Zodiac Plunders Countless Classic Japanese RPGs With Excellent Results

Zodiac Plunders Countless Classic Japanese RPGs With Excellent Results

After years of clumsy attempts by Western developers to imitate the work of Japanese studios, we're finally seeing some impressive results.

Do you remember Sudeki? That laughably awkward Xbox game that tried so hard and failed so embarrassingly to mimic the conventions of Japanese RPGs?

What about Secret of Evermore? Or Black Sigil? Or any of a number of other RPGs made in the West by people who really liked 16-bit RPGs from Japan but didn't quite hit the mark with their attempts to imitate the style and mechanics of those games? We cluck and shake our heads when Japanese studios fumble their attempts to mimic Gears of War or Call of Duty, but we've been screwing up our efforts to rip them off for even longer.

But something different has been happening lately. Something magical. American and European developers have been getting it right. We can probably attribute this change in fortunes to two key factors. First, the good ones have been coming from independent studios. Freed of the tyranny of big sales expectations, no focus groups have twisted these creations with their counterproductive groupthink; developers can trust their instincts and make the games they know will be great. Secondly, they've been drawing on the wisdom and experience of veteran Japanese game developers. If you want to make a game that fits a certain style or format, there's no better way to go about it than by bringing in the people who helped establish the genre you're imitating.

Kobojo's Zodiac — currently an in-development mobile title with eyes on multiple platforms ranging from PlayStation Vita to Xbox One — could well prove be the most impressive example of this philosophy to date. While Kobojo itself is a self-described "mid-core" publisher based in France, Zodiac boasts the talents of many notable Japanese game developers. Hitoshi Sakimoto and his studio Basiscape (Final Fantasy Tactics, Radiant Silvergun) have provided the game with its soundtrack, while Kazushige Nojima (best known for writing the scenario for the Final Fantasy VII saga) has contributed the script.

Zodiac boasts other connections to great Japanese RPGs as well. The game looks and plays an awful lot like a Vanillaware title (Odin Sphere, Muramasa, Dragon's Crown, etc.), with high-resolution jointed sprites traversing a gorgeous 2D world; this is no coincidence, as the studio has a strong relationship with Vanillaware's George Kamitani. And its title, Zodiac, brings to mind the Final Fantasy Ivalice games, where astrological signs tie in to everything from a warrior's strength in battle to the identity of mighty summoned beasts.

In Zodiac, those star signs play an even greater role, tying in to a variant of the Final Fantasy Job system (yeah, another classic JRPG nod), their skills, even their stats. At the same time, this is no mundane mash-up of other games; Zodiac has a style all its own. Even in its rough, pre-alpha, vertical slice form, the game manages to take a lot of fairly complex ideas and condense them into something accessible for the tablet format. Exploration takes place in a side-scrolling 2D environment as players traverse the screen on the back of a griffin-like creature — meaning there's no platforming, merely flight. Enemies appear in the environments as shadowy forms that initiate separate battles upon contact (similar to Zelda II, EarthBound, and the Lunar remakes, if you're keeping count).

Combat, too, plays out in a fashion that works quite simply on tablets. Each character has a set of four different selectable skills available based on their class, and you make a different gesture to execute these abilities — swipe, tap, pinch. On console, the game uses a more traditional menu system, but the effect is the same. While combat took some getting used to thanks to the entirely pictographic nature of the battle icons (it took a bit of practice before I got a proper handle on the specifics of each command), beyond the initial learning curve it works well.

The small section of game I experienced seemed fairly deep and somewhat open-ended, with a side quest that played out with an environmental puzzle (I had to activate switches to shift elevators around and clear a path forward while hunting for a certain person) and a mix of open spaces and narrow corridors to traverse. Though the game is still in its early stages, it shows a lot of potential — already it's a huge improvement over the awkward wannabe-JRPGs of generations past. The collaboration and cross-pollination of games from formerly disparate cultures is well underway, it seems. Maybe this whole New World Order thing isn't so bad after all.

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