A success story from Steam’s much maligned Greenlight program, Children of Zodiarcs managed to outshine the crowd in that hit and miss marketplace, gaining backing through Kickstarter and with a little help from Square Enix’s indie publishing label Square Enix Collective along the way. The title relies heavily on the unique hook of its tactical SRPG combat system, which is essentially a digital reimagining of a tabletop game. In this game, a hand of cards and a roll of the dice will respectively determine what your attack options are and how successful they will be. This engaging system is framed by a world of deceit and violence where the rich oppress the poor with an iron fist and the poor, in turn, do what they must to survive.
These ingredients were enough to get me excited about Children of Zodiarcs and with my appetite whetted by a tutorial mission that slowly introduces the unique tactical play as well as our cast of thieving antiheroes, I was all ready to fall in love with this rogue’s tale. Over the course of the game though, the relationship soured to the point where I was glad to see its lackluster ending give way to credits. A brilliant battle system aside, there was very little else in the game that engaged me. From poor pacing to plainly bad storytelling, and uninspired samey missions to shallow world building and scene setting, Children of Zodiarcs lets itself down in so many areas outside of battle that it’s hard to recommend playing it just to experience one of the most inspired combat systems I’ve seen for some time. Let me explain that thought in a bit more detail and maybe you can decide for yourself whether Children of Zodiarcs is worth a roll of the dice.
The story begins with our protagonist Nahmi, her partner Pester, and their boss Zirchoff, doing what they do best – infiltrating a Noble’s manner to swipe the valuable Zodiarc relic within (more on these titular magical artifacts later, for now just know that they fetch a hefty price). Though the characters are introduced as lovable rogues it’s explicitly clear from the outset that these comrades (especially Nahmi) have a serious bone to pick with the nobles of Torus and they’re not afraid of a bit of bloody murder to get the job done. Their opponents feel much the same and this cycle of violence forms the backbone of the game’s plot as Nahmi pursues her revenge on the Nobles via completing jobs for Zirchoff. The dark tone of the story is set even in these opening stages, and it only gets darker from there.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted game, look elsewhere. The tale of Children of Zodiarcs is a tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude and without spoiling anything I can tell you that there’ll be no heartwarming, schmaltzy ending to set your mind at ease. This is no bad thing in itself but a story like this requires careful telling and this is where the game missteps. Almost all interactions between characters in the game are either told in short conversations before or during battles, or in optional text conversations on the mission select map. Both styles have issues, the short form pre or post-battle conversations make everything feel rushed and make some of the story’s more emotional moments feel a little ridiculous. Conversely, many of the optional conversations feel unnatural, as though they only exist to provide exposition dumps for the player. The culmination of the two leads me to a total lack of emotional engagement with the story or characters.
It doesn’t help that there aren’t many likable characters in the game, and even our main character’s motives and actions are highly questionable. Her character arc is intentionally negative and her deterioration over the course of the game could have been an emotional strong point but with a lack of investment in the character, I felt like it missed the mark. Other members of the cast feel mostly underdeveloped and only one short series of side missions featuring some of the supporting cast does anything to alleviate this. This little aside from the main character is worth mentioning, as it’s events take place alongside the main plot and are full of dramatic irony, making it one of the story’s best beats. If this idea had been utilized a bit further it could have lead to a well-rounded story, as it is it serves only as a welcome diversion. The poor characterization is one thing, but it’s only compounded by the fact that some of the dialogue in the game is painful – especially the relentless ‘street slang’ of the gangs. This dour tale leads to an unsatisfying conclusion and I found myself looking back at the end of my journey and realizing there was very little I liked about the story, the characters, or the world they inhabit.
However much I dislike the game’s framing, this gloomy package is wrapped around a truly fantastic battle system. The combination of grid based SRPG combat with a hand of cards to determine your attack options and a set of dice to roll to influence the effects of the attack may sound complicated but it’s actually surprisingly simple to pick up while offering a good deal of tactical depth as the game unfolds. Unlike the majority of examples from the SRPG genre, Children of Zodiarcs won’t have you collecting armor, weapons, and accessories to adorn your characters with. Instead, you’ll slowly build a deck of cards and gather more beneficial sets of dice to take with you into battle. Starting out is easy as Cardboard Utopia made the smart decision to include recommended starting decks for each character. This lets you get used to each person’s attack, support, or healing, cards before you start to unlock more options. Unlocks happen at a reasonable pace as you level your characters, which meant I was never overwhelmed by new options or left feeling like I wasn’t seeing anything new for too long. Existing cards are also kept relevant in the later game as they level with your character, gaining increased base stats and highly beneficial additional effects as you progress. Deck building in the game is highly satisfying, as these aspects give compelling reasons to keep going back and tweaking it to get the optimum combination of cards.
When you select one of these cards to use in battle, your dice come into play. Each character has their own set of six sided dice with varying effects on each face; one might add additional damage to attacks, one might heal the caster, another may trigger a card’s special effect, and so on. Using a card of any type triggers a dice roll and you’ll have to physically fling the dice using a swipe of your mouse to roll them. It sounds like this could get tedious but I actually found it to be one of the more engaging aspects of the game. A lot can hinge on a successful roll, especially later in the game when gambling on activating a card’s additional effects becomes a valuable, but risky, strategic option. Giving you physical control over the roll and allowing you to reroll two dice of your choosing gives a sense of tactile feedback and a distinct feeling (real or imagined) that you are influencing the outcome. So much so that despite the fact you can set the dice rolls to automatic in the options menu, I stuck with manual controls for my whole time with the game.
One of the reasons I feel this system works so well is that these cards and dice are much more than superficial substitutes for selecting attacks from a menu and the hidden dice rolls that many SRPG’s operate on. They influence the whole ebb and flow of battle and the tactics you’ll employ. Many of the buffs and debuffs that exist in Children of Zodiarcs revolve around either augmenting or sabotaging a character’s dice rolls, adding cards to your hand, or subtracting cards from an opponent’s hand. This adds a number of factors to consider when planning your moves, you don’t want to be caught surrounded by enemies with no cards in your hand, using a turn to draw more. On the other hand, that hard hitting enemy might not be so tough if you can empty his hand, or add negative effects to his dice rolls. Fortunately, there are many tactical options available to your characters to use this to your advantage. Making the most of each character when your turn comes around requires forethought and planning. The combat in the game is easily its standout feature for me and I was kept interested by its tactical options right up to the end of the campaign, despite the fact that many of the scenarios you find yourself fighting in are quite repetitious.
Through twenty main story missions, four story-based side missions, and a vaguely story based series of arena missions, there’s plenty of content in Children of Zodiarcs. This makes me question all the more why the developer felt the need to add padding in the form of Skirmishes. These supposedly optional side missions are drawn from a pool of scenarios at random, always tasking you with the same objective of killing all opponents and frequently throwing you back into already completed scenarios with the enemies scaled up to your current level. This wouldn’t be a problem if these missions actually were optional. However, there are several points in the story where I found moving straight from one mission to the next meant my characters were underlevelled for the challenge, meaning I had to go back and grind a couple of Skirmishes before moving on. As much as I like the battle system, these Skirmishes feel too repetitive to be enjoyable for long and over the course of the game these moments occurred frequently enough that it just felt like an attempt to artificially (and quite unnecessarily) extend the game’s length.
At least while fighting through all these battles, the sights and sounds helped to ease my burden. The art style in the game is great, the anime-esque character designs are translated well into their 3D sprites and there’s plenty of visually distinct characters in the game. Backgrounds, too, are varied and visually interesting. From the grand and lavishly adorned halls of the Nobles, through the narrow and boxed in streets of a rival gang’s territory, and down into the crumbling sewers that crawl with fanatical cannibals, you’ll never stay in one environment too long and each comes with its own distinct look and enemy types. Battles aren’t fire-drenched pyrotechnics shows but they come with little touches like an auto zoom-in on characters when executing an attack that adds a welcome bit of polish. The soundtrack also complements the action nicely, with fully orchestrated tracks by Vibe Avenue that fans of contemporary classical game composers like Nobuo Uematsu should enjoy immensely.
I think I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. I bet you’re wondering by now just what a Zodiarc actually is, aren’t you? There are two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, they’re ancient relics left behind by a race known as the Heralds who came to Lumus long ago from a distant world. These items are imbued with magical abilities and they have both immense power and immense value in the current day. On the other hand, the Zodiarcs are a narrative catch-all device that enables amazing abilities in combat, allow the few Nobles to rule a vast underclass mostly unchallenged, provide both an objective and a means to that objective, and are so convenient they can even explain why I don’t like most of the characters in this game (but I can’t say more about that without touching on some major plot points).
It’s convenient devices like this that help sum up my main issue with Children of Zodiarcs. The world and story surrounding it are shallow. The depth of the utterly brilliant turn-based combat system only highlights this. If you’re a fan of Strategy RPGs or turn based games I wouldn’t let that put you off trying this game out for yourself though, the combat is worth it and you might even find more to love in Lumus than I did. I can’t fault the core gameplay here, I just wish the rest of the package was as appealing.More About This Game
One to try for fans of strategy RPGs, Children of Zodiarcs has a solid combat system with an interesting hook. The game is let down by a poorly told story that fails to satisfy but it does have it's moments nonetheless.
- Enjoyable Combat System
- Engaging Deckbuilding
- Nice Art Style
- Great Soundtrack
- Weak Story
- Unlikable Characters
- Unnecessary Padding
- Repetitive Missions