[Review] Children of Zodiarcs – Nintendo Switch

  • Developer: Cardboard Utopia
  • Publisher: Plug In Digital
  • Release Date: 27/03/2020
  • Price: £15.99 / $17.99
  • Review code provided by Plug In Digital

Introducing: Children of Zodiarcs Review

Tactical or Strategy RPGs have seen a swell as of late. I still remember a long drought following the PlayStation 1 era with few releases. Occasional titles rose to mainstream but most seemed obscure bygone afterthoughts. That or they were relegated by limited consoles or restrictive regional requirements. Today, as the video game landscape continues to evolve that drought has curbed. Developers are finding new ways to deliver content to broader markets and hardware manufacturers are starting to shift in the way they interact and implement feedback from the masses.

One such paradigm is Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. It can be difficult as a gamer to see projects pop-up, vying for an early advance. Some of which never come to fruition or are delayed so frequently, they become forgotten hopes. In 2016 I took a chance on a new Tactical JRPG by Cardboard Utopia. Children of Zodiarcs looked promising. At the time I was heavily playing my PS Vita. My hope was that if the game were successful enough, it would be ported to the Sony handheld device. As time passed, that seemed unlikely and though I got my backer code for the PS4, I never embarked on my quest through the broken streets of Torus. That is until now. I was given the privilege to review Children of Zodiarcs for the Nintendo Switch. Read on to see my thoughts and find out if the wait was worth it.

Tell Me Your Story

Children of Zodiarcs paints a vivid picture of a typical hierarchy where those at the top of the pyramid are kings and everyone below is nothing more than a stepping stool. In this fantasy dystopia, the poor live in squalor as destitute vermin. Conditions are grim and chaotic in this dog-eat-dog world. Or should I say, people-eat-people world? Cannibalism isn’t uncommon as scraps of food can be tough to catch as they literally fall from the lofty towers above. Surviving this dank world alone is out of the question. That’s why our protagonist, Nahmi has allied herself with a gang mostly made up of children. Reliance on your “family” is often the only thing to see you to the next day.

Children of Zodiarcs is a relatively short tale in the realm of role-playing games. However, it’s poignant setting and elegantly crafted dialogue make for a memorable jaunt. Many of the typical RPG storytelling tropes have been swept aside for a unique adventure that focuses on one kid’s survival in a desolate world. Powerful relics of an ancient time are infused throughout the land. These Zodiarcs are often misunderstood or simply locked away as treasures to collect dust. Nahmi finds herself in precarious situations as she battles with inner conflict while trying to juggle the power of the Zodiarcs. All the while, everyone in Torus is trying to hunt her down and kill her.

Though the plot wasn’t overly complex, I enjoyed its simplicity. The writers did an outstanding job bringing the characters to life and giving them motivation to move on and grow. A lot of the narrative can be missed as one of the game’s mechanics is an optional “Tell me your story,” dialogue delivery following combat. These brief sequences really drive the details and clarify the surrounding world. I urge anyone who plays the game to explore them all.

Child of the Shambles

Children of Zodiarcs blend some exciting gameplay elements together and the mix is rather satisfying and successful. At its core, it’s still a Tactical or SRPG. The combat is turn-based and characters move across authentic maps in grid-like fashion. Sneaking up behind an enemy can deal greater damage and provide a safer attack route. A head on tangle of fisticuffs gives the enemy a chance to counter attack. All of this is pretty standard for a Tactics game. Where things start to deviate is how combat is determined and the skills each hero can use.

Children of Zodiarcs adds a hint of card and dice gaming. Throughout the game, as character’s level up they unlock cards. Each card is a different attack, skill, spell or curse. Building a deck of these cards will be the arsenal your team carries into battle. A bit of strategy is required when constructing your deck. Take too many of one card and you’ll have trouble accessing other cards during each skirmish. Once you’re in battle, you can only access seven cards at a time. Ending your turn without taking an action will allow you to draw two new cards from your deck but you’re still maxed out at seven in your hand.

The use of dice determines how each attack or action plays out. Like building a deck of cards, you can build and customize your dice. On the six sides you can have an attack, defend, draw a card, heal or a star icon. Depending on your roll, you might do minimal damage if most of your dice fall shield up for defense. The shield is helpful to reduce counterattack damage but is irrelevant to ranged skills. There are times when you want to roll a lot of stars to activate a special effect based on the card you’re using. Other times you just want an onslaught of attack icons to fell your foe that turn. Fortunately you can choose to reroll up to two dice in attempt to swing the outcome.

Last of The Timbu

The combat system was fresh and engaging. I had an immense amount of fun participating in battles just to try and pair cards and dice for an optimal result. Not only can you build a deck of action cards, you can craft the dice in a way that suits your style. Following battles you don’t get typical loot similar to other RPGs. Here you get dice. There’s no armor or weapon upgrades. Just new dice. Some dice will come with negative effects. One icon if rolled facing up could damage your character. Crafting allows you to replace most negative effects with an icon of your choice. Be it another chance to improve attack or a star.

As engaging and as original I found the gameplay, I did miss certain experiences. There’s no money to be earned or shop to peruse. The lack of armor and weapons leaves all of the customization to the dice and cards. That’s not a bad thing as I enjoyed the crafting system, but I was left wanting more. The game also lacks any tangible locations and the over map is pretty linear. Toward progressive points in the story you can open up side missions and skirmishes to level up but it was all lackluster in presentation. Almost like they were added as an afterthought to help players grind to navigate the difficulty spikes toward the end.

Trapped by Circumstance

The art style used in Children of Zodiarcs is stunning. Though the backgrounds and environments draw from the same color palettes and don’t differ from area to area as a whole, they are highly detailed and evocative. I was impressed that fighting inside of rooms, actually felt like being in a room. So often in these games, a single room can look as spacious as an entire office building. In Children of Zodiarcs they felt cramped and a little claustrophobic. The way the camera and structures were designed, it wasn’t a problem when playing yet still offered a believable setting.

The musical composition in Children of Zodiarcs served beautiful medleys, remincient of fantastical worlds. It was clear from the menu screen to the opening and throughout that a passionate team built the sound track based on a love of role-playing games. The music was insightful and memorable. 

The Hand of Fate Has Dealt

There were some minor issues I noticed during my playthrough. Occasionally a die would roll behind a character image or offscreen. Normally, the dice are pulled toward the center so you can see what you rolled. In the case of a miscast die, you are unable to see the result. Some sound issues cropped up between loading screens as well. There were times when the music would get really loud during transitions before going back to its normal volume. I also noticed if you speed up the gameplay, the audio would get scratchy and bleed over to when the normal speed resumed. None of these issues are game breaking by any means, but they did get bothersome. Aside from that, Children of Zodiarcs ran well on the big screen and when playing portable. Honestly, playing in handheld was like a dream come true. I had always hoped to play Children of Zodiarcs on the go, and it was a natural fit.

Final Wrap

Children of Zodiarcs is exactly what I hoped it would be. The combination of deck building and authentic dice tossing really made the experience shine. I still enjoy the sound of the dice clacking together as they bounced around the board. It was authentic and satisfying, which kept me engaged in the combat process as it gave a greater semblance of control. The lack of towns and traditional customization can be overlooked but minor qualms and bugs tarnished the glow, but only a little. Despite the short narrative, it’s a rich tale that isn’t often told. When considering the cost, Children of Zodiarcs is a steal for the asking price. asking price as it’s as polished as a Triple AAA game in an indie package.

Pros

  • Deep Story
  • Blended Combat
  • Engaging Customization

Cons

  • Linear Campaign
  • Minor Sound Issues

Verdict
Children of Zodiarcs has the polish of a Triple AAA game in an indie package. Fans of Tactical RPGs shouldn’t miss out.
4/5

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