We're reaching the point in the history of the wide world of Japanese RPGs where the majority of the originators of the genre have parted ways with their creations.
With that comes three new waves in the genre - games from major companies like Square Enix that try to recreate and iterate on past successes with new, younger staff; new companies who attempt to build the types of games they loved a decade ago; and of course the heroes of old who at new, smaller companies attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle with either new radical ideas or friendly, familiar ones on a smaller scale.
All of this is important to note when going into Kobojo's Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey, for this new Japanese-styled turn-based title is a strange little mix of two of these styles. Kobojo is a French company, while much of the development of Zodiac took place in Britain - but this game can't be described as anything other than a Japanese-style RPG, no matter where it comes from.
Its Japanese credentials are backed up with two big names from Japan - Kagushige Nojima (best known for his work as a writer on the Final Fantasy VII series, plus VIII, X, XIII and Kingdom Hearts) is on board to write, while the music is handled by Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work on Ogre Battle and the Ivalice-based Final Fantasy titles.
Zodiac has had an interesting journey to its final release on iOS, and still has a way further to go until it'll see a more traditional release on the PlayStation 4 and Vita. Beginning life as a free-to-play product with microtransactions, Kobojo adjusted path significantly after fan complaints, and before launch switched the game to a single one-off premium fee of £6.99/$8.99.
This new all-in-one experience casts players as Cael, a young soldier who ends up being dragged into a larger web of political intrigue and war that feels at least somewhat familiar tonally to Final Fantasy XII.
The world of Orcanon is split four ways, between four major races, and the lizard people in particular seem to be typically getting rather aggressive. Quickly, things spiral out of control in classic JRPG fashion and off on an adventure you go.
Meeting with members of the Kobojo team prior to launch, I was told that Nojima's involvement wasn't just in crafting a story for this one game, but in building a world that could support several. This much seems obvious in the execution of the story, which while lacking in places seems to suggest a lore far deeper than the more minimalist-mobile friendly presentation allows.
Story sequences play out with lovely art and well-written text, though the pacing does feel terribly inconsistent, and one does wonder if this was a victim of the hasty switch from free to play to premium.
There's a depth and beauty to the art that helps it to push right past this. In this, Zodiac manages to channel the spirit of some of the best RPGs of the 16 bit era - but with far higher resolution art, which is always welcome.
As previously mentioned, navigation takes place from a side-on perspective and while riding the back of Saber, a creature that's a lovely cross between a griffin and a sabre-toothed tiger. Areas aren't just designed for left-to-right platformer style navigation, but for players to move up, down, and back from right to left again as they go.
There's no issue with a lack of space in this design, but some of the maze-like level design does grow tiring. And while the art is excellent, its pseudo-realistic style mean there's often less obvious landmarks throughout a level to help guide you than there might be in a more outlandish style. This could of course be remedied with a map - but there isn't one.
It's only when you're yanked into a battle that Zodiac truly shines, its love for an absolutely classic era in JRPGs becoming obvious. Eschewing the likes of ATB (Active Time Battle) for a more traditional fully turn-based system, the game pops up attack options right around the character whose turn it is in a fashion that really leans into the advantages of the touch screen format. Moves are executed by simply dragging the icon of the action you want to do over your enemy or your party. Simple! It works excellently.
There's everything you'd expect from a JRPG of this type - buffs, debuffs, attacks of different elements, and the standard issue enemy weaknesses and strengths. It's all deceptively simple, with true depth and strategy inserted into the system in the cost of some different abilities. Some attacks have cast countdowns for instance, putting a character out of action for a while.
Lead hero Cael can switch between classes on the fly mid-battle to get access to new abilities, but doing so pushes him to the very end of the turn order (which is shown on screen) for the next turn.
Each class is backed up with its own base stats and then a tree of upgrades to take from there, and while the meta of battles is satisfying, especially around challenging bosses, it's good to report there's some decent RPG menu meta to be had here too.
Battles play out a touch slower than those used to more ATB-driven systems will be used to, but in a sense this is a love letter to the very genesis of the genre with its fully turn-based rooting. It is great to report that the combat remains interesting and for the most part a challenge.
The story pacing and delivery oscillates wildly between engaging and poor. Mddling maze-like level design is exacerbated by the lack of a map, and this first release we've been playing has been plagued by some truly nasty bugs based on feedback from fans online. However, I thankfully managed to avoid most of them in my time with the game.
Being a game that began life as free to play, Zodiac of course has a robust post-launch upgrade schedule planned, and Kobojo are already online talking happily about plans to patch out bugs and adjust things people don't like.
If they manage to do that, building on this base, the beginnings of a really great traditional Japanese-style RPG are buried here, starting chiefly with the really very fun combat system. As it stands now, beautiful art and music plus great combat isn't quite enough to balance out those rough edges - but hopefully with time, and patches, it'll get there.
This comes recommended with the caveats of its shortcomings above - but we hope to revisit a patched version or the PlayStation version and find it living up to its potential more in the future.
Versions tested: iOS
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.