Children of Zodiarcs — A rich tactical experience with plenty of heart to spare

Children of Zodiarcs is a turn-based, strategic JRPG in which the player must manage a hand of cards and a fistful of dice for each character they control, blending the worlds of video and traditional board gaming.

Stemming from a successful Kickstarter campaign in early 2016, Children of Zodiarcs hearkens back to games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. The folks over at Cardboard Utopia wanted to do more than just create a modern version of those classics though and brought Children of Zodiarcs up to date with an innovative blend of deckbuilding and dice management that adds a fresh and deep twist on that formula.

A battle in progress.
Judging from the maps I’m pretty sure the nobles of Torus got a great deal on a batch of red carpet.

Most of Children of Zodiarcs takes place on a colourful, isometric battlefield that represents different areas of the fantastical city of Torus. A huge metropolis with a very clear, and very brutal, class divide; Torus was home to a powerful civilization long ago who left relics, the titular Zodiarcs, in their wake. The player will guide an array of characters, most armed with one of these Zodiarcs, through fight after fight as a desperate story of survival, revenge and friendship unfolds.

Almost all of the game consists of strategic positioning and hand management as you try to guide your plucky group of characters through the combat encounters they find themselves in. Rather than having set powers or abilities fueled by mana, Children of Zodiarcs presents tactical choice and scarcity through a card playing. Each character starts every encounter with five cards that represent the abilities and options they have available to them. These can vary from close-range melee attacks, long-distance ranged attacks, area of effect magic abilities or support or healing powers. Each turn the character can move a set number of spaces and then play one card.

Children of Zodiarcs: Dice rolling in action.
Nobody was fooled by former wrestler Big Daddy’s small change of name.

Once the card to be played has been chosen a number of dice are rolled, each is unique with different combinations of symbols on them that might deal more damage, prevent counter-attacks, heal the character or even grant free actions. The outcome of the dice roll will modify the effect of the card played. The player will have the option to re-roll up to two of these dice and this is key to making this part of the game rewarding. The choice between whether to sacrifice some extra card draw or hitting power to try and roll the all-important star symbols that will trigger additional, powerful abilities of the cards is tough. It speaks firmly in the game’s favour that, despite this dice rolling being core to the game, it never feels completely random or unfair. The player has enough control over the outcomes not to feel hard done by.

To use a tortured football analogy, the dice rolling and card abilities might be the flashy, tricky winger of the game but the water-carrier; the one doing the hard grafting to make all of this possible is the power of positioning in Children of Zodiarcs. Placing your three characters in exactly the right spot on the battlefield to maximise the effectiveness of what they can do is absolutely essential to success. Which direction your character is facing is hugely important too; being attacked in the back by an enemy can be extremely damaging.

Nahmi speaks about her goals.
That’s the plot of the game in a nutshell right there.

In the hustle and bustle of combat, all of these elements come together very well to create a deep, subtle and challenging tactical experience, even for veterans of similar games. The player is constantly faced with choices about risk and reward that feel rich and rewarding due to having just the right amount of control and randomness present in the equation. Even on standard difficulty, where the enemies in each encounter scale to your characters, the game feels challenging. On hard the main story missions do not scale and your characters could easily come to the table under-levelled and find everything hard going.

To get around this the game offers endlessly replayable skirmish encounters that are tweaked repetitions of previous battles. These opportunities to level up your characters are necessary on the hard difficulty to keep up with the game. Personally, on standard difficulty, I found them to be optional. The grinding of levels in games like this can be tedious so it’s appreciated that you have a way to play the game that mostly cuts it out if it’s not right for you.

Children of Zodiarcs: The level up screen.
Always an exciting moment in any game.

Levelling up your characters is essential to success in Children of Zodiarcs. Those cards that you have access to in combat are entirely governed by the player. The deck of cards each character has is fully customisable and as each character levels, different cards and stronger versions of existing cards will unlock. There are very few dud cards in the game and each character supports at least two different deckbuilding and play styles. Endlessly tweaking these decks to produce exactly the right mix of abilities is very rewarding and to see it all come together on the battlefield is even more satisfying.

It is not just the cards that can be customised in Children of Zodiarcs however. At the end of each successful encounter, the characters will be given new dice with different mixtures and strengths of symbols. Choosing what dice to take into battle is another way in which the player controls the flow of combat. Perhaps the character has a deck that requires a lot of those optional star-based abilities to function; make sure that you take dice that have plenty of star symbols on. Perhaps the character’s deck is somewhat gung-ho and leads to a lot of counter-attacks; make sure to take dice with shield symbols to block them and heart symbols to heal up.

A battle in-progress.
Fans at the Bee-Gees comeback gig were dubious about the band’s new look.

Yet another layer of depth to this element of the game is that the player is not stuck with the dice they are given. After a few missions, the ability to change the symbols on dice will unlock. By sacrificing some of the unwanted dice that have been won, the dice taken to battle can be edited. Replace shields with stars or card draw symbols. Replace shards that represent extra damage with lightning bolts that grant free actions. All of these elements combine to give the player a rich, deep and highly rewarding experience of customising their characters. This is key to that feeling mentioned above that the dice do not cheat you in Children of Zodiarcs. If your characters are not rolling enough stars to function as you want, that is in the player’s power to change. The same is true of any underperforming aspect of a character’s play.

The bulk of your time in Children of Zodiarcs will be spent in combat with the game’s story unfolding as cut-scenes within encounters. There are also optional moments of silence between encounters however and I highly recommend that you experience all of these as they offer insight into all the characters as well as some much needed moments of levity. The story in Children of Zodiarcs is not overbearing but packed a surprising punch for me with real depth and darkness to it that I wasn’t expecting. As the situation gets more desperate in Torus, the characters are forced into worse and worse positions and the game is not shy to show the effects of desperation and revenge. Don’t be fooled by the bright colours and cute art style, no punches are pulled.

Children of Zodiarcs: The victory conditions of a mission.
Don’t expect to see a huge variety of mission objectives. There’s basically this. escape the map and kill x enemy.

Overall Children of Zodiarcs is a rich and fulfilling game experience with more depth than anything I have played this side of Slay the Spire. More and more games are trying to mine the innovations and mechanics of board and card games and very few have done so as successfully as Cardboard Utopia has done here. If you like to get crunchy and deep in the strategy of your games then Children of Zodiarcs will not disappoint. The fact that this comes coupled with a surprisingly rich and affecting story is just the icing on the cake.

Children of Zodiarcs is available now on Steam and Humble Bundle.

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