A few months ago I was lucky enough to take a first look at Children of Zodiarcs. The preview build I played was near enough a complete package, save from the final acts, some convenience options and some extra content. Here’s what I had to say about it then:
What do you get when you cross Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons and Valkyria Chronicles together? No, this is not a bad joke you see in one of those joke books you so dearly loved as stocking fillers when you were a child. You see the answer cannot be found in your trusty Best Nerd Jokes, that’s just a silly gag I’ve used to start this preview. I’m witty you see.
Well I’d like to think so anyway, but on a serious note. The answer you’re looking for, if you ever asked the preceding question (and lets be honest no one ever has), is Children of Zodiarcs. The new Grid Based Combat JRPG from the small Canadian developer Cardboard Utopia. Made up of a mix of developers, writers and artists, Cardboard Utopia hold a bunch of AAA veterans in its roster. With previous titles such as Assassins Creed, Bully, Rainbow 6 and Farcry under their belt, these guys are no slouches when it comes to making quality games.
The “Frankenstein’s Monster” of gaming may sound strange and unnerving, But in fact it’s astoundingly the opposite. Children of Zodiarcs plays out in a series of levels and missions in which your rag tag group of orphans, that all seem to possess some astonishing powers, must over come the enemy in turn-based combat. You move your heroes a limited distance and use your abilities, defeat the enemy. Sounds all pretty simple, but the catch here? You’re abilities are cards that are drawn from a pre-built deck, very much like Gwent, Hearthstone and Magic.
You play one card per turn and per character, in which each of them may hold up to a limit of seven in their hand. Each hero has their own deck and move sets that can be customised, crafted and tweaked to your liking or the parties needs. The enemy also follow these rules and there are even certain abilities to cause the enemy to discard cards and vice versa for the player to be able to draw cards.
Not only do the characters all have their own cards, when they’re played you must roll a mixture of icon laden 6-sided dice. Each side of the Dice has their own picture designated to a certain bonus to the ability. You may roll 3 attack upgrades that increase the damage of the attack or maybe the lightning bolt that allows to play another card instantly.
I hope you’re with me so far. But if not, in summary: Your abilities are cards. You roll Dice to upgrade the potency of the ability or to help support your party.
It took a while for me to grow to appreciate the system in the first couple of levels but once I realised what this does for the game itself, it just kind of clicked. The system is nothing short of a broad stroke of genius. A brainchild that makes so much sense that it instantly becomes familiar. I wont harp on too much about how it all the cogs work, as you just have to get a feel for it your self.
Once the epiphany did finally hit, I came to love how deep and unique the system is. It leaves for limitless possibilities and replayability. In fact one of the key aspects of any tactical turn based game is strategy and planning ahead. You always need to be two steps ahead of you’re opponent. This game nails that. I’d love to see some kind of Player vs Player system introduced. It would be great to blast this in a couch party setting.
I wont harp on too much about the combat system as I feel like it might give too much away. But what I will start harping on is all those little analytical details that use gamers love to hear about. How does the game look? What’s it about? How’s the sound? And finally, is it fun?
First off. The game looks….OK. There are few of hit and misses for me. But in terms of its art design and direction? It nails it. The UI is clean, easy to understand and feels familiar. The actual turn transitions are beautiful and the hand drawn characters are nice to look at. Never did I look upon its menus, cutscenes, etc and find it ugly.
But the graphical presentation itself is pretty weak and does go wanting. Even for a game on a minimal budget that uses mostly hand drawn cut scenes for its story telling. The environments and level designs them selves aren’t all that bad but all the moving parts look dated and that character the art direction possess’ outside of the game just isn’t there. Specifically the Postman Pat-esque character models and the same recycled animations with the under detailed particle effects just didn’t do it for me.
It lacks the epic and the grandiosity that I usually look for in JRPG’s. If it wasn’t for the solid in-game mechanics I probably wouldn’t rate the game as highly as I do right now. With all that said the Valkaria Chronicles inspired Art Direction and the unique Combat carry the game over the purgatorial line that is okay and pretty good.
The story presents you with a bunch of historical set pieces and dialogue scenes where it tries to explain everything to you. But I found it pretty arbitrary in the way they deliver the universe. However, dull isn’t the word that springs to mind here. On the contrary I was actually pretty interested in what story the developers wish to tell me.
I just found it hard to latch on to with a bunch of made up words and historical references that have no meaning to me. However in true Square style this made little difference on the overall impact to the story as it progressed. The story hits a full stride around the middle of the game and after the final credits had rolled I left satisfied, a task few games manage to pull off.
The only other petty issue can be found in the games dialogue choices. Often at times I left myself scratching my head as characters in a fantasy setting started talking like they were dropped in to an American Ghetto. Never in my life have I ever seen anyone say beef, bro and mad street cred in a fantasy game. As much as I hate the word cringe, I don’t know any other way to describe it.
The sound track is solid. Nothing to write home about but it was never an ear sore. It felt at place within its world and it does its job in creating more atmosphere in and out of battle. I found it dynamic in the sense that the sound track does a good job in changing itself depending on what level you’re doing battle on. Changing it’s general tone for the atmosphere created by the level itself but keeping the same distinct style to create a feeling that each zone is part of the same world. That level of consistency is an expectational standard in today’s industry and one some developers skip out on.
The actual game sounds themselves vary from crunchy and impactful, to flat and meaningless. One ability made me feel like I just let off a nuke on top of an enemies frontal lobe. Where as others made me feel like the hard hitting RNG perfect roll that one shots a bad guy would of done little more that tickle the opposing forces. Some sounds are a bit out of place where as others are unique enough to fit in with the games art design. It’s a complete split down the middle in this area as when it’s good. It’s pretty good. But when it’s bad. Well it’s not even that bad, it just sits in the okay region.
Now, I’ve touched on a lot of different points here. Some good and some bad. But I want to just get this in the clear. All the negative points made during this article are all completely cancelled out by the fun factor Children of Zodiarcs produces. I would willingly cut all negative comments made about the game as the actual combat, structure and mechanics are a pleasant surprise. The mix of tabletop and trading card games is genius. One that sounds convoluted but actually turns out to hold a surprising amount of depth to the gameplay.
Save for a few minor issues I had with the visuals and sound design. Children of Zodiarcs has managed to find a winning formula in its stride. With solid Art Design and an immersive world holding an unwitting charm I can’t help but notice. That combined with its excellent game play mechanics, the potential for this game is massive. A game that I can see grabbing a vast cult-following with the first game but with a second or third instalment can easily become a recognised title in the industry.
Verdict after replaying:
Exactly the same, Children of Zodiarcs is a blast. It’s not exactly visceral or thrilling. But it’s intelligent, charming, unique and at times challenging. A passionate project created by passionate creators, one that I genuinely believe can amass a cult following if it gets the right exposure. It’s also a game I can see becoming popular had they had some kind of VS multiplayer system or map builder.
My score reflects the issues I had with the games graphical presentation and sound design. The in game characters are supposed to look comic but I just found them odd looking, almost ripped from a low-budget children’s show. The particle effects of spells themselves were often colourful but far from striking and the combat sounds, although often brazened with fidelity, are nothing to write home about.
But regardless, the gameplay is excellent. I can’t stress that enough. If I wasn’t such a picky critic I would of happily forgotten about the few petty issues I found and would give the game higher than a 7. On top of that the UI is satisfyingly clean and story surprisingly impactful towards the latter stages. The music score is classic and a feature of the game that adds an extra layer of atmosphere as well the mysticism we come to expect from a Square.
I found myself happy to return to the game to review the title but after finally finishing the long story campaign I realised that all my original points made in my preview are exactly the same. As an experience and overall package I’m happy to recommend this game to any fans of the table-top genre. 100% a pickup and for the price of £14 it holds a surprising amount of depth and content.