One of the hallmarks of a good JRPG is an engrossing story and engaging characters. Typically they will sink their teeth into you right away or you’ll be left wondering, “why do I care?” Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey falls into the latter category. It was so slow to develop that it left me with a hard time ever getting into this game.
In case you are wondering I’ll let you know upfront, it isn’t all bad. But it isn’t that great either. Zodiac has all the fixings that a JRPG from the 16 bit era should. Turn based combat, check. A number of jobs, or classes, to choose from, check. Lots of loot, triple check. Trees to advance skills, yep they are in there too. All the systems are present and accounted for.
The game even looks great. The 2D art is varied and colorful. Armor is over the top like it should be. Kobojo even does a good job of mixing in anime vignettes to progress the story. The big problem with the game, however, is the characters. They are boring. You are introduced to the protagonist and his sister as they are sparring in a courtyard. This doubles as a quick introduction to combat as well as an intro to the characters you are going to spend the next few hours with. Unfortunately nothing really stands out about either of them. It’s not until about 5 hours of play-time that you will learn the protagonist is the only surviving boy of his family and his mother was a war hero and his father was a coward. This is what prompted his older sister to join the military and press her way quickly through the ranks. Before knowing any of that I just referred to the lot of them as "battle bots" that had been dragged into a war between the peaceful Phyltrians and the genocidal Geckal.
Combat is turn based and each character will have 4 abilities to start with and access to consumables. You’ll also have the option to be assisted in combat once every 5 turns by your gryphon companion that doubles as a mount. The combat animations range from good to poor. At time it looks like they bend at the waist on a pivot point while nothing else moves. It reminds me of cardboard cut outs joined together at joints with brass pins that can rotate 360 degrees but look completely unnatural. Different attacks have different effects. They can be physically or magically based. They can target single targets or have an area of effect. They can also buff your character or debuff the enemy. Your strong attacks will weaken you so it pays to learn your enemy’s combat routine and pay attention to whose turn is next. You don’t want to weaken yourself as they are preparing their own strong attack in return so there is a bit of strategy mixed in.
The tooltips could be more helpful though. While you are in combat it’s hard to tell what exactly an icon does. If you open your character’s nameplate at the bottom of the screen you can go through a list and find out what everything does. There should be no reason, however, you can’t just hold down one of the ability buttons and a pop up tell you exactly what it does.
One item that is standard in most RPGs but doesn’t work in Zodiac is the notion of save points. Since this is a mobile game and should take into account that people are playing on their phone and sometimes need to quickly drop in and out of game it should allow players to save at their convenience, not at predetermined points. While this may work on a PC or console it feels like a poor design choice on a mobile device.
One system I did like was that your items level up as you use them. Unfortunately they also have durability. This became a problem early on when items ran out of durability before the game taught you how to repair them or dropped ones to replace them. I was able to keep playing and do damage but it wasn’t as effective.
The majority of the game you will find yourself playing through levels or missions similar to dungeons. Each mission consists of a number of zones. In these zones you’ll typically have to find an item that opens a passage that allows you to travel to the next area. Most of these zones were little mazes. Every so often you would encounter a puzzle too. These puzzles would require you to interact with objects, or levers, in a certain order to open up further passage into the dungeon. The puzzles were never too hard but the actual dungeon areas themselves seemed to be twisting passages that looped back on themselves and weren’t really fun. It just seemed to add length to the level. Some dungeons also have side quests you can take part in. Typically these send you off to interact with other NPCs or off to find an item and upon your return reward you with additional experience and gold.
In addition to the job you start with, you will also unlock additional jobs as you discover crystals throughout the game. You can switch your job on the fly during combat and back at the expense of one turn. Each job has its own skill tree that allows you to spend job points (JP) to advance the skills. You earn JP similar to the way you learn XP. You earn experience to level up your characters while you earn JP to level up specific skills. The skill tress are somwhat linear and don’t offer a lot of choice in terms of customization between jobs.
If the game had come together faster I might have been able to enjoy it more. It was too slow of a bake for my tastes. By the time I opened up additional classes and started to learn anything about my characters I was already one foot out the door. If you are a huge fan of JRPGs and are dying for a fix on your phone then you may want to check out Zodiac. If not I’d stick to the ever growing lineup of JRPGS on the 3DS or PS Vita.
*The game was reviewed on an iPhone 6+. The game was provided free of charge from Kobojo's PR firm. It will see a full PC relase via Steam in the near future.
Gameplay: 6 Character development lacks depth. You can increase skills but aren’t faced with much choice. Quests are clunky. Riding a gryphon is fun but dungeon maps are needlessly maze like in spots. Doesn’t feel like exploration as much as it does a time sink.
Visuals and Sound: 8 The 2D art is very impressive. While the characters animations seem stiff the backgrounds and enemy art are easy on the eyes.
Polish: 6 The game isn’t very interesting. It’s a slow bake and takes too long before you start unlocking additional classes. Your bags are overflowing with items before you even know what half of them are useful for.
Longevity: 6 Quests are repeatable but lack incentive for you to actually want to replay them. There are a number of classes to level up their individual skills but it takes so long to open up the first one you may not have the desire to go any further.
Value: 8 At $8.99 this game provides value. While it is not free to install, which has become the case with a lot of mobile games, you are not constantly bombarded with “pay this now” to get better loot. It’s fully featured for the price of the initial admission.