A city built from the ashes of the old world, its nobles living in decadence while the poor starve and survive by joining gangs and killing those that oppose them. This is the setting for Children of the Zodiarcs.
Genre(s): RPG | Tactics
Developer: Cardboard Utopia
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: July 2017
Played Main Story
Purchase At: Steam
I first played Children of the Zodiarcs during this year’s Rezzed at the Square Enix Collective booth and found it pretty interesting, an isometric tactics game using cards to represent hero abilities and dice to resolve them. As a D&D and tabletop RPG player, the approach wasn’t only unique but also extremely appealing, especially considering that the dice rolls are physically accurate. They bounce around and can even knock others into new results.
It’s taken me much longer than I expected to finish the game for this review, but I have to give it to Cardboard Utopia, they created a pretty challenging game that forced me to take advantage of the secondary skirmishes to grind out a couple of levels, better ability cards and even equipping and modifying dice to get the best possible bonuses.
Thankfully, all these systems are pretty intuitive and the game takes the time to teach them to you as they become available and relevant. For example, as you progress through the game you get better dice, with higher damage, healing and special bonuses—represented in-game as Shards, Hearts and Star sides of the die—but sometimes they also come with penalties on them, so by sacrificing other dice, you can remove the bad properties and replace them with good ones.
Character abilities come as cards in a deck, and you unlock new ones and improve existing ones just by levelling up, gaining experience by using cards. The downside is that Children of the Zodiarcs puts much more emphasis on the cards than it does on their effect on enemies, so even if you manage to one-shot five enemies at the same time, you’ll get the same experience as if you had killed one of them.
As they level up, the cards gain new abilities and effects. Some of them deal damage and others impart negative statuses, but that’s it. The combat system becomes a matter of stacking bonuses or penalties and dealing damage. There are no synergies between characters, there is no need to combine their abilities and there is no way to remove negative conditions. It’s too simple and so it’s very easy to abuse on later levels, turning those missions where you have to kill a single target—such as the last mission—into a simple exercise of stacking one bonus and spamming one type of card.
Children of the Zodiarcs takes place in a giant city built atop the ruins of an ancient civilisation. Zodiarcs are special items dating back to the ancient age and confer special abilities on their users in exchange for memories and emotions. They make their wielders more likely to act with behavioural extremes and feed on that. Almost everyone uses a Zodiarc to fight, with the nobles hoarding artefacts and ancient relics as well.
You play as Nahmi, a cutthroat from the Shambles, the slums of the city. She’s one of the elite fighters of The Family, a gang led by Zirchoff, a legendary criminal. She’s known to the Noble District as the Ebony Flame and your adventure takes you on her heists for their boss and dealing with the endless pursuit of the guard and the shifting allegiances, which ultimately leads Nahmi to question everything she is and has become.
Though the above makes it sound as if Children of the Zodiarcs offers an interesting view into the life of a desperate individual, doing what they can to survive but having to commit acts she’s not proud of, the truth is that while the game does attempt to tell this kind of story, the characters murder others with such abandon that by the third time they’re moaning about their behaviour and fate, you’ve lost all interest in their growth, of which there is none. The main character is a massive hypocrite and though I liked her at the start, by the end I despised her as much as I did one of her companions, the pre-teen sociopath Brice.
It is impossible to relate to characters in Children of the Zodiarcs as they are as monstrous as their enemies, with the only exception being the Zealots, who take their gruesome act to ludicrous and cartoonish levels.
This has the secondary effect of making the plot of the game profoundly predictable. If you assume the worst of the characters, you will know where it’s all going and what their choices will be.
Nahmi’s adventure appears on screen as a series interconnected checkpoints across the city, with older points lighting up occasionally as skirmishes. But this has one major annoyance for me and it’s that the map doesn’t follow the character icon to its latest position but always resets to its initial position. It’s a simple matter of scrolling up, but it’s infuriating to have to do it every time.
While the cel-shaded visuals used in Children of the Zodiarcs are good enough, what really makes it all come alive are the hand-drawn character portraits, which infuse the silent characters with so personality and charm, even if they are essentially despicable people once you get to know them.
Though the game lacks voice acting, the music more than makes up for it, with some phenomenally intense battle themes and moody tracks.
Children of the Zodiarcs is a fun tactical game, with great ideas that I wish to see refined and taken to the next level. As it stands it’s too simple, though that is not a negative but it does keep it from being truly great.
4/5 – Exceptional!