Children of Zodiarcs: For the Love of Tactics

The 3 Week Diet
Kids of the ’90s craft a love letter to tactical RPGs

Partner Content by Square Enix Collective

By the time you read this, indie dev house Cardboard Utopia will have just released Children of Zodiarcs, an isometric tactical RPG of the sort that captured many players’ hearts during the genre’s 16- and 32-bit glory days. Zodiarcs, which was a runaway Kickstarter success, has been a passion project for this small but enthusiastic crew. It not only marks the return to a well-loved genre, but the first indie project for a team that cut its teeth on massive, triple-A franchises.

Going little

Before going indie, Cardboard Utopia’s founders came from the world of triple-A, where they worked on truly massive projects like Far Cry 3, Eternal Darkness, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and The Warriors. While their budgets are now much smaller, their enthusiasm may well have increased, as going indie provides them with both a newfound flexibility and ability to closely interact with fans.

“Going from the triple-A games industry to indie’s been an awesome journey,” says Jason Kim, the company’s creative director. “By being indie, we can openly talk about our game. We can openly share it with players. We can involve players in the creative process and show them what’s behind the curtain.”

It’s quite a change given the mega-studios from which most of Cardboard Utopia’s principals sprang. Indeed, a quick glance shows the Zodiarcs team to be very active on blogs and message boards, talking freely with fans about almost every detail of the development process.

Art director Erica Lahaie agrees. “Players will be able to look at our game, and instead of seeing this thing that was driven by like two, three hundred people, it’s us. I mean, the game is like four people. You can see ourselves in there and to me that’s really special.”

A blessed existence

Kim founded Cardboard Utopia in early 2014, working on a prototype and calling in favors from friends. By September the project was solid enough to submit to the Square Enix Collective program, where it garnered a then-unprecedented 93% positive rating. This paved the way for a relationship with Incubator Labs, and in January 2015 the fledgling indie dev had a real, live office.

These and other fortunate occurrences all but guaranteed Zodiarcs‘ eventual completion, yet Kim and his small coterie wanted to take the project further. For this they turned to Kickstarter, with a basic funding goal of $50,000 Canadian.

“[We wanted] to add more environments, more cards, more enemies, and in general make a much more robust game than [was possible] with the original budget,” Kim says.

The project clearly found an enthusiastic audience, because the Zodiarcs Kickstarter not only hit its initial goal in less than two days, but ended up netting over five times that number. Stretch goals begat stretch goals, including, perhaps most importantly, a livestreamed pizza party. Now the team could concentrate on delivering the best version of their vision, while sometimes also eating pizza. Meanwhile, fans who pledged a certain amount gained access to a playable beta. All seem pleased with these outcomes.

Wooing lady luck

“The main inspiration for Children of Zodiarcs,” says Kim, “comes from our love of tactical JRPGs from the 16-bit and 32-bit era, like Shining Force I and II on the Genesis and Final Fantasy Tactics on the PlayStation. But we didn’t want to just retread the same ground, we wanted to bring something new to the genre.”

For inspiration, the developers turned to their shared love of card and board games, eventually incorporating both collectible card and craftable dice aspects. Success in Zodiarcs relies deeply on both.

Forget just choosing to “attack,” as cards dictate every action your characters perform. But finding cards and adding them to a particular character’s deck is just the start; then it’ll take a little luck to pull the card in battle, and more to enhance it with a good roll of your carefully chosen dice.

“If cards define what’s going to happen, dice define how it’s going to happen,” explains design director Samuel Daher. “They can make an attack stronger, or trigger a special attack on a card.”

Dice rolls aren’t completely random, though. Between battles you’ll be able to manage the dice each character takes into the fray, crafting specialized dice and forming dice sets that focus on offense, defense, special attacks, and so on. Then when you roll — shown in-game with dice flying all over the screen — you can choose to re-roll a die or two in hopes of a better outcome.

Comrades in dim places

Such tactics would get you run out of Vegas, but in the fantastical city of Torus you’ll need all the extra luck you can muster to get your ragged crew of street urchins through their ordeals alive.

Children of Zodiarcs” story is about a group of thieves,” explains writer Damian Ebanks. “They come from an oppressed class and they’re up against a city that really has no love for them. They’re trying to break into the vault of one of the nobles to steal a priceless relic, but things are not going to go exactly as planned.”

Thus begins a frantic retreat through Torus, heart of the Toran Empire. From the opulent Nobles’ District to the violent, lively slums of the Shambles (from which your heroes hail) to the murky depths of the subterranean under-city, Zodiarcs‘ thieves will face the wrath of Toran authorities, rival gangs, and even cannibals as they race to get away with their act of rebellion.

If anything, this dark but colorful fantasy world, dubbed Lumus, calls to mind Ivalice, the memorable setting of Final Fantasy Tactics and a handful of related Square Enix adventures. You get the impression these developers wouldn’t mind that comparison in the least.

Closing the circle

So, in a sense, it’s somehow appropriate that Square Enix has stepped up to publish Children of Zodiarcs. The circle is complete, with the ’90s-kids-turned-developers working with one of the very companies that sparked their original love of tactical RPGs.

Cardboard Utopia hopes its fans can feel this connection when they play the new game. “I hope when people are playing Children of Zodiarcs,” says Lahaie, “that they feel the same kinds of emotions and feelings they felt when they played these kinds of games as kids.”

That’s a high standard if there ever was one. But given Cardboard Utopia’s hugely successful Kickstarter, very engaged fanbase, and oodles of talent on display, it might be unwise to bet against this particular roll of the dice.

Jane Larkin once rented Shining Force for a solid week. The late fees weren’t even that bad.

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