With games increasingly looking to cross the traditional divides between genres, Children of Zodiarcs is an intriguing blend of tactical RPG, dice rolling and a collectible card system. It comes together somwhat like Final Fantasy Tactics, but with cards deciding each character’s attacks and then dice rolls determining the results. It allows for a lot of options as you fight your way through a dark, corrupt city after a heist goes wrong.
Child thief Nahmi finds herself fleeing the corrupt city of Torus’ noble district and into its depths, through places with names like The Shambles and The Inbetween. The world of Zodiarcs is certainly interesting, with some depth to the lore behind it, and it is realised well graphically. Unfortunately the game’s story itself suffers from overly simplistic characters and unconvincing dialogue that you have to read through in the absence of voice acting.
The game is at its best when in combat. Each character has its own deck of cards and its own dice, both of which are customised by the player. This allows you to tailor each character to a certain style of play as you level up and unlock more cards. Your dice also contribute to this, as each die can have options to heal, increase damage in attacks, even get a free action. You can turn Nahmi into a rogue who uses one turn to decimate multiple enemies if you know what you are doing.
Some characters are a little less open, however. Brice, an orphan with magical Zodiarc gauntlets, has one card that can heal her (leech) and it must be done from melee range, opening her up to additional damage anyway. I found the best way to deal with this was to give her dice with more healing sides, so she had a chance to heal with every action, as Nahmi’s leaning towards melee meant she was usually too far away to rely on for healing. Pester, the third member of the party, can’t even be relied on to actually be in combat as he occasionally flees pre-combat because, canonically, he is an annoying coward.
After moving a character you can choose a card from its hand, draw two cards, or guard. Cards are not drawn automatically from the deck, so you will need to use turns to draw more or use dice. The random nature of the cards makes how you tune your deck important, as over-stuffing it with too many of a particular type of card can stop you getting that healing card you really need right now, unless you change your dice.
The game bills itself as a collectible card game but, as the cards are obtained through leveling your characters and are exclusive to each character, it isn’t really about collecting cards as there is no searching or finding involved – you won’t gasp at finding a rare card, for example, because you got it simply for reaching a higher level, you didn’t find it. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though, just a distinction. As you level up your cards become not only more numerous, but more powerful, as they gain buffs that can be triggered by dice as well as increases to damage.
After choosing your card, you roll your dice to decide the outcome. Tune your dice well enough and you can have them and the law of averages heal you, draw more cards, and grant extra actions, significantly changing the way you play that character. They decide how much damage you deal and take, how much you heal with healing spells, and whether or not you acquire any buffs. Carefully chosen dice can change a character’s role on the battlefield, whether by alleviating the need to heal or draw cards to turning them into a (figurative) cannon.
You find dice randomly by winning fights, each one is exclusive to the character that “loots” it. The sides of the dice can contain shards that increase damage, hearts that heal the character, stars that activate abilities on cards, among others. You quickly gain the ability to “craft” dice – that is, you can change the sides of the dice by sacrificing unused dice, effectively allowing you to make your own.
Combat is particularly satisfying as a result of the card and dice systems – winning a gamble on a perfect dice roll to take down three enemies in a turn is excellent, as long as you don’t mind the opposite as seemingly certain victories somehow go wrong. You take the highs with the lows, after all.
The real issue with combat is that the story can feel like it gets in the way. Take the coward, Pester, for example. He occasionally isn’t there for fights because he ran off (through the door the enemies came from sometimes) or is just hiding, so you are down a character that you had in your strategy. He also doesn’t level up if he isn’t in a fight, so he ends up being under-powered and a liability later in the game. You can go back to previous levels to complete skirmishes to grind Pester up to a reasonable level but it quickly becomes dull repeating them, not to mention that the other characters gain almost nothing as they get less experience fighting less powerful enemies.
As a story, Children of Zodiarcs is a little lacking, but if you don’t mind some grinding the mix of combat, card and dice system is a delight. Although some characters are less useful than others, the fights are enough to pull you through if a tactical RPG is what you are looking for.
Version tested: PlayStation 4