90s SNES classic Chrono Trigger is a game that has haunted me from a young age. Not in a Woman in Black kind of way – more a Casper the Friendly Ghost style haunting. I first witnessed its enchanting pixelated majesty over the shoulder of my older brother. Over literal decades of replays, it has probably shaped my cultural attitudes more than any other piece of media that is relevant to this article. Chrono Trigger, even putting characters and narrative aside, has been the pinnacle of turn-based RPG design since its release. There is so much it does right with encounters, level design and story that it sometimes amazes me that people kept making games of this ilk after its release. For these reasons (and more) the prospect of a new game explicitly following Chrono Trigger’s lineage was tantalising, to say the least. And let’s face it, Chrono Cross was bullshit.
Now – three years after their successful Kickstarter campaign – Zeboyd Games’ Cosmic Star Heroine has finally arrived to bring that spectre kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
A pulpy space-opera full of spunk and verve, Cosmic Star Heroine is more than happy to wallow in fantastical silliness, offering a zesty, high-octane romp through an unknown galaxy. The setting the Zeboyd team have built is frankly batshit. People are summoning guns with their minds, there are robot ghosts (actual ghosts in machines), nightmares are becoming reality (and vice versa). Utter chaos combines with infectious bombast, all in a world that plays fast and loose with sci-fi tropes of yesteryear. The soundtrack is a similarly insane treat, containing some of the filthiest space-funk I’ve ever heard alongside a plentiful helping of baroque ‘80s videogame astro-pop.
“Utter chaos combines with infectious bombast, all in a world that plays fast and loose with sci-fi tropes of yesteryear.”
Cosmic Star Heroine’s dedication to its lineage is at once a strength and flaw. Strength in that it allows the developers endless opportunity to demonstrate and explore their love of the weirdness that arises at the intersection of cult sci-fi and videogames. From bizarre B-movie monsters to mystery mansions and science gone awry, Cosmic Star Heroine is threaded with vibrant creations that are emblematic of the genre.
And the flaws, you say? Like many of the criticisms that will arise in this article, this flaw isn’t really Cosmic Star Heroine’s own, rather that it exists now. In this instance, ‘now’ takes place after six seasons of Community have sucked dry the bones of reference humour and ground them into a mealy, unappetising paste. Nevertheless, it is often in referential moments that Cosmic Star Heroine’s patchy writing shines brightest. That’s not to say the writing is bad: it’s inoffensively functional with occasional moments of hilarity. The engineer hammering blithely at miscellaneous machinery who quips, “You gotta bang on this repeatedly if you want proper results,” was a personal favourite, but there are wisecracks aplenty throughout. Ultimately the narrative won’t wow you, but it’s a simple, boisterous vehicle for the game’s mechanics and has mercifully few pretensions to being anything more.
Against all odds Cosmic Star Heroine even manages to iterate on the fallow mechanics of the turn-based RPG. Adding in a cycling ‘Hyper’ mode (extra damage every few turns) and a ‘Style’ stat (which ups damage output and can briefly stave off death) leads to pleasing tactical prospects that tickle those same brain nodules in new ways. Combined with a staggering array of characters and abilities, and a penchant for mutilating classic ideas of ‘elemental’ resistance, the emergent approaches to combat multiply like a sack of rabbits. The flip side of that flexibility is that there’s bound to be at least one strategy that is hideously overpowered. No, I’m not going to say what it is.
“Against all odds Cosmic Star Heroine even manages to iterate on the fallow mechanics of the turn-based RPG.”
When Cosmic Star Heroine does tear pages straight from Chrono Trigger’s rulebook it does so with such aplomb I can only applaud it. In the first act player’s will encounter the Freedom Festival, a pitch-perfect re-imagining of Chrono Trigger’s Millennial Fair, given a fresh dystopic twist and modernised puzzle design. Unfortunately, this serves to highlight some less well-crafted puzzles in other areas. It’s hard to say whether this is down to scope, imagination, or a design philosophy of ‘not wasting people’s time’ – an admirable one no doubt – but the majority of Cosmic Star Heroine’s puzzles felt two or three logical steps short of satisfying. Against the Freedom Festival’s succinct-yet-gratifying rock-paper-scissor puzzle the rest are thrown into sharp, often unflattering, relief. Against the sprawling, long-form narrative puzzles that littered Chrono Trigger they look woefully condensed.
Which is a strange thing to say, because I enjoyed Cosmic Star Heroine a lot. It has sass, it has style. It is a frankly astonishing achievement for a team of two people, and the care and attention that has been lavished on it is clear in every scene, city, trashcan, and portrait. But it suffers in the same way that any game that trades on nostalgia must. Cosmic Star Heroine didn’t just need to be as good as Chrono Trigger. To register as ‘as good as’ Cosmic Star Heroine needed to be better than my memory of Chrono Trigger, and that is a tall, possibly impossible, order.
I’m certain that if I went back and played those two games side-by-side I would be shocked to find Cosmic Star Heroine’s writing is just as good, its combat more tactically interesting and puzzles kindlier than Chrono Trigger’s ever were. Cosmic Star Heroine is as adoringly crafted as any of the classics. A little rougher round the edges, the cracks a little wider – sure – but it’s Scrappy-Doo scrappy and more humanely designed. Cosmic Star Heroine is a labour of love, and an unabashed nostalgia trip that has the rare audacity to respect your time.