Children of Zodiarcs (PlayStation 4 Review)
A lot of video game genres are loosely defined. One of the most recently popularised labels in the industry, “indie “, is sometimes treated as one of those. The ever reliable Wikipedia describes an “indie game” as one that has been developed without the financial support of a publisher, such as Square Enix. Indies have their own market, and it’s an area that many of the big publishers have been attempting to expand their brand into. Their attempt to capture that market area is the Square Enix Collective—an online catalogue of low budget games that get voted by a community to gain the publisher’s support, without providing any real money. Square Enix offer expertise, while developers seek funding through sources such as Kickstarter.
That brings us to Children of Zodiarcs, an indie game deeply embedded with inspiration drawn from Square Enix’ own catalogue, and selected by the Square Enix Collective community. This is Cardboard Utopia’s first title, and it’s an interesting one, blending the tactics-style of gameplay found even in the publisher’s most notable brand Final Fantasy and board game mechanics. Unlike the slightly cynical nature of the Collective titles this reviewer has experienced before, the marriage of familiar Square Enix elements, nostalgia, and the developer’s own creative ideas actually feels fresh and well-orchestrated.
Following a large, devastating war in Lumus some centuries ago, the Zodiarc technology was briefly lost. Since then, they’ve been rediscovered as relics from a lost world. The result is that nobles have become even more rich and important, while the poor literally feed off their scraps. Protagonist Nahmi is a young girl who uses this lost technology to steal from such nobles for the sake of her orphanage. The orphanage itself is owned by the criminal mastermind Zirchhoff, who runs it as the hideout for a gang of professional thieves—all raised here. There’s a sense of discontent and exploitation that gives pause for a moment, but our protagonist is ultimately content with her arrangement with this dangerous person. That being said, she’s definitely the lead of her own story. Many of the conflicts are the result of Nahmi’s discontent with the current state of the world and can be rather cathartic.
It doesn’t feel there’s very much time to become intimate with the cast. Each stage is set up with an initial but brief cutscene, while closing in a similar fashion. As a result, the scale of the story isn’t incredibly large, but the characters surprisingly don’t suffer. The plot often takes a backseat for more time with Children of Zodiarcs‘ cast, which is a great thing considering they’re the scenario’s greatest strength. Sadly, our journey with those characters is over much sooner than initially expected, and the pacing does suffer a little as a result of the very strict routine each stage follows. To the developer’s credit, it’s pretty clear they recognised the strength of their cast as each stage also provides optional dialogue exchanges between them, outside of battle. This is probably where the title’s low budget is felt most, as these scenes would benefit from happening elsewhere from the mission select screen.
The characters aren’t the only strength of the title either. As previously mentioned, the gameplay feels fairly fresh. Players will be able to move each member of their party across a grid-based map like chess pieces, each taking turns to move and then act. Each player character will have their own deck which expands and develops as they level up. Up to seven cards can be held at one time, each with a range of effects from inflicting damage to altering the dice available for a target.
The dice was an interesting inclusion as well, making the RNG visible and possible to manipulate. This isn’t the simple die numbered from 1 to 6; dice will include bonuses to damage, free actions, and the ability to draw a new card to name a few. Furthermore, cards can have conditions for additional effects dependant on the dice values rolled. There’s a lot to play and experiment with here; despite the RNG-nature, the battles never really feel unfair. In reality, there’s plenty of room to be creative with the limited resources available. It’s possible to combo a number of cards while generating a large number of extra dice to continuously enhance the final outcome. Of course, there are some restrictions.
A deck is limited to 18 cards, and drawing a card sans dice or card effect will cost a full turn. Up to two dice can be re-rolled, but only once per turn. New players may have a hard time with some stages as a result of a bad string of luck, or a poor grasp of the combat. The title does become somewhat more challenging as it progresses, though players can look to optional missions to further expand their options. Battles also only offer three available player characters at one time, causing the player to always be severely outnumbered. Each character’s pool of cards is also representative of their personality, resulting in their own styles of fighting in battle. These styles are interesting, and very polished.
In contrast to the creative freedom the battle mechanics offer, there aren’t that many character styles to take advantage of. The number of characters are fairly limited, and finding an optimal strategy isn’t necessarily difficult. The lack of a larger cast often found in the main scenario of similar titles can definitely be felt, but again, this comes with the indie territory. At least, there’s plenty for the developers to expand on.
Providing the soundtrack for Children of Zodiarc is Vibe Avenue, a professional team that have contributed to a range of indie titles. There’s a good variety of tracks that are reminiscent of the music found in classic videogames similar to the title. The worst that can be said is that there are a small number of tracks blending into the background, but the ubiquitous nature is hardly a detriment. They still effectively paint the scene with the relevant atmosphere, whether it’s oppressive or hopeful as is often the theme for each conflict.
Meanwhile, the stage design is reasonable. There are locations in which the camera can get stuck behind walls. Beyond that, there’s little very notable about them. The enemy AI can also be particularly savage, focusing predominantly on stacking a ridiculous number buffs and debuffs before laying waste to the party. Interesting level design would enable the player to utilize the stage to take some advantage over the enemy numbers, but this is often rare. Additionally, the height of each space in the stage’s grid will rarely impact actions.
Speaking broadly, Children of Zodiarc is a rather ambitious title, feeling somewhat scaled down. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that it leaves players wanting for more, which can also be considered a compliment. It honestly feels at home in Square Enix’ own catalogue, and it’s a shame that the publisher presumably had no role in funding. This is a title rich with potential and passion from its developers, but it’s still very short and sweet.