I first got a taste for Zodiac two years ago, where, as a freshly announced game, it occupied a major-sized booth at Tokyo Game Show. Buggy as it was back then I saw an awful lot of potential in it as a 2D RPG with similar production standards that won me over with Child of Light. Indeed, it was my game of the show, thus justifying the bang it landed on the scene with.
A year later Zodiac was at TGS again. This time around it had shed its free-to-play trappings and was instead planned spun into a premium-priced game, and it was now an iPad exclusive (only for now, mind you, the game is coming to other platforms in the future). But finally it has been released, and is, for now, a mobile platform exclusive. Whether you grab this version or wait for it to land on PC or console, however, make sure you do get stuck into it, because Zodiac is one stunning little love letter to traditional JRPG gameplay.
It hasn’t dropped all its free-to-play heritage, however. With each successful battle there are materials to grind up to earn better loot, and the quest is broken up into neat “mission” level structures with additional difficulty options to come back and challenge later on. Though Zodiac no longer attempts to get you to use real money through micro transactions and the like, the flow of the game remains very much in that vein, and that means a relatively thin narrative to instead focus on funnelling players from one combat to the next.
But that’s not to say the narrative is poor. Oh no. It’s actually quite a compelling one that touches on some intense themes around racism and xenophobia, while framing these themes within an epic, arching plot that helps to make what you’re doing feel far more important than the relatively small 2D environments would otherwise suggest. Each of the characters that join you on your quest are introduced briefly, and dialogue between them is minimalist, but thanks to some gorgeous art, animation, and cut scenes, there is more than enough depth in each character to execute on the retro JRPG vibe that Zodiac is gunning for.
Combat is a very traditional turn-based affair. Each character has some pre-determined roles in battle, with a handful of skills each either supporting the party or hindering the enemy. Because there is a significant grind involved in Zodiac (which is what traditional JRPG fans like to experience anyway) there are some difficulty spikes involved, but for the most part the game strikes a nice balance between accessibility and challenge. What impressed me is how each character and their skills do add to the strategy of each battle. Because there are relatively few skills for each character in Zodiac, combat has been designed around making players use them all. At times you’ll need to try and stun the enemy. At other times, you need to sacrifice a character’s defence in order to do additional damage to the enemy. And then, when the enemy has a powerful attack coming up, so you’ll need to make an attack that does less damage, but boosts the character’s defensive capabilities.
Each combat ability has a cool down time, meaning that you’ll need to be strategic in their use, and as a result, Zodiac’s battles have a rhythm to them that I’ve rarely seen in turn-based games. Abstract as it is from the turn-based format, there’s an elegance to the to-and-fro, attack and defence battle mechanics that accurately – and interestingly – mirror the dance of actual combat. Of course, the best bit of all is the very slow timer for the giant, winged beast that acts as a support – or “summon” – attack. He’s only really useful in the boss battles (because regular combat tends to be over before his activation timer counts down), but that attack is a visual feast for the eyes, and does appropriately impressive damage. Of course, you then need to be as strategic as possible in when you use that attack, because it’s a precious resource in what can often be challenging boss battles.
Speaking of the visuals, the work that has gone into Zodiac’s art assets is breathtaking. From the backgrounds to the animations there is such a rich eye for detail that each new area becomes a delight to explore on its own merits. The detail in the combat sequences is especially impressive, and I was enjoying making progress through the adventure as much to meet new enemies as much as anything else.
All that detail provides a degree of smoke-and-mirrors, because environments are small, and towns are a largely menu-driven affair. A lot of the replay value is in upping the difficulty of existing areas, adding to the run time but keeping the raw content minimal. And, while I loved both the in-game art and the fully animated cut scenes, the two use very different art styles, which don’t gel together as well as they should. Finally, the lack of voice acting wouldn’t have mattered ten years ago, but by modern standards it’s jarringly noticeable.
Nevertheless, this is one of the finest JRPGs on the iPad, with production values that equal, if not exceed, other 2D animated masterpieces such as Dragon’s Crown or Child of Light. It’s a game that will more appeal to players who grew up with JRPGs on the Super Nintendo and so appreciate the lost of art minimalist narrative exploration, but it is nevertheless a tight, strategic, and deeply enjoyable JRPG that I hope spins into something much more grand as the revenue starts rolling in from this first release.
– Matt S.
Do you play RPGs or JRPGs on iPad or Android tablet?
— Digitally Downloaded (@DigitallyDownld) November 17, 2015