So here's the deal. While I'd heard plenty about Zeboyd Games' previous work from my fellow staffers, I'd never actually tried any of it. Never a big fan of PC gaming was I, but Steam has been growing on me in recent years. When I had the chance to try Cosmic Star Heroine earlier this week, I figured "Why not?" It was supposed to have a sort of 16-bit SNES aesthetic going on, and if I could be pigeonholed as anything, it'd be as a retro-gamer.
Wow, I could only wish my old SNES games looked this good.
That isn't some trite line, either; CSH packs a lot of detail into its background graphics, and nearly as much into its background story, with the two complementing each other. In some ways it's even too good, as there are times when it becomes obvious that the technology behind this emulation of the 16-bit experience is far more advanced than anything the 90s had to offer.
But who cares about that? The overall experience is pretty awesome, even in the game's beta version. We're talking about lushly illustrated scenery, well executed lighting effects, and articulated character sprites capable of an outsized number of actions both in and out of battle. There's no real line between field activity and fighting, similar to how it was handled in Chrono Trigger, and that was almost certainly intentional. Enemy encounters appear directly in front of the heroes, sometimes with foes disguised as NPCs or environmental graphics. Even though the beta experience was only three levels in its entirety, there was a whole lot of variety packed in.
The story presented in the beta is also a good teaser for the rest of the game, as it takes the titular heroine Alyssa L'Salle through a hostage scenario (where she's legitimately the good guy), a mission to loot an abandoned lab (a bit morally grey), and then a series of events where she has to deal with consequences... which, not to give too much away, sets the stage for some major plot development from thereon out.
Alyssa's comrades in arms are just as colorful as the scenery, and the dialogue is like water in the desert for someone who generally lives with dry Japanese game text. Even the random NPCs at the API headquarters are a hoot, providing giggles along with world-building elements or deconstructions of genre tropes. It's not necessary to talk to everyone available, but it's fun to try.
Combat took me a little while to get used to, mainly because there's a lot going on in the menu. Most attacks and skills can be used once, and then remain inactive until the character defends for a round. Items and shield skills are one-use per battle, period, but provide many options to debilitate or otherwise hurt the enemy. The player will need all of these to overcome all obstacles. Thankfully, it's possible to reset the difficulty level at any time outside of battle, if a particular monster mob proves too much of a challenge.
There are issues for the full version to work on. Enemy mobs do not seem to respawn, so if one hits a choke point battlewise, then there's little recourse beyond jiggering the difficulty. Status ailments are explained in terms of hidden point totals and slowly increasing resistance values, but that doesn't seem to matter much when multiple monsters are spamming poison effects and the only means of curing the ailment cannot possibly keep up with the buggers. That said, all this complaining is still penny ante compared to some titles I have played in the past month, so I'm happy that this is the extent of my problems with the game so far.
Cosmic Star Heroine has been a long time in coming, but this beta is a great way to celebrate its impending arrival. At two or three hours to completion, it packed a lot of adventure in while keeping the bulk of the plot behind the tease of its cut-off point. I'm definitely interested in seeing what comes next.