I have been following Children of Zodiarcs for some time now. I was greatly pleased when it broke past its Kickstarter goal and multiplied it by five, earning $259,593 Canadian dollars, as opposed to its initial $50,000 goal. I’ve always been a fan of games like Final Fantasy Tactics, so the concept of Children of Zodiarcs appeals to me. Children of Zodiarcs (published by the Square Enix Collective) is a turn-based tactics RPG that blends the classic genre with card-and-dice-based mechanics.
Children of Zodiarcs is set in a world of corrupt nobles, a world where there is a clear divide between people in poverty, and those who live in the lap of luxury. You are put in the role of Nahmi, who joins up with a group of fellow outcasts, attempting to break free of the oppressive lords that seek to satisfy their unending greed. Nahmi and her fellow outcasts are people abandoned by the system, who have been used by criminals only out for their own game. The guards of the city seek to lock them up for their thievery, and there are all kinds of other dangers awaiting Nahmi and her allies.
Nahmi and her allies use weapons called Zodiarcs, ancient artifacts that were given to the world of Lumen by an ancient race that gave humans the ability (through the Zodiarcs) to shape reality. Many see Zodiarcs as technological marvels, while others see them as corruptive influences that lead their users to war and ruin.
As in most tactical RPGs, Children of Zodiarcs is a grid based strategy game that allows you to control your characters, moving them on a grid, then engaging enemies, healing yourself, providing support to allies, and all sorts of other capabilities. Where Children of Zodiarcs is unique, in the card and dice system that comprises the combat. In Children of Zodiarcs, hero abilities and attacks are tied to cards. The cards you draw are random from the cards in your deck, requiring you to plan ahead to make sure you use your cards effectively. Cards range from attacks, to support, healing, magic, and more, and there are a variety of ways to build each character.
You also have to be careful how you place your characters. At the end of each turn, you can choose what direction they are facing, and it is smart to keep an eye on that, so the enemy isn’t able to perform a backstab. Backstabs prevent the enemy (or yourself if you are the recipient) from counter attacking, which can be devastating if the enemy gets a particularly good roll. Enemies can also counter attack you if you hit them with a melee attack, ranged attacks and backstabs are immune to countering.
Every time a card is played, a dice is rolled to affect and enhance the card’s effects. Because of this, prior to locking in an action, you will see a projected range of possible outcomes. For example with an attacking card that does 8 damage, the projection will say that your damage could be from 4-16, depending on whether it is halved, doubled, or left to stay the same. Contrary to normal dice, these dice have symbols instead of numbers, each with different effects.
If you get dice you don’t want, you can reroll up to two dice to change them into something else. This allows you to turn a poor roll, into one that may turn the tide of the game in your favor. Each character has a unique deck, tailored to their move-set and abilities. As you go through the game, you will be able to customize their decks to enhance their role (or change it entirely) for battle. Outside of battle, you can also equip or unequip different dice options, which change what symbols you are likely to roll. Some give you better access to free actions, while others are geared toward damage or healing.
The progression system for Children of Zodiarcs is deceptively complex. It begins with your characters earning XP from attacking (and killing) enemies, or healing themselves or other characters. This leads to the characters leveling up. As each character levels up, their cards grow in strength, while they ALSO unlock new cards, providing new abilities. Cards that seem weak at first may level up to have powerful effects later on.
Characters can also unlock dice slots when they level up, allowing them to equip new dice that can change how lady luck shines upon them. Because of these progression elements, there are practically endless ways to build up your party and your characters. It seems simple at first, but as I played I found myself mystified at how many options are available.
If you thought the progression system ended there, however, you would be mistaken. Even the dice in Children of Zodiarcs can be customized and leveled up, consuming unused dice that you collect through skirmishes or over the course of battles in the story.
With that being said, Children of Zodiarcs is a challenging game. I found that the difficulty spiked a bit in the early game, and until I got used to the combat and how everything worked, I was easily frustrated. Children of Zodiarcs is a twist on the genre, but if you play it like you would play Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, you will easily find yourself failing. This game plays very strategically like Fire Emblem, but without the permadeath. Enemies are ruthless, the AI does not play around, but the game is addictively fun regardless.
Once you reach a certain part of the story, you are able to engage in skirmishes. Smaller battles outside of the main story that allow you to level up and grind for XP, Dice, and cards. This becomes very important; as you want to make sure you are properly prepared for the tough battles ahead.
Children of Zodiarcs is deep, engaging, and a ton of fun, though it is not without problems. Aside from the difficulty spiking in places (which can be avoided through grinding), I found that sometimes enemies attacked from angles (or around corners) that weren’t possible with line of sight. This isn’t much of an annoyance, but it can be when you are attempting to retreat and heal or draw more cards. The fact that friendly fire is a constant problem also adds to this annoyance and frustration, as sometimes the area of effect skills can be useful, but in close proximity to other characters can wind up devastating to you AND the enemy.
I also find that the way the story is presented is more told than shown. You are given little information in the beginning of the game about why the characters dislike their enemies so much until it becomes apparent through dialogue later on that it is systemic and economic divides that cause the protagonists to hate their enemies so much.
While it does get its point across, the lack of really being able to explore outside of battle (transitioning simply from battle to battle, with cutscenes in between) makes it difficult to really SEE firsthand what the world is like. You are constantly at the mercy of what you are told, or what enemies say.
Despite that, I find that Children of Zodiarcs fills an interesting niche in the gaming Industry that isn’t really being filled right now. Since the likelihood of seeing a sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is closer to the Southside of never, Children of Zodiarcs fills the void nicely. The characters are interesting, the world is full of information and life (even if it is a bit light on being fleshed out), and the combat system is incredibly robust.
If you like tactics-based RPGs, then Children of Zodiarcs is definitely for you. The problems with it are relatively minor, and for an Indie developed RPG, it is pretty fantastic.
A Steam Review Copy of Children of Zodiarcs was provided by Square Enix for the Purpose of this Review