When I saw Children of Zodiarcs on Kickstarter, I was intrigued. Their descriptions brought to mind classic RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle, evoking memories of the Strategy RPGs that so many of us loved as kids. They then mixed that with promises of incorporating the dice and deck style mechanics that board game aficionados are so familiar with, bringing together two seemingly disparate playstyles to create a happy family.
An ambitious goal. Not only in taking two completely different genres and tying them together, but also breaking into an already-niche genre dominated by well-established heavy hitters like Final Fantasy, Disgaea, and Fire Emblem as an indy game. Could a small studio pull this off? Could they live up to the Kickstarter promises or would this be just another example of a Kickstarter promising more than they could deliver?
In Zodiarcs, you’ll quickly find yourself embroiled in a story of a nation split in two, with an ultra-elite rich upper class and a group of poverty-stricken children-turned-thieves. Amidst this, we are introduced to Nahmi, a young thief known by the moniker “The Ebony Flame” after numerous successful heists against the upper nobility. She lives as part of a family of poor orphans in the slums led by Zirchoff, and desperately wants to get revenge on the nobility for what they’ve done to her in the past. As the story progresses, you’ll be introduced to additional characters, but the writing is clearly focused primarily on Nahmi and her growth as a person. While the story is simple, and is primarily told through dialogue at the start and end of each mission, it is not a bad story by any means. There are a few plot points that felt very awkwardly handled, especially as we near the end, but overall they built characters and a world that I’d love to see more of.
Children of Zodiarcs highlights both the advantages and disadvantages RNG-based systems have. Sometimes, the highs felt invigorating. When you were able to pull off a perfect chain of attacks and draw just the right cards, you felt unstoppable. However, given the nature of the combat, it also suffered from the problem that a single moment’s bad RNG could result in complete and utter defeat – whether it be the dice just going against you or your deck dealing you the wrong ability cards. You see, Zodiarcs has your party go first, all at once, followed by the enemy team all going at once. This type of system is rarely one that I like, but it is particularly problematic in games that have a lot of randomness like this. It really amplifies the negative side of the randomness, while playing down the good side of it.
Another core issue that played into making the game feel very erratic was just how much damage characters did, relative to their health. It was not uncommon for characters to take their entire health worth of damage in a single attack – both ally and enemy. It just felt like the damage numbers for abilities were way too high. There were some amazing ideas here… the combat felt good, rolling the dice felt good, managing your cards felt good, building decks and dice felt good. It was just all over too quick, for good or for ill. If they’d slowed down the combat and given you a few more characters to play with, I think the game would’ve been incredible. It also felt like certain abilities were dramatically stronger than others, and it almost left me feeling like there was no reason to use some of my character’s spells except novelty.
There are a ton of really cool touches here to give it a really unique feel among video games. For example, after rolling your dice for the turn, you can reroll up to two of them to aim for better results. When you roll these dice the second time, you run the risk of them hitting other dice, altering those rolls as well, for better or worse. They also had a simple crafting system allowing you to modify your dice to emphasize the stats you found most important… pretty basic stuff, but sometimes simple is good. The other cool element is the way they handled unlocking of abilities. Rather than constantly giving you new abilities, they preferred to evolve your abilities over time – making them more and more complicated and powerful as time goes on. The counterpoint is that you’ll frequently unlock abilities and wonder why you would ever, in a million years, dream of using them… until they get upgraded and become absurd.
Now, it may sound like I’m being overly critical of minor flaws here… and I am. There is so much that is just the slightest notch away from being awesome here that it makes me long for what this game could’ve been. As is, it’s a lot of fun. But when you run into the occasional fight that really exacerbates the balance issues, or when you hit an encounter that is over just as it starts getting interesting, it reminds you that they missed an opportunity to make something spectacular and, in stead, settled for merely ‘good’.