It seemed like only yesterday when Nintendo's reluctance to give Xenoblade Chronicles a US release signified the "death" of the Japanese-developed RPG. If such a big, exclusive, and (most importantly) already-localized game risked losing money in America, how much hope could there possibly be?
Here we are just three short years later, and, thankfully, our anxieties were misguided: Xenoblade is about to see a re-release on Nintendo's New 3DS, and, next week, 2011's Final Fantasy Type-0 will be hitting current-gen consoles. In short, JRPGs might have needed a little more time than other genres to adapt, but really, they're doing just fine.
In fact, this more traditional role-playing experience has become so viable, you don't necessarily need to be a Japanese developer to successfully market one. Games like Ubisoft's Child of Light and Zeboyd's Penny Arcade games, along with dozens of other indie projects, have come into being thanks to American and European devs who no doubt cut their teeth on Square and Enix's respective back catalogs throughout the '80s and '90s.
Zodiac definitely falls under this description, and isn't at all shy about hiding its roots—and with the talent French developer Kobojo has brought on board, you shouldn't have to ask why. Kazushige Nojima, who penned some of Square's biggest hits like Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts, will be lending his talents to Zodiac's story, and Hitoshi Sakimoto, composer of soundtracks for Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyria Chronicles, and many others, will be responsible for Zodiac's music, with his company, Basiscape, taking care of sound design. And that's not all: Kobojo plans on announcing the third member of this JRPG triumvirate soon. Clearly, you can't argue that Zodiac isn't at least striving for authenticity.
During a brief meeting during last week's GDC event, I had the chance to see Zodiac in action, and while it's still in a very early stage, the enthusiasm and ambition of its developers was incredibly infectious, to say the least. Kobojo CEO Mario Rizzo calls Zodiac "The first Western attempt to create a Japanese RPG," and while that might not be entirely true, their project could be the most legitimate attempt to reach this noble goal. And Rizzo is no stranger to RPGs; over the past 15 years, he's worked on MMOs like Everquest 2 and Star Wars Galaxies, while Japanese-developed games like Odin Sphere and Muramasa have kept him busy in his spare time. In Rizzo's words, Zodiac is an attempt to have these two worlds of RPG design collide:
"[It's] a marriage of Eastern and Western sensibilities to create a new type of JRPG," he says. "The game is a persistent, online multiplayer RPG with a narrative directed story. It's not an MMO—I'd call it more of a PvE experience with a story and a universe that you and your friends can [share]."
Rizzo only showed off about 15 minutes of gameplay, but what he had on display already looked a cut above your typical mobile RPG. The overworld segments had Zodiac's hero zipping around a beautiful, hand-drawn environment on the back of a gryphon via a standard touch interface. Rizzo then showed off a few battles, which resemble old-school Final Fantasy, but with a clean, icon-based UI that looks much better than what's found in Square-Enix's own mobile games. I didn't have much time to fully wrap my head around the battle system's inner workings, but the options present seem to offer plenty of meaningful strategies. In particular, the Zodiac system allows you to change your class on the fly, which could add an interesting angle to the standard JRPG battle.
As he worked his way through a few encounters, Rizzo emphasized that player and enemy turns would work via a prescribed timeline, rather than an initiative-based system, in order to avoid throwing off new players: "[The battle system] is a lighter version of a Japanese RPG turn-based battle system, so it's not [timing-based] or anything like that... We don't want to push people away. The launch platform being iOS, people who have never seen a Japanese RPG before—it's important that they quickly understand and grasp how to manage their party in combat."
Zodiac certainly has a lot of ambition behind it, and time will only tell if the combined efforts of three JRPG legends will result in sheer genius or a "too many cooks" scenario. Whatever the case, Kobojo's Mario Rizzo is definitely committed to his strong vision, and fully understands how high the stakes are for this bold venture.
"For now, what we're focused on is trying to make a worthy Japanese RPG," says RIzzo. "This a project where my team—we do not have the option to fail, so to speak. If we did, this would probably be the last RPG we ever make."