It’s no accident that, right down to the game’s logo, Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey gives off the feel of a classic Final Fantasy game. Though releases on other platforms from PC to PS4 and PS Vita are planned down the line, the intention all along was to build a true RPG for mobile platforms with much more of the depth and nuance than you see with existing attempts to adapt the genre, without resorting to digital buttons or porting existing games wholesale.
The death of Empress Dorothea sparks a change in the world of Orcanon, with a new empress coming in to rule over the world’s four realms – Earth, Fire, Water and Air. A prison in the Earth realm goes into lock down, so Cael, your main character, is summoned to Kitoto Castle by the new empress and sent to go and find out what’s going on.
Having been built from the ground up for mobile, there’s no digital controls in sight as you fly through the gorgeous 2D environments on the back of a griffin. The prison’s lockdown means that large parts of it are inaccessible until you find the relevant key card to open the doors, but simply holding your thumb or finger on the screen sees you fly in that direction.
There’s a number of people to talk to as you explore and search, but you’ll want to be aware of strange visual distortions, which herald the presence of enemies to fight or try to avoid. It’s a slightly odd halfway house between frustrating random fights and the appearance of specific enemies in the world that you often see in RPGs, but means that you’re never quite sure what to expect.
Kobjo’s Marketing Director, Jean Baptiste Fleury said, “I’m actually playing Final Fantasy VII on mobile, and they did it worse where you walk in an area and boom! Fight! We didn’t want to do it like that, but we wanted to do some kind of effect to show there are enemies. I’m not sure if we are going to keep the vortex as it is, but we want to find a way for it to be understandable for the player and not something crazy out of nothing. At first, as you can see in the trailer, we had a kind of shade, but we weren’t convinced by the effect and we think the vortex is a little better.”
The fights themselves take a very traditional JRPG form, with your heroes on the left and enemies on the right. The order of attack runs along the bottom of the screen, as characters step forward one at a time to deal damage, cast spells or make use of consumables. It’s as simple as dragging and dropping one of the four abilities onto the enemy of your choice, or tapping on the attack and then on the target, in order to do the same job.
Of course, those four abilities are just a selection from those that each character and class can actually wield, with the classes tied to the twelve zodiac signs. The more powerful attacks have a cooldown of a few turns, rather than consuming mana, as too does the ability to call upon the griffin to leap into the fray and deal a huge amount of damage on your behalf.
While abilities and equipment can be switched around, only Cael has the ability to change classes entirely, and he is the only constant within the party. You might feel that you’d rather he was a fire breathing, grenade throwing alchemist, rather than a standard sword wielding fighter, and pick your other party members to compliment that choice. Cael can even change classes during a fight, if you want to change tactics on the fly.
There’s a lovely art style that comes to the fore during the battles, but is sumptuous even as you fly around the world and see the parallax effects in play. All of the characters have been animated in Kobojo’s own peculiar fashion, which takes a piece of artwork and then modifies it in such a way that limbs can move and chests can heave, all so that the characters constantly stay in motion.
An interesting twist is that you’ll be able to team up with the characters of other people playing the game. Whether through Facebook, Apple’s Game Centre or some other means, Kabojo want to spread a little sense of community in this game, so that you can borrow the Cael that other people have created to fight alongside you, perhaps giving you a little advantage in a boss battle, and with a small XP kickback given to that player down the line. If you just want to play offline, however, you can hire a mercenary or stick to the cast of companion characters in the game’s story.
But Zodiac’s RPG credentials are quite seriously boosted by the calibre of some of the developers working alongside Kobojo’s Paris and Dundee studios. The story, as Jena Baptiste tells it, is that the producer of the Zodiac spent a lot of money for a front row ticket and backstage pass to a concert from Hitoshi Sakimoto, the composer from Final Fantasy XII and many other games, asking him if he would be interested in working with Kobojo on the music. But the relationship flourished, and he helped to make connections between Kobojo, Kazushige Nojima – the Scenario Writer from Final Fantasy VII and several others – as well as a number of other unannounced figures who worked on that series of games.
“It’s difficult because we’re working with people across the world and with a different culture and so on,” Jean Baptiste explained, “but we all share the same passion and the collaboration is very, very interesting and we learn a lot of things. They’re very happy, actually, and at some point Sakimoto said he could feel the ambiance of when he started a long time ago with his very first team.”
At one point, the game was also intended to be a free-to-play game, Jean Baptiste revealed. “I know that there have been a lot of people complaining about free to play and saying it’s a bad thing, but free to play is very nice. For example, when you go on the iTunes store and buy a specific song from an album, this is free to play; you pay only for what you consume. If it stays like that, it’s very nice, but when you see people make bad free to play games, it gives a bad sensation.
“So as we want to make this game for JRPG lovers, we were communicating with them about the game and every time we talked about free to play they were complaining. We listened to them and at some point we said that maybe it means something, and as we went through development of the game, we understood it would be difficult to make a fair free to play version of this game. So after all this consideration, we decided to switch it to premium.”
The difficulty will be in setting an attractive price – $15 is too much and $5 too little, Jean Baptiste said – but there’s a desire for this to become a big success. They’ve risked investing triple the budget that they normally would, and Nojima has written a script in a world with depth for numerous games. At the very least, the first season of the original release should last a minimum of 10 hours for those you decide to rush through it, and this will be expanded upon with a second season as paid content down the line.
While it’s something of a risk, the apparent wealth of talent behind Zodiac is a major boon for Kobojo. Having names from Final Fantasy’s long history attached to this project will be enough to cause many a JRPG fan to sit up and take notice, but from the mobile oriented design to the familiar game design, this is one to pay attention to regardless.