risk with these bonuses, though, as waiting for extra attack power can be deadly if you’re fighting an enemy who is already extremely strong and will only grow stronger with each new turn.
This system is even more ingenious thanks to the numerous abilities the 11 heroes gain as they level up. In addition to the ever-present defense/recharge option, each character can only “carry” seven unique moves into battle, so your party members can serve very different purposes based on what abilities you assign. And the abilities themselves may come with catches, like a more powerful physical attack that causes you to lose a turn, a buff that goes into effect for only one turn, or a party-replenishing heal that kills the user. Integrating the various strengths of individual allies with consideration to style and “hyper” turns, while also remembering to recharge abilities and eliminate threats before they are too overpowered, shows a brand of orchestration that Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Zeboyd’s two main influences, don’t come close to touching.