Children of Zodiarcs is the latest release from Cardboard Utopia. A classic TRPG in the mould of Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts, Children of the Zodiarcs is an interesting prospect.
The story tells of a group of orphans, led by Nahmi, frequently in trouble with the rich law enforcers of their society who get drawn into an adventure which takes them on a journey none of them could have imagined. The story has an oddly socio-political feel to it given the setting but I enjoyed the interplay between the poverty stricken main characters and the ruthlessness of the ruling elite. That being said, the story felt a little flat and repetitive in places but more often than not came back around. In general the plot is dramatic, engrossing and is laced with humour, the world of Nahmi and her friends is fleshed out consistently and by the end you really do care what happens to them.
The graphics are pretty standard fare for the genre of game, the player views the action from a raised side-on angle with each stage being divided up into a grid. Each move you make you have the option to move a set number of tiles to attack and defeat your enemies. The stages are colourful and well imagined, particularly the palace and street stages, where the attention to detail is not only flawless but perfectly in keeping with the slightly cartoonish feel overall. This is supplemented by an excellent orchestral soundtrack with unique scores for each area which further add to the atmosphere and in places drive forward the emotive aspects of the plotline.
View the Children of Zodiarcs trailer below:
There are only twenty stages in Children of the Zodiarcs which does mean the player has to appreciate this quality for an unfortunately short time.
Undoubtedly, the most innovative and novel area of the game is the combat system which was unlike any other TRPG I have played. Normally, you would have a set of moves to choose from which would cause damage to your opponents, damage which could be increased by proper use of the either environment or ‘type’ awareness. However, in a departure from this, Children of the Zodiarcs utilises a system of dice and cards through which damage is inflicted. Within your three character battle party each member has their own set of cards which cover attacks, support and healing actions. The attack cards have a damage value which is changes or is inflicted depending on the subsequent roll of the dice. But these are not any ordinary dice; these dice are six sided and do not only have numbers written on them.
There are icons of shields, lightning, cards, gems and stars which each correlate to a different effect possible within the mini-battle and another red dice which subtracts its result from your action’s base power. This system initially irritated me as it added in what I saw as an unnecessary element of fortune to what was otherwise an immensely tactical experience, however, as I played more I began to appreciate this element as being indicative of actual battle. Without luck on their side, countless nations, people and armies would have lost key battles throughout history, as would many individuals in one-on-one combat. By the end of the game I actually really enjoyed this and found myself feeling a kind of ‘gamblers rush’ with each roll, and yes, I’ll admit it, I did let out an actual, audible cheer when I rolled exactly what I needed on the final stage.
Of course, the game does not rely solely on chance, there are opportunities between battles to change your deck and your dice in order to maximise your chances of getting the desired result. This adds another tactical element to the game so that it became a kind of cross between Final Fantasy, Yu-Gi-Oh and Yahtzee. The deck customisation applies to individual characters and therefore enables players to designate certain members of the battle party to certain roles without the need for a complex official healer/soldier/mage designation system. This helps when it comes to the more difficult stages where you may require more than one attempt to find a winning strategy.
View some screenshots of Children of the Zodiarcs in our gallery:
After completing some of the story mode missions you unlock the ‘skirmish’ stages which enable you to level up your team and collect other useful items which can be carried over to the main story. This feature, allied to the difficulty of the main game (which is high to say the least) does mean that at times you are frustratingly unable to progress the story until you have ground your way through a series of extraordinarily similar battles. In longer games this doesn’t matter too much and is something that can really add to the playability of the game, but personally in a game of this length it felt as though this feature was there for ‘padding out’ rather than as a significant part of the gameplay.
Overall Children of the Zodiarcs is a valiant attempt to revolutionise the TRPG genre. The game looks and sounds great and new additions to the battle system make for an interesting experience. My only criticisms come in what seem to be attempts to stretch out a short game. There are only two difficulty modes; normal and hard, and the AI is particularly ruthless and crafty making even the normal level quite frustrating. This, allied with the need for often excessive grinds through skirmish battles in order to level up meant that the engrossing story was too often punctuated by long periods of boredom. Cardboard Utopia have made a good game here, but for me, it can’t be considered a great game, the only way in which it could have achieved this status would be if there were forty stages or more. With a longer game the story could have been even more articulate and it would not have felt quite as frustrating having to spend so much time levelling up characters. At times it just felt like playing a Pokémon game where there are only two gyms containing obscenely high level trainers to beat before the story ends which require you to spend hours upon hours walking in the grass.
I liked Children of the Zodiarcs, I just couldn’t love it.
Children of the Zodiarcs was reviewed using a digital code supplied by the publisher.
Publisher: Square Enix Developer: Cardboard Utopia Release Date: July 18, 2017 Reviewed On: PS4 Also On: PC/Steam