Agent Alyssa L'Salle is the kind of peppy, grown up, consummately capable protagonist we so rarely seem to get in JRPGs these days. She's not the type to wallow in melancholy or self-doubt, or even to stick around in one place for too long. In fact, she's the perfect front for Cosmic Star Heroine - a game that pays a sizeable tribute to JRPGs of the past without getting bogged down in the grind and repetition.
At its best, Cosmic Star Heroine plays like how you remember your favourite 16-bit JRPG to be, rather than how it actually plays. All of that boring drudgery and dull scene-setting has been excised to produce a pacy highlights package of a role-playing game. This brisk hyperactivity is also where the game may ultimately come unstuck for fans of the source material, however, as it can feel a little lightweight and shallow.
Aiding Cosmic Star Heroine's sense of freshness no end is its futuristic setting. Developer Zeboyd Games has bypassed the usual fantasy trappings in favour of a bright sci-fi universe filled with stomping mechs, alien cats and laser blasters. There are shades of Phantasy Star and Chrono Trigger in here, which is a very good thing indeed.
L'Salle leads a crack team of special agents working for the Agency for Peace and Intelligence - an elite police force bound to secure the galaxy against a pervasive rebel threat. It's not long until you start to question whether the API is truly the force for good that it purports to be. Fortunately, this is all just an excuse to send you on a streamlined interplanetary romp. The writing here is suitably bright and breezy given the classic period it's trying to evoke. It's one long breathless rush towards the next encounter, with an emphasis on grand gestures and general bonhomie over emotional nuance.
This briskness pervades the game, resulting in an experience that we suspect will hold a lot of appeal to the lapsed JRPG fans among you. It's full of design decisions that serve to lessen the perceived annoyances of the genre. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the game's battle system. There are no random encounters here, with the enemies you face presented clearly within the world. When you do engage by stepping into their territory, there's no lengthy cut away to a distinct battle screen - all of the combatants simply shuffle into formation and the fight starts. And once you finish that fight, your team will be fully healed up for the next encounter.
The fights themselves, whilst fairly traditional in their turn-based nature, are relatively brief affairs. They can generally be polished off in a minute or two - at least on the low-to-medium difficulty settings (which can be adjusted at any time). It also helps that each character in your four-person party has a wide range of completely unique moves to choose from, covering elemental attacks, computer hacks, defensive and healing moves and the like.
Each of these seems to fit in with the character's unique personality and role within the team, and you'll soon find yourself experimenting with powerful combination attacks. Having such a plan of attack is especially important as most moves can only be used once in a fight, unless you opt to sacrifice a move to recharge. This forces you to explore each character's full repertoire rather than spamming the same preferred attacks.
Hardened JRPG fans may find Cosmic Star Heroine's prescribed character roles a little too restrictive and hand-holdy, but it is at least possible to customise each character's move-set with fresh equipment. You'll find new items by exploring the world and though spending credits in shops. The game isn't scared to chop and change your team line-up on your behalf, which again is something that hardcore RPG fans might take issue with. Indeed, there's a general sense of linearity to Cosmic Star Heroine. You're essentially being funnelled from one set piece encounter to the next with little scope to control the pace, which detracts a little from the sense of exploration and of truly inhabiting a role.
The look of the game is spot-on in its evocation of the golden era of JRPGs, mind you, with distinctive sprite work and a deft willingness to play with scale. The view zooms out when you're exploring a seedy neighbourhood, for example, or to show a titanic face-off between a mech and a monster. Cosmic Star Heroine's sparing use of animated cutscenes is also well handled, lending flavour to the game without dragging on unnecessarily. Even better is the synth-driven soundtrack, which moves between quirky little ditties to something that approaches the airy wonder of Vangelis's Blade Runner work.
It's another in a long list of reference points that Cosmic Star Heroine skims through at a rate of knots. This is a game that doesn't so much copy the classics as sample the best bits and assemble them into a joyous collage. The result is a colourful, pacy and enjoyable - if slightly abrupt and insubstantial - homage to some of the more out-there '90s JRPGs.
This is a homage to the classic sci-fi RPGs of the '90s that successfully takes out many of the annoying bits but boasts a fair amount of the depth and consistency. Cosmic Star Heroine is a JRPG for those who long ago grew bored of JRPGs, but committed fans might find it just a little too slight an offering.