I’ve said it a million times before, but I’ll say it a million times more, RPGs are my bag baby! So much so that I am more than happy to lose myself in an adventure even if it follows the same formula as every other one I’ve played. Fetch this, go there, kill them, save her, it may just be the same thing, different day, but I love it. That being said, there is still a sub-genre of RPG that I haven’t dared to explore, mainly because it can’t be completed by swinging a sword and hoping it hits something. That sub-genre my friends is the tactical JRPG, a sub-genre at that which requires genuine thought, patience and foreshadowing, pre-requisites that I fail to apply to the real world never mind the digital one. Children of Zodiarcs is my baptism by fire, and not because it’s terribly difficult, but rather because it incorporates so much more than what I’m used to, and though there’s a distinctive lack of ale, sex and rabid monsters, I must say I’m quite the fan of this strategic branch.
Children of Zodiarcs is a brand new tactical JRPG from the talented folk at Montreal based studio Cardboard Utopia, a supergroup of sorts made from the minds behind such titles as Assassins Creed Brotherhood and Far Cry 3. Out now on PC, MAC and PS4, Children of Zodiarcs follows 3 exiled outsiders as they rebel against the corrupt system keeping them down by stealing a priceless relic, causing the city’s elite to hunt them down and retrieve the treasure and steal the powerful artefacts they each possess, the Zodiarcs. At your control are the game’s protagonists, Nahmi, a devastating and agile assassin, Brice, a powerful and brash mage, and Pester, a swift and intelligent marksman, and together they will rid the city of Tora of its venomous corruption. Children of Zodiarcs takes the form of a tactical, table top RPG, taking a strategic battlefield manager and literally throwing in a few dice and cards into the mix. With an interesting synopsis and an exciting, action packed style of gameplay, it’s no surprise that Children of Zodiarcs smashed it’s kickstarter campaign and acquired the backing of the Square Enix Collective, but does the finished article live up to its own hype? I’d bloody say so!
I must admit, when I first heard about this game I felt a little overwhelmed. A turn-based, tactical JRPG, which requires me to move around the battlefield throwing half a dozen dice AND playing special attack cards, excuse me whilst I sweat profusely. I needn’t have worried, and neither should you, because Children of Zodiarcs may sound complicated, however it’s anything but. The protagonists begin somewhere on the small scale map, and every turn you have the opportunity to move a limited amount of spaces to gain a chance to attack, sounds familiar so far right? However, unlike most tactical RPGs I’ve come to enjoy, I must now use a specific card from my hand to attack with, regardless of whether it’s a melee, magic or ranged attack, so far so easy. Now we add dice into the mix. Each character has a specific number of dice to throw and, when thrown, will make your attack more powerful, give you greater defence against counter attacks, heal you, give you an extra turn or activate a special ability. After a few rounds you get used to the layout of this gameplay and it very quickly becomes an enjoyable, dastardly form of combat that is unlike anything I’ve played before. When it comes to playing cards or throwing dice, it’s fair to say the outcome is down to chance rather than skill, however here strategic skill does come into play, particularly when you get another go at throwing your dice and activating that ability you desperately need, whilst risking the high amount of defence you’ve thrown; knowing when to draw more cards in the heat of battle could gain you either an early victory or an early grave. As you level up you’ll unlock more powerful dice as well as new cards to add to your arsenal, however unfortunately there isn’t nearly enough of them to add some real variation and excitement to each battle. The enemies may get tougher, the battlefield may get more intricate, however you’ll find yourself using similar tactics with each mission, especially if, for example, you have 20 cards in your deck made up of 4 copies of 5 abilities/attacks; your cards over time will upgrade and introduce new secondary abilities, however the inclusion of random card drops could have really been a game changer here.
Children of Zodiarcs’ narrative isn’t particularly exciting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat like stuff, however neither is it dull. Each of the protagonists is hugely unique, full of attitude and reason to rally behind them, whilst the game’s villains are overexaggerated and ruling a dark, depressive regime, so a pretty successful tried and tested backdrop. After each mission, you’ll be treated to a short conversation between the main cast, an exploration into their current feelings and backstory, and though it doesn’t necessary add anything to the main narrative, it’s great to see the writers put in more time and effort to tell each character’s tale and the motives behind each epic battle. The story may not peak your interest, but it flows at a nice pace and is easy enough to follow, and either side of tension filled battles and beautiful hand drawn artwork, it’s an enjoyable one to sit through. The same can be said for the gameplay, for the most part anyway as though it is terrifically difficult and fascinating at first, not a lot changes as you progress through the narrative, which does unfortunately begin to invite in a whiff of boredom into the room. As well as each of the game’s story missions, you will eventually unlock a few “additional” and “alternative” missions, and I have highlighted those words because they have been used very literally here, they are additional and alternative missions; honestly, they aren’t different to anything you’ve played before hand. After completing a story mission, a Skirmish will appear in its place, which offers players a more challenging version of the map you’ve just completed. Despite the higher levelled enemies now standing in your way, there’s nothing new to discover or enjoy second time round, or third, or fourth time round if you’re using these to level up, which honestly are the only point to completing these; Elite Skirmishes also crop up from time to time and mustn’t be touched until much later in the game. Each mission, when played properly and with extensive strategically thought, can be very time consuming and ultimately very fun to play through, however the lack of variation on offer here is sadly disappointing and makes you wonder what the point of including them was.
To put it simply, Children of Zodiarcs is a fantastic, challenging and hugely enjoyable tactical RPG; however, a lack of variation in its gameplay stops it from being so much better. Each battlefield, though simple, is a tremendous task to navigate round and conquer, with each mission asking more from you than the last. The inclusion of cards and dice may sound daunting at first, however they are used in the simplest of ways that genuinely add another layer of difficulty, gamble and foreshadowing that can turn the tides of any battle; a bigger catalogue of cards too would have made it so much better. The narrative may not grasp all of your attention throughout, but the level of detail and thought gone into the world and its cast more than makes up for it. Children of Zodiarcs brings innovation and style to the tactical JRPG sub genre, and for only £15 there’s absolutely no reason why you should skip this adventure, as it’s only the start of what I expect to be a very bright future for Cardboard Utopia.