Children of Zodiarcs is the new tactical turn-based RPG from Square Enix and indie studio Cardboard Utopia. A sublime mix of storytelling and table top RPGs, Children of Zodiarcs has quickly found a home in the hearts of many RPG fans. We met up with Jason Kim, the Creative Director at Cardboard Utopia, to talk about the game. Read on for insight on how this indie studio is one of the leading reasons behind the revival of the tactical RPG.
For those who haven’t been initiated, can you give an idea of what Children of Zodiarcs is all about?
Children of Zodiarcs is a story-driven, deck & dice tactical RPG: it blends the traditional turn-based gameplay of tactical RPGs and combines it with collectible cards and craftable dice to infuse it with tension, anticipation, and excitement. In CoZ, cards are your abilities, your spells, and your attacks. After playing a card, dice rolling (and
re-rolling) allows you to optimize its effect or get extra bonuses, like additional cards, hp, an extra action, or trigger special effects on cards. Outside of combat, deck building, dice equipping, and dice crafting will make sure you bring into battle the tools you need to make the most of each party member and to match your own play style.
Children of Zodiarcs follows the story of Nahmi and her fellow thieves as they’re given the task to break into a decadent noble’s vault and steal a priceless relic. What should have been a routine mission for them quickly turns ugly as the thieves are forced to flee the heart of the city while being pursued by city guards, rival gangs, and a clan of murderous zealots.
What games gave you the most inspiration for Zodiarcs? I sense a lot of FF Tactics, maybe a little Disgaea in here.
Through the concept of Children of Zodiarcs I think it’s fairly easy to see that we’re big fans of classic tactical RPGs like FFT, as well as, of course, collectible card games and board games like Magic the Gathering, Dominion, and Dungeons & Dragons! 🙂
However, I think it’s important to point out that we weren’t so much directly influenced by FF Tactics – or Shining Force, Tactics Ogre, Fire Emblem, Disgaea and the likes – themselves, but we were influenced by our love of the genre, that these games fired up in us. From the start, we didn’t want to recreate these games beat by beat, especially FFT, which is a beloved masterpiece that has stood the test of time and can (and should!) still be replayed today. We wanted to make something new that that can proudly sit in the genre as its own distinct entity, with its own unique systems and experience.
Hence, fans of tactical RPGs will absolutely recognize fundamental elements of tactical gameplay like turn-based combat on a grid and positioning, but will also experience strategy and customization in a new way: through dice and cards. The abilities and personalities of the characters are incarnated through their decks and optimized via their dice, which means that “equipping gear” and tweaking a character’s class is translated into deck building and dice crafting.
The deck & dice system also allows us to infuse tension, anticipation, and, as paradoxical as it may sound, a level of control (!) to the combat, something that is fairly different from well-known tactical RPGs. Classically, “hit chance” introduces randomness to tactical combat. We wanted to keep the excitation which comes with a touch of chance, without punishing the players with an unavoidable, AI-imposed “miss” on their attacks. Cards and dice keep the fun aspect of hoping for this or that card to be drawn into your hand during combat, or crossing your fingers while the dice are rolling, while giving you the opportunity to influence luck several different ways, through customization, free-form rolling and rerolling, and adapting strategy, knowing that the cards played will always take full effect.
Where did the idea for this world and these stories come from?
The base concept for the universe of Lumus and Torus and the characters that live in it was built up through many late-night discussions between Damian Ebanks, who wrote Children of Zodiarcs’ script, and me.
We wanted to pay homage to the stories typically found in tactical RPGs and JRPGs, but we also wanted to subvert some of their tropes. At its core, CoZ’ story is not about a pure-hearted young hero sacrificing themselves to save the world from the ultimate evil. Rather, it’s a personal story about survival, and walking the line between the necessity vs the morality of one’s own actions. The story explores the themes of loyalty, revenge and compassion, privilege and oppression, and their personal impacts on characters of various backgrounds.
Those themes are not wholly absent from the genre, but we wanted to show their shades of gray because one of the goals of our studio is to create stories and characters that will challenge expectations, make you think, stick with you. But of course, as mischievous individuals ourselves, we never forget to add a touch of humor and levity to the journey!
To what do you think we owe the recent resurgence of tactical RPGs like Zodiarcs?
I think one of the major factors in the genre’s recent resurgence was a strong reminder of how fun and amazing tactical RPGs are, and Fire Emblem Awakening’s release was that. It re-kindled the passion of genre fans who lost interest after the PS1 era and introduced the genre to a whole new generation of fans that came into
gaming in the last decade and never knew the likes of FFT, Tactics Ogre, or Vandal Hearts. Not only was it critically acclaimed, winning numerous accolades and awards, but it also sold an insane number of units. It made publishers rethink the commercial viability of tactical RPGs.
However, Fire Emblem Awakening’s success alone wasn’t enough. The part that also helped open the gates was the current game development climate. For the past few years, it’s been easier than ever to get access to game development tools and knowledge and to release a game to the public. With more and more indie publishers popping up, and big corporations opening up to the idea of publishing indie games, it’s never been easier for a group of people to follow their dream and make something they love.
It’s through combining gamer passion for tactical RPGs with the accessibility of game development that this resurgence was able to happen. And this isn’t only applicable to tactical RPGs. It also happened with horror games. For that genre, Amnesia was their Fire Emblem Awakening.
What features, pie in the sky ideas, did you want to add to the game but were unable to?
In all, we’re super happy with the features that Children of Zodiarcs released with. We knew from the beginning that we wouldn’t have the resources to do everything we wanted, so we made sure that everything we would be able to have would work together and be a contained set of game systems. That there would be no loose ends.
This means we were able to end up with a game that was focused on its core game pillars, where each system supported, and was supported by, all the other systems in the game. For us, having shipped many other games that had the “throw everything in so there’s something for everybody” mentality, this game was a huge breath of fresh air and something we’re all very proud of.
That being said, one of the bigger ideas that was cut early on during pre-production was the idea of cards having a “talent tree” of sorts. Much like the dice crafting, where we wanted to exploit the fact that we manipulate things in video games that’ are not possible with their real-world counterpart, we wanted to give players the control to evolve and shape their cards beyond what can be done with physical cards. As heroes leveled up, the player would be able to select different upgrades to apply to their cards, so that by the end of the game, their set of cards would be completely different from every other set of cards.
Is there any DLC planned?
At the moment, our focus is on post-release community support of the main game. We’ve been keeping our eyes and ears wide open since launch to gather all the feedback we can from players, because we want to make Children of Zodiarcs as enjoyable as possible. Although the game launched with very few bugs or technical issues, we wanted to address requests for some specific features, whenever possible. We already released an update for PC (it went live 3 days after launch), and we’re currently preparing the next update for release. After that, we’re going to get back to porting the game to Mac.
When it comes to DLC, it’s still a bit early to say. It will heavily depend on how successful the game is, and whether there’s a public interest for additional content. Again, we’ll keep listening to the players, and let them decide!
What’s next for the studio? Games are a service and all that, but do you have ideas for your next game?
Part of our team is actually already in the early stages of the conception of our next project! I can’t say much about it for now. I will say that it will be different from Children of Zodiarcs in terms of genre, but we want it to also have a compelling storytelling and unique systems. We are also open to the eventuality of making a sequel to Children of Zodiarcs, but that’s pretty much dependent on the same factors as DLCs: the public reception of the first installment.
Finally, tell us ONE thing that only the studio and devs know about Children of Zodiarcs. Make it a good one!
That’s a tough one because one of the big things that going indie did for us was it allowed us to engage the community anytime we wanted, and be super transparent about our whole development process. So, really, there’s not much we’ve kept secret.
One thing I will divulge is that contained within Children of Zodiarcs is the answer to the ultimate question… Which Star Trek series is the greatest of all time?!