Children of Zodiarcs Review – Multi-Layered Strategy (PS4)
Feel a hankering for a strategy role-playing game (SRPG)? Well, you’re in luck – after being featured in the Square Enix Collective and running a Kickstarter which funded over five times its asking budget of $50,000 CAD, Children of Zodiarcs has finally arrived on the PlayStation 4. Mixing turn-based strategy with deck building and dice rolling, does the game manage to do something new in the SRPG genre? Time to find out.
Turn-Based, and So Much More
Children of Zodiarcs is a turn-based game at its base level. Naturally, things are more complex the deeper into the game you look. Each player takes a turn to move their units and perform actions. Turns only have one phase, which consist of several actions. Physical tasks are automatically countered by enemies, unless they are backstabbed (attacked from behind), attacked from a higher vantage point, or with a ranged attack. Every unit has their own deck of cards, and set of dice. Units can hold up to seven cards in their hand, which dictate what moves they have available. Once the unit is in place and the card is played, the player rolls up to six dice (more can be added with various buffs), and final damage and other card effects are calculated. Rolling the dice is done by holding the Cross button, moving the left analog stick, and the releasing as the dice still have some speed – the DualShock 4’s motion sensing capabilities are not utilized here, which would have been a fun mechanic, gimmicky or not.
Deck building is an interesting prospect in Children of Zodiarcs. As your characters level up, they unlock new cards to add to their decks. In between story missions, you can build a custom deck using those which have been unlocked. Depending on the cards’ strength, you can have up to six copies in the deck, with a minimum of 18 cards in each deck. A balance between deck size and card repetition must be maintained to have an effective deck. For example, a deck with tons of cards may result in having a varied hand, but you may not get your more powerful cards when you need them most.
Children of Zodiarcs also allows for dice crafting. Either through the story mode or side missions, characters will pick up random dice of varying strength. Some dice have attack buffs, others give your character an extra turn, and a rare few have cursed sides, with accompanying debuffs. Most sides on these dice can be upgrading, by sacrificing extra dice that have a certain amount of particular sides required to craft the upgrade. It’s a pretty simple system, and allows you to create some very powerful dice.
If all of this turn-based strategy, deck building and dice crafting sounds complicated, well, it is! Children of Zodiarcs is an unabashedly deep game, which does hardly any hand-holding. While the first few story missions unlock the various elements of the game, the game’s AI never lets up. You should expect to lose matches fairly frequently. The best way to master the game’s mechanics is to keep playing. After a few successful story missions, skirmishes are unlocked in a separate mode, and any unlocks earned there carry over into the story mode, which can help with the game’s steep learning curve and ruthless AI. There are also only two difficulty levels to choose from: Normal and Hard. Children of Zodiarcs is challenging enough for most gamers on Normal, while Hard will take a particular type of dedication in order to clear, as the game’s AI buffs itself, debuffs you, and generally punishes any slight misjudgment on your part.
Strategy-focused RPGs are designed to be challenging, and Children of Zodiarcs certainly follows in that ethos. The problem, however, is that this will frustrate players who enjoy the game’s story. Since it’s interesting enough that you want to follow the plight of the orphans against the noble establishment, if you’re having problems even completing the first handful of “easy” missions at the start of the game, you’ll likely feel discouraged from trudging through the game while repeating missions over and over.
There is a large focus on the game’s story in Children of Zodiarcs as well. You play as a group of orphans and displaced adolescents, who are in a gang run by Zirchoff, a larger-than-life father figure with questionable scruples. The story is a genuinely entertaining affair, one that you will enjoy reading if you like drama mixed with humor. The younger characters also learn and grow with the story, and you may find yourself caring what happens to the main characters after only a couple of hours. Developer Cardboard Utopia focused on delivering a complete, single-player only adventure, and that shows with the story on offer in Children of Zodiarcs. Even in between battles, you’ll often find two or three side stories to read through, which serve to flesh out many of the game’s characters. There is a lot of story to digest, and it is thoroughly enjoyable.
The world of Children of Zodiarcs is fully fleshed-out, and has an artstyle evocative of classic JRPGs. Pastel coloring and outlandish characters complement one another. Scenery changes are semi-frequent, and include a change in enemy types, as well. Major cutscenes include wonderful artwork, as well. Each level usually encompasses a large grid, and includes small details such as decorations you’d find around a castle, or flies buzzing about in the underworld, all hand-crafted with generous detailing. Generally speaking, Children of Zodiarcs is a treat for the eyes.
In classic RPG fashion, Children of Zodiarcs has a sweeping soundtrack. Featuring audio work by Vibe Avenue, the music has a range of emotions to fit the situations occurring in the story. The game hits the ground running in terms of initial pace, and so the music is intense to start, but during some of the exposition encountered in between battles, the soundtrack takes a more calming tone, even hopping into a laid-back mood at times. Unfortunately, despite boasting an impressive storyline, there is no voice acting to be found in this game.
Children of Zodiarcs mixes a collection of disparate mechanics in just the right way. Coupled with an endearing story, fans of the SRPG genre will no doubt love playing the game’s skirmishes long after they are finished with the story mode. However, an absolutely brutal AI will keep more casual fans from enjoying much of the story if they cannot come to grips with the game’s systems. So, the difficulty is a double-edged sword, even on Normal. Still, for those of you able to weather the storm of the computer’s assaults, the reward of developing a winning strategy pays off immensely. Children of Zodiarcs is a bargain at $17.99, and has plenty of content to sink your teeth into.
Children of Zodiarcs review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.