What does it take to stand out in the strategy RPG genre? The SRPG genre has more or less held the same systems and mechanics since it first began and was popularized with the release of games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Since then, many following SRPG games seem to mimic these battle systems without adding that gripping element that made those titles so memorable: the story. However, that might have changed with Children of Zodiarcs.
Developer Cardboard Utopia originally launched their concept for Children of Zodiarcs using the Square Enix Collective initiative, a platform where independent developers can display their game concepts to gain feedback from gamers. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the team has delivered their SRPG to the backers and fans and will launch the game on July 18th on PlayStation 4 and PC.
Children of Zodiarcs throws the player into the action from the very first map of the game. Over the course of the first two or three battles, the developer expertly reveals the game’s premise and characters to catch the player up to speed in a short amount of time. Evidently, a group of orphans, led by a strong and intimidating man named Zirchhoff, are in the process of fighting back against the imperial government, which is described as corrupt and unfair to those of lower social classes. Being labeled as thieves, the group must hide out in abandoned buildings in a portion of the empire that the government has forgotten about.
The player will experience most of the story as Nahmi, a young, yet strong thief who excels at using knife techniques. From the beginning, Nahmi is established as playing the impulsive leader role when Zirchhoff isn’t around. Being so young, she tends to rush into situations without thinking them through all the way, but has the best intentions when making these choices. This often leads the party into unnecessary enemy encounters. I can easily say that every party member in Children of Zodiarcs shows a huge amount of growth throughout the game’s story. I was wildly impressed by how much I was able to care about them after the first few hours of gameplay.
So what about the battle system? The game features grid-based maps that fans of the SRPG genre will be extremely familiar with. Actions are taken during the player’s turn: after each character has exhausted their action, the enemies then take their turn. Each character has a deck of cards that players can customize to their liking. As the character gains experience, these cards will level up to have improved base stats and attributes. After choosing a card to use, the player is able to roll a number of dice to improve the power of the attack or attempt to gain a more powerful skill for that card. At first, rolling the dice was fun, but after six hours I decided to use the auto-roll option. Even though this can take away from having full control over your dice rolls, I wanted to find ways to speed up the battles.
I had a great time with Children of Zodiarcs‘ unique battle system and I think it adds a level of skill to the SRPG genre that I haven’t experienced. This is because you have to make tough choices in battle, such as when to draw cards or when to heal. However, you might not even be able to heal your character if you don’t think to add enough heal cards to your deck, leaving you open for defeat. The strategy of building a balanced deck and choosing the right dice for each character is crucial to get through some of the later levels of the game.
Let me just say that the enemy AI in Children of Zodiarcs are brutal. They will do absolutely anything they can to make sure you lose. This includes causing bleed damage for three turns, buffing up their entire party with regen and extra dice, and casting debuffs on your party whenever they can. However, after suffering a couple loses on a particular map, I was able to learn where I messed up and this added an amount of thought behind each action that I took, because I knew that one wrong move could mean game over. With that said, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction that comes with winning a battle after losing multiple times.
The maps in the game are each unique and often never revisited, unless you replay a map during a skirmish. There was a lot of design that went into each area, but one thing that bothered me was how height didn’t seem to affect attacks in battle. For example, Nahmi is on top of a roof with an enemy in the next square on the ground floor. In this position, I am still able to attack the enemy with a knife, even though he was not directly next to me. Also, I didn’t see any consequences to the attack’s power.
There’s a variety of different mission objectives offered throughout the game which mixes the combat up rather nicely. Outside of the “Defeat All Enemies” missions, there are times when I had to just get from point A to point B or survive a number of turns. There are some great moments in the game when the goal ahead of me seemed unobtainable, but I would draw that perfect card to turn the tide of battle in my favor and I would surprisingly come out triumphant.
I would like to applaud the way Cardboard Utopia handled the level-up system in Children of Zodiarcs. During battles, each action the player takes will gain them Experience, which includes healing and counter attacks. When a character gains a new level, a menu will pop up and show exactly which stats improved on that character, such as their attack power, defense, HP, etc. It’s surprising how something so basic makes leveling-up feel rewarding, and how it’s been removed from many other RPGs.
If there’s an option that was missed in Children of Zodiarcs, it would be a fast forward button, if only just for the enemy’s turn. There are some maps in the later missions of the game with 5-8 enemies that need to take their turn before you can move again: this adds so much time to the fight because it goes through each of their auto-dice rolls the same as it would for the player’s party.
Composed by Vibe Avenue, the music in the game is brilliant. There wasn’t a single score that didn’t compliment the mood of the story. I feel that the music in an SRPG is as important as the story. Being a crowdfunded game, Cardboard Utopia could have taken shortcuts on this feature, but they went beyond my expectations of giving this game a proper soundtrack that raises the production value to something you’d expect on a third-party budget.
Children of Zodiarcs is the game that story-driven SRPG fans have been waiting for. It’s evident when playing through that the developers at Cardboard Utopia are passionate about delivering a product that could potentially fall in line with some of the genre’s greats. However, by adding unique mechanics and a focus on character growth, Children of Zodiarcs stands out as simply a great SRPG.