No Baby Steps with Children of Zodiarcs

When a new product rises from the depths and starts tempting us old salts with it’s angler fish like lures, we can get a bit nervous. They start promising “love letters” or “spiritual successors” and that can lead us down a path of broken hearts and bitter dreams. With that in mind, while I love my old trips down memory lane, nothing gets me more excited than a new property that acknowledges it’s roots but takes some risky departures.

That is the sort of situation we have with Children of Zodiarcs. While the name itself always wants me to cram a “the” in there and it conjurers memories of the Zodiac Brave Story that was Final Fantasy Tactics, I will forgive it. Simple in its implementation but opening the door to something both unique and complex, the team over at Cardboard Utopia has really done something impressive.

While none of the moving parts will be new on their own, they’re blended together to make a system that feels right at home in a tactical game. In Lumus, the team has built a world touched by powerful magics waiting to be unleashed, a realm where the difference between the poor and the wealthy are at a dangerous boiling point. This, combined with the use of traditional tabletop gaming elements like dice and cards, make for an experience I was not expecting but which I came to welcome.

05werich
These two were brimming with naive optimism.

Lets Roll

Back when pyres were still lit to punish heretics, I maintained secret membership to a cabal of dice throwing, pencil wielding dreamers, heavily involved in the dangerous and demonic arts of Tabletop Roleplaying Games. So while many younger gamers may look in wonder at what these strangely shaped, numbered rocks might be, dice have a fond place in my heart – no matter physical or digital. Needless to say I was very happy to hear that a dice system was being used in combat for this game. If you are familiar with the wildly fun The Curious Expedition you will already have the best comparison of how it works. For those who haven’t played such a title, I’ll explain in brief.

The characters can take various actions in a turn. The vast majority (if not all) grant a pool of dice to roll. These aren’t your standard dice with numbered sides, as they have all manner of strange symbols. The Crystal symbol grants a boost to your effect, the Lightning Bolt allows an extra action, the Draw Cards symbol to… uh.. well you get the point. (More on Cards later!) After you roll, you can tweak your result a bit more by selecting dice to re-roll.

And when I mean roll, I mean it as close as you can get in a computer game. You select your dice, you shake the cursor, and you flick your ‘hand’ of dice. The little cubes go scattering around, bumping in to each other, eventually settling down to show the results. A fun quirk that I found very charming most of the time, until one of the dice I re-rolled bumped into a high value stationary dice, knocked it over, and changed the results! So, tip there kiddies, you can use your re-roll dice to re-roll other bad dice. Just… be careful. Don’t be like me.

The other main mechanic of this system is the deck building aspect. Each character has a deck of cards with special, and often unique, powers. As the game progresses past the tutorial stages the player is allowed to rebuild this deck within certain parameters in order to create a focused strategy for each character. During a combat round, each character will start with randomly determined cards. New cards are drawn during combat as a result of die rolls or by spending an action to “draw cards.” Keeping a flow of cards is essential and one of the things I ignored early on, thus putting my beloved plucky scoundrels in a great position to attack but nothing to attack with.

03Rolling
I thought it would get old – but I just really like rolling dice.

As characters level and the story progresses, new cards are added to their arsenal and older cards are upgraded. As mentioned, the deck builder allows the player to finely tune the characters capabilities, but there is one more important aspect of character customization that really grabbed my attention with Children, and that’s collecting dice.

While a deck can be rebuilt and the cards can evolve, that is all predetermined. Dice are where it is at for customization. You can, and will, collect more dice than you can actually use through the course of play. You can take some more favourable looking dice and equip them to your character so they will be used in combat, and store the less beneficial ones off to the side. Those spare dice can be broken down and used to craft and reforge other dice. This allows the player to have a great say in the potential power output of their character, and while I’m not sure if I prefer the system to a more traditional equipment based system, it is unique enough that I didn’t get tired of it. It was a clever way to implement a crafting system into the game that didn’t seem like it was checked off a laundry list of “needed functions.”

I get grumbly at games that have slapped-on elements taken from the standard list of expected features these days, regardless of how well they might fit the rest of gameplay. Crafting, Open World, 5 billion hours of play, Multiplayer, and so on. I am pleased with the interaction of Cards and Dice in Children of Zodiarcs, which feel very fresh.

04draw
Sometimes an action must be spent to draw more cards.

Tactical Choices

I like my strategy easy to control but with depth, and that is what we get with Children. The game’s very simple controls mesh with the complex crafting system to provide us with many excellent strategic choices, many of which are not easily noticed synergies and combos.

Children makes use of a tried and tested turn based strategy system. Each side gets a turn, during which each character is allowed to take actions. There is no turn order outside of “Us and Them,” and the player is allowed to determine when each of his characters act. Movement is pretty easy to understand, and the game camera is good enough you are not stuck guessing, hoping and praying that your little minion is exactly where he needs to be. (Take note tactics game devs – camera rotation is super important.) In the event you did move to the wrong square, or decided that maybe the action you were considering isn’t the best to take, there is a fairly generous “take back” system.

I’ve played in many tactical games that love “Chess Rules,” in which you are allowed no take backs when you have decided on your piece movement. Sure, it adds for a more ponderous game, but I was never a fan. Let me have that as an optional layer of difficulty, sure. Attach some achievements to it, sure. But don’t force me to live with the mistakes I’ve made. I don’t need life lessons. I want a power fantasy! However, once the dice are tossed, there are no take-backs.

I’ll go back to something I already mentioned, and that is being able to choose which order your characters act in. Lots of games like this have in-depth initiative systems, which will show you which characters are acting in which order. Often the more powerful units will move slower, while the weaker units move quicker and more often. Not so with this game; everything from power to action economy is handled through the cards you draw and the dice that you’ve built and equipped. The freedom the player gets in choosing which order their characters move was something I didn’t really pay much attention to at first, but as I played, I realized how much power it gave me to create and execute my very own custom strategies and combos. There are very few games that I have played that allow this level of tinkering with the characters abilities and freedom to create our own combos.

In a closing note on the controls, it is a pretty simple point and click affair. Sometimes you can lose track of your characters, but that is a minor thing (and maybe it happened to me just because I’m getting older). Elevation and facing are both things you need to be aware of and add just a bit of spice to the system. With all these factors combined you have a strategy system that allows creative thinking without overwhelming the player.

02pointnclick
Moving around is clear and simple.

Strategic Investments

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: I like a good story. I want characters I can get invested in, they don’t need to be realistic, they just need to be engaging. From the start I knew I was going to like the characters of Children. They hit all the right notes and differed from the old tropes enough to get me wondering more about who they are and they various mysteries following them.

There is a class struggle theme in this game. Very much a Rich vs Poor mentality. What surprised me is the mindset of the characters towards killing. The game goes out of it’s way, early on, to make sure you understand that the main characters aren’t just fine with killing, but seem to relish in it. These attitudes and beliefs are further delved into as the game progresses, however it was just a bit shocking. The main characters are young and idealistic, and that is normally a set of traits that is paired with the peace loving and non-violent. Or at least paired with the desire to be one of those.

In fact, early game, you are give a distinct feeling that when the revolution happens, the characters will happily line the other side up against the wall and murder their heads a lot. I found this a bit surprising but a bit refreshing. Sure, you kill lots of bad guys in lots of different games. But this just felt a bit different.

Beautiful Bounty

Recently I was looking at some of the Gamescom footage and marvelled at some of the new great looking games. Painfully I cried out at the magical box that shows me moving talking pictures – “Oh no. Graphics do matter.” – and while that is true, it is only true to a point. A game doesn’t need to look hyper realistic. It doesn’t have to operate off all cutting-edge gaming tech. It doesn’t even need to melt your two year old video card.

What we need from graphics is something that Children delivers rather well. It finds an aesthetic and leans into it hard. The graphics are not hyper realistic but they are immersive. The poor and dirty parts of town convey a feeling of a poor, oppressed class struggling to survive. The maps in the wealthy areas don’t so much display the commonly shown off vice of opulence, but they do give a much more sterilized and orderly feel. Everything from colour choices to set pieces invites us to invest a bit more in this beautifully crafted world.

While you spend a great deal of time scrutinizing the various set pieces, you spend just as much time watching your characters. The cast – both players and enemy agents – are well done. Each character has their own distinct presence in the game. They are easy to spot from various camera vantages, and are easy to pick out from the background. In an industry that is still trying to get away with everything being brown and grey, the vibrant and contrasting use of colours in this are executed in a way that is not only stylish, but memorable and thematic.

Finally the music. Always an important topic but not one that I can critique as anything other than a layman. In any game where you are going to be focused on planning, it is vital that the music be unobtrusive. In tactical games this is a hard thing to balance, because we players want the music to merge seamlessly in with our experience – but at the same time it still needs to give us a dramatic, epic feeling when we need it. On these concerns, I feel that Children of Zodiarcs delivers very well. The music, like the art and design, fits the theme of the game perfectly.

01suretheymad
Those subtle social themes.

A Gamble Paying Off

So yeah, from the allusions, hints, and themes, many are going to come into this expecting another Final Fantasy Tactics. Heck, as the game progressed through its milestones, we now see Square Enix listed as the publisher. It’s hard to shake off the spectre of such a beloved title, but I really feel people need to approach this with three things in mind. First, it is not FFT. Second, it is not like most tactical games. Third, it is really good. Let go of your nostalgia, open your heart, and give this game a try.

Children of Zodiarcs, by Cardboard Utopia, is available on Steam for a very reasonable 19.99 CAD and I highly recommend it.

9/10

Review by Joshua Smith – AKA Old Man Mordaith

Edited by Jesse Roberts

This game was received for free as a review copy.

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