I think I might have a Heroine addiction.
That’s Cosmic Star Heroine, a science-fantasy RPG from the two-man team at Zeboyd Games, the same folks that brought us Cthulu Saves the World and episodes three and four of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Like those prior works, it’s easy to take a glance at Cosmic Star Heroine‘s beautiful pixelated visuals and assume it’s just a nostalgia-heavy, derivative take on Japanese role-playing games tropes, but to do so would be a disservice.
In fact, if my first taste on the PlayStation Experience show floor is a fair bellwether for the rest of the game, Cosmic Star Heroine might end up being one of the cleverest turn-based titles I’ve seen in years. Think of it less as a trip back in time to the heyday of the JRPG and that era’s sensibilities, and more an experience that uses the tradition as a jumping-off point for experimentation and honing that’s fully informed by everywhere gaming’s gone in the two decades since.
“We never try to just copy an old RPG, because if you want to play an old RPG, you can go play an old RPG. You can pull out Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy,” explains Robert Boyd, the programming, writing, and game designing half of Zeboyd. “So we’ve tried to always put our own spin on the mechanics and make them more interesting and more strategic.”
As for the starting point, Boyd , credits a trio of games for inspiring his work on Cosmic Star Heroine, and they’re pretty heavy hitters. “Chrono Trigger. Phantasy Star,” he says. “We have some elements from the Suikoden series, with political intrigue, and later on you get a spaceship that’s kind of like your base. Our big inspiration is to take that classic RPG feel that you had from the Super Nintendo and Genesis and transport it to the modern age. We get rid of some of the more annoying aspects of those games while trying to build upon all the great things they did.”
Zeboyd seems to be well on their way to succeeding, too. There are the obvious conveniences: You can save wherever you want, healing is handled by skills so as to cut down on excessive potion juggling, and health automatically regenerates. There’s the imaginative character design: Hacker Dave taps out his attacks on a tablet, while Chahn uses her gunmancy skills to summon a wide variety of firearms that can hurt foes in myriad ways or heal her team.
Mostly, though, the early standout of Cosmic Star Heroine is the battle system, which introduces a pair of mechanics with the potential to simultaneously streamline combat and imbue it with added strategic depth. Each character has seven skill slots that you can assign various abilities to?as you level up, you’ll learn way more than that, so you’ll need to pick and choose?and an eighth slot dedicated to their specific Defend ability.
That’s the first twist. Rather than relying on an MP gauge or a basic cooldown to regulate how much or how often you can use skills, most will simply become unavailable after you use them once. To recharge any that have been used up, you simply take a turn to Defend. “We want to make it so you’re not just hitting attack over and over again,” Boyd explains.
“Or rely on one or two abilities,” Bill Stiernberg, Zeboyd’s artist and animator chimes in.
“Yeah. You need to kind of use your entire arsenal,” Boyd agrees.
It might sound like a simple way to make players engage with the battle system on a more meaningful level, but it works wonders in practice. Beyond encouraging you to master more of your skills, the mechanic also forces you to plan ahead a bit more if you want to take advantage of buffs and other synergies between your characters’ skills.
That’s especially true when you factor in the second promising mechanic, the Style meter. Essentially, certain skills you use throughout battle will raise their character’s Style percentage. As it goes up, so does the damage they deal with their attacks. If you’ve ever been stuck in a RPG battle that dragged on for far too long, you know what a godsend this feature sounds like, and I’m told there will be even more depth to it, as well, with a special mode that characters can enter once their Style is high enough, and powerful skills that allow you to deal serious damage to your foes at the expense of emptying your Style meter.
While the demo was early enough in the game that I didn’t really have to rely to heavily on the depth of the battle system too much?I actually dragged out one battle about six turns longer than I needed just to see how high I could boost my damage with the Style system and a well-timed buff?the potential for exciting encounters down the line is clear.
Of course, a strong battle system alone does not a great RPG make, and there are plenty of gaps left to fill in before I’ll be convinced Cosmic Star Heroine will live up to my now lofty expectations. In particular, I’m anxious to see how the storytelling and world-building end up faring once all is said and done. Neither aspect really wowed me in the small slice I played, but that’s an admittedly difficult thing to get across free of context in a small sling of a single section of a single world. For now, though, I think it’s safe to say that Cosmic Star Heroine is worth paying attention to for anyone looking for a fresh take on classic RPG design.
And, hey, if you managed to make it this far into me gushing about a turn-based battle system, that’s probably you?even if you don’t know it yet.
Cosmic Star Heroine launches on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC in 2015.