A tactical JRPG style game, Children of Zodiarcs is the most successful game ever on the Square Enix Collective platform. Offering turn-based battles, card combat and dice crafting, it takes inspiration from Final Fantasy Tactics, and Tactics Ogre.
Developer Cardboard Utopia raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter to complete the game in early 2016. But has that lofty crowdfunding figure resulted in a brilliant game? Or will backers be disappointed with what they find here? Read our Children of Zodiarcs review to find out.
Children of Zodiarcs: An Endearing but Imperfect Tactical JRPG
Children of Zodiarcs an incredibly accessible tactics game. Although the opening tutorial mission is a little unclear, the game is intuitive enough that those utterly unfamiliar with the game of chess or the tactical game genre can jump in easily. First, players move their characters into position before picking a card (with choices including straight up attacks, multi-character heals, or the ability to curse an enemy’s dice) and then rolling a handful of dice to determine its effectiveness.
Then, you can ‘Guard’ and set the direction which your character is facing, taking into account the enemy’s position, readying for the automated counter attacks, and protecting against backstabs (which cannot be countered.) You can also just draw a few cards from your deck instead of playing one before setting the Guard, and this can be just as vital a tactical decision as having an offensive turn.
There’s a joy in coordinating attacks, in setting up a ranged blast of fire from the artifact-wielding Brice that affects multiple enemies, before finishing them off with a throwing knife from the notorious Nahmi or a long-range pistol shot from the cowardly but talented lockpick Pester. Each mission has a victory and defeat condition, whether that’s taking down a boss, getting to a location or just surviving to a certain turn and this co-ordination is key; losing a character will quickly lead to being overwhelmed by enemy forces.
Combat in Children of Zodiarcs can be super satisfying, from the quiet fist pump as the roll of the dice gives you just what you need (an attack boost, an extra bit of health or maybe drawing an extra card) to drawing the exact cards you need for a clutch victory. The game’s enemies include back alley thugs, a sinister cult and a group of nobles who believe that they are the descendants of the Heralds who made the powerful ‘Zodiarc’ relics. Each group sneers and taunts in battle and watching their members fall (preferably with a backstab) is also delightful.
But the relief and celebration of taking down the fools who would dare to stop Nahmi and co. is not the only thing gained. Each card played grants a certain amount of XP to each character. It’s 100 XP to level up and each level adds to the character’s HP and other stats and may even unlock new cards and dice. You can customize each character’s deck and their dice too, and although there are recommended decks that make this process simple, even players who don’t consider themselves tactical masterminds will want to tweak things just to suit their own play-style.
As XP can fluctuate, sometimes giving characters just three XP points even for dealing a killing blow, the fact that each level is just 100 XP (rather than scaling to higher levels) is welcome. But this doesn’t necessarily make Children of Zodiarcs a breeze in terms of difficulty and I feel that the game pushes me to grind just to get past particularly tricky levels, using brute force rather than tactical knowhow to get past and fight my way through enemies. While that may be useful for players who aren’t well-versed in tactical games, it sometimes leads to feeling like what you’ve learnt is for nothing.
Through its Skirmishes, you can revisit previous locations and take on enemies (minus the narrative dialogue and cutscenes.) If you successfully defeat the enemies you can make it out alive with the earned XP and if not, then you lose the lot and have to go back to your last auto-save.
With a Steam achievement/PS4 trophy for completing 10 Skirmishes, it’s clear that the game wants you to jump though these hoops. But even though Children of Zodiarcs‘ environments are gorgeously crafted and I’m totally enamoured by the art style, I don’t necessarily want to keep revisiting the same bits and playing the same, small variety of cards, just to get my XP up.
Moroever, the fact that the levels of granted XP seem off, with characters seeming to get more for healing than attacking, it means that I’m also forced to keep lone enemies alive at the end, attacking and healing them over and over again like a sadistic piggy in the middle.
If you are more blessed with the virtue of patience then this may not be a dealbreaker to you. I found that Children of Zodiarcs‘ story was encouragement enough for me to push through tougher and more tedious times. Nahmi, Brice and the other characters call an orphanage run by Zirchoff home and it makes way for a light but still interesting take on class and even racial issues.
Nahmi, for example, is so notorious that her dark curls and her brown skin have earned her the title ‘Ebony Flame’ by the oppressive ruling class. And when Brice uses the term to refer to Nahmi, and jokes about calling herself (Brice is white) the ‘Ivory Flame’ Nahmi is quick to shut her up. She doesn’t like the term and neither should you.
The nobles regularly speak of how superior they are to the likes of Nahmi and her friends too, and in-between missions, there are sombre, optional conversations where the characters will tell you more about how they became one of Zirchoff’s crew. Pester’s tale about how he became an outcast is particularly harrowing.
These quiet moments between missions, as well as the delightful camaraderie (such as Brice calling Pester a ‘chickens–t’ for avoiding a battle), make the game for me. As much as I want to stick it to the nobles and the other enemy factions, I want these tiny thieves to triumph despite everything working against them. And even though its combat system can be flawed, its characters are flawed (positively so) and I recommend picking up Children of Zodiarcs even if it’s just for an introduction.
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