In a world of inequality, Children of Zodiarcs delivers a strong message

Having played about five hours of Children of Zodiarcs, I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface. This Kickstarter funded tactical role-playing game from Cardboard Utopia hits all the right notes for me, with deck building, dice rolling and a deep and engaging underdog story about a thief named Nahmi – The Ebony Flame.

The opening scenes in Children of Zodiarcs explain how Nahmi and her crew — just a morose lad named Pester, to begin with — run with a ragtag bunch of orphans led by a Fagan-esque brawler by the name of Zirchoff. The place they live, The Shambles, is essentially the poorest part of the city of Torus, a city where the nobles live a life of luxury and money can buy you anything, whilst the poor suffer a life of servitude.  

Reminders about this class divide and how it motivates people are constant, with Nahmi and her friends in clear, open revolt about the issues they face, and even the enemy guards often referring to how capturing the rebellious kids will make them rich and famous. 

To me, this came across as very relevant in today’s society, and whilelt you won’t be interested in my political views specifically, it’s impossible to deny that Children of Zodiarcs is offering its own perspective on modern global politics. As is usually the case with videogames, the messages are less subtle and it’s largely clear who the baddies and goodies are (and who might swing from one side to the other) but nonetheless it makes for an interesting narrative.

Whilst the story itself is interesting and engaging, the lack of voice acting and minimal use of cut scenes feels like an oversight. Much of the story is delivered between missions, with Nahmi and her compatriots talking about the current situation, their motivations and occasionally their history. These conversations can be skipped, but since each one only consists of perhaps two or three minutes of reading, I persevered on most occasions.

Other story beats, in particular the critical elements, are delivered on the tactical map screens just before, after or sometimes during a fight. I often found myself skipping through these bits quite quickly because I wanted to get to the action, and I can’t help but think that if these sections had been voiced or if a cut scene had been used to break away from the action, I might have paid them more attention.

As it happens, this is partly because the combat itself is usually quite interesting and fun. Children of Zodiarcs uses a fairly classic three-dimensional grid for each map, with a free camera that can achieve anything from pure top-down to a close up sideways view. Full rotation and zoom are possible, and overall this works well given that a lot of maps feature a mix of low-level streets and much higher buildings that can all be accessed.

Combat is entirely turn-based, with the player taking a turn with each of their characters, then the enemy, then the player and so on. There’s no initiative based gameplay, and usually, a character must move and then take an action, whilst on occasion that action will also allow them to perform a bonus, second action.

When I refer to actions, what I really mean is to play a card. Each character has a deck of cards that can be customised by the player by choosing different sets of cards from the inventory of each character. There is a minimum number of cards per deck, but no maximum that I can see, and each character can be highly specialised or quite generalistic. 

Whilst my characters have only reached about level seven or eight, I’ve already got access to a good variety of new cards, and I could feel even before I had access to certain cards how I wanted a character to develop. 

Nahmi, for example, drew too many healing cards to begin with, and later, although she gains access to some buffs, I wanted her to be largely focussed on dealing damage thanks to her frequent ability to sake a second action (a bonus on one of her starting cards). 

The other side to the combat in Children of Zodiarcs is that of dice rolling. Each character (in addition to the deckbuilding element) has access to a number of dice sets that expand as they level up. It’s even possible to adjust the faces on each die (dice crafting) to customise the possible outcomes.

This helps buff certain cards, so, for example, if you use an attack card that gives a bonus when crystal shards appear on dice (the most common face) then you’ll deal extra damage. Hearts on a die will allow you to heal as you attack, whilst stars and other faces might do other bonuses. Referring back to my Nahmi example above, one of her cards will allow a bonus action upon rolling a star, so one of my builds for her focusses on seeing that card often, and rolling stars as frequently as possible.

One early mission also allowed me to gain access to a level 25 character, and whilst I couldn’t build a deck or any dice around them, I was able to see what some of the possible combinations later in the game might result in. There’s clearly a lot of potential for powerful combos and variation in this system, and I can see how players might really get into it if they are that way inclined. Don’t worry too much though, because there’s also a choice to have your deck build automatically by the AI.

After even a short amount of time, I can see the potential in Children of Zodiarcs and I understand why it has seen the critical success that it has. The game feels as though it tells quite a personal story, but the ambition in terms of its combat system, it’s visuals and its overall level of polish is much grander. If you’re looking for a tactical, JRPG style game, I think Children of Zodiarcs might be one to pay close attention to. 

Children of Zodiarcs is available on Steam, Xbox One and Playstation Store now.

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