For a long time, I’ve thought that tabletop RPGs and SRPGs would make for a perfect marriage. Super Dungeon Tactics strengthened this belief, but it was Children of the Zodiarcs that really crystallized it. What you have here is a SRPG which manages to apply the tabletop influences in a very pleasing way, managing to carve an original path forward in so doing.
There are two important systems which serve as the glue that binds together everything in Children of the Zodiarcs. The first of these is deckbuilding. Admittedly, deckbuilding isn’t super involved, but you’re given a fair amount of options for each character. Furthermore, as your characters level up, cards automatically upgrade themselves. At certain levels, you will also unlock completely new cards altogether. Granted, the deckbuilding in Grand Guilds was far more intricate, but keep in mind: Children of the Zodiarcs was released 3 years prior.
Our second core system is dicerolling. Dice can trigger different effects, such as shards (extra power), shields (extra defense), stars (can trigger special effects on your cards), and lightning bolts (an extra action). Interestingly, you can customize faces of the dice so that you’ll have better odds of getting the exact effects you want. If you want to play more safely, then you may want to add more shields or healing effects to your dice faces. Alternately, if you like to rapidly fire off special effects, then some combination of stars and lightning bolts will suit your playstyle more.
I love how original and fresh these ideas were, especially for 2017. Games like this are proof that you don’t need to uncreatively clone another existing series.
On the story front, Children of the Zodiarcs is an intimate tale of orphaned children who are looking to survive the bleak cesspool that is the City of Torus – basically, it’s a big city like Detroit or Chicago, except even worse (if you can imagine that). You’re treated to some good social commentary which touches on socioeconomic class struggle, the decadence of elitist politicians, and gang warfare. Because of the story’s themes, Children of the Zodiarcs is the sort of game that could only take place in a big city; you wouldn’t see rampant class struggle and dangerous ganglands in a more rural, pastoral setting.
Alongside the wider story ideas, Children of the Zodiarcs also focuses a lot on its core cast of Nahmi, Pester, Brice, Xero, and Zirchoff. They’re certainly not the most likable characters per se, but they’re sympathetic. Virtually all of their flaws are the unfortunate product of growing up in a squalid, corrupt environment. It’s a chilling tale of how extreme poverty and lack of a supportive family can lead people to crime, betrayal, and yes, even cannibalism. Yikes.
The game has two main problems, though. For one thing, the game is too short. I beat the game in around 5.5 hours, and cleared the sidequests in another hour or so. Thus, the game’s $18 price tag is arguably a bit high, but even so, I plan on replaying the game eventually and I feel I got my money’s worth because of how great the whole experience was (I got it on sale anyway).
My other problem is that the game is too limited. Just like in Grand Guilds, you’ll only control 3 units at a time. In some battles, this is dropped to 2. The game’s core systems are interesting enough that this isn’t a huge problem, but overall, the game would’ve been even better if it had expanded its scope and allowed for larger parties. I feel the door’s wide open for a sequel which picks up where the story leaves off, and which allows for, say, 8-12 characters instead of just 3.
Notwithstanding its flaws, Children of the Zodiarcs is one of those indie SRPGs that does a lot of stuff right. I highly recommend giving it a shot.
Console: Switch, PS4, Steam
Developers: Cardboard Utopia