"It's like dating a really pretty girl with a cardboard personality."
Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey is quite the global JRPG. European mobile game developer Kobojo joined forces with some Japanese heavy hitters, including Final Fantasy VII writer Kazushige Nojima and Final Fantasy Tactics composer Hitoshi Sakimoto to create a lovely 2D side-scrolling turn-based RPG in the vein of Valkyrie Profile or Child of Light, with stylistic inspiration from 2D side-scrolling action-RPGs like Dust: An Elysian Tail, VanillaWare games, and Battle Princess of Arcadias. This game is also multiplatform, first appearing on mobile/tablet platforms with Playstation 4 and Vita versions in the works. Originally designed as a free-to-pay style game, Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey changed gears and is now sold at a flat-rate price with the promise of free downloadable content in the future.
It's no secret that the game looks lovely. It certainly should, given that the art direction is led by CyDesignation, a Japanese game design and production company led by art director Hideo Minaba, whose credits include Final Fantasy V, VI, IX, and XII. CyDesignation also employs the talent of Akihiko Yoshida, who has done artwork for Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, Bravely Default, and various Final Fantasy titles.
Environments feature richly vivid color palettes with excellent use of gradients. I also really liked the lushly drawn details that often made me want to just stop and smell the roses in whatever location I was in. The incredibly drawn and animated sprites feel completely at home in the environments and don't look or feel pasted on. Enemy designs are quite creative and highly original, which helped me forgive the palette swapping and mismatches between monster and setting (e.g. seeing volcanic creatures appearing in swamplands.) Sprite animations are incredibly fluid, and it's clear that a lot of work was put into this aspect of the visuals.
The biggest issue folks may have with the visuals is with the character designs themselves. The exaggerated proportions on some characters' battle sprites and artwork definitely come from the Dragon's Crown school of character art. The main character, for example, has impossibly broad shoulders, an impossibly narrow waist, and an impossible posture that's a chiropractic nightmare. Oddly enough, the characters actually have believable proportions during the lovely animated cutscenes, which feature a happy blend of Japanese and European style animation.
Hitoshi Sakimoto is a very talented composer, and his music sounds crisp and integrates well with the graphics and gameplay. I will say, however, that I am not a fan of his work. I find his compositions to lack personality and they feel more "plain vanilla" than those of Nobuo Uematsu or Yasunori Mitsuda. His music in the game is well-composed and atmospheric, but it lacks emotion, verve, tenacity, personality, and memorability. The battle themes, which differ per dungeon, are ominously atmospheric, but lack vigor. It's not the kind of music that pumps me up to kill baddies — it just makes the already slowly paced battles feel even more sluggish. I find the music "nice," but that's about it. It's like those bands I've seen/played shows with who clearly possess superior musicianship skills and play everything studio-perfect, but the music failed to move me and I can't remember a thing about any of their songs afterward.
Another sonic complaint is that the animated cutscenes are completely silent. The lack of voice acting is preferable to subpar voice acting, but the lack of sound effects makes these beautifully animated cutscenes feel really numb. It's like dating a really pretty girl with a cardboard personality. I liked that the cutscene dialogue was subtitled, but sometimes the subtitles flashed by too quickly for me to read them.
It should be noted that Kobojo is aware that players are unhappy about the lack of sound effects in cutscenes, among other niggles in the game, and is looking into addressing these concerns players have. So along with the proposed DLC, I'm sure there will be updates to make the experience more appealing to the player base and to fix various minor bugs.
Kobojo is also looking into various user concerns involving the gameplay. The game uses a save point system reminiscent of classic JRPGs, which is not very conducive to gaming on the go. The player base thus wants a quick save system put into place, and I have to agree. Another thing the player base, and I, would like is a virtual D-pad option to move the hero around his environments. With a virtual D-pad, the floaty scrolling would feel more controlled and my fingers wouldn't always obstruct my view.
The gameplay is traditional turn-based gameplay that most any JRPG player will take to like a fish to water. Unfortunately, though the battles look great and feature fluid sprite movements, they play out quite slowly. In addition, the icon-based battle UI was not intuitive; I never quite got used to it, and the icons would greatly benefit from text accompanying the icons so it's clear what each icon is supposed to do. Yes, it's possible to get this information by accessing some menus, but doing so is clunky and disrupts gameplay flow.
I also found that the aesthetically pleasing field menus were cumbersome to navigate and an ergonomic nightmare that felt like the brainchild of someone truly scatterbrained. Item management, especially when shopping, is an unwieldy hassle. Buying and equipping multiple items is tedious and time consuming due to all of the required back-and-forth menu switching. There is also limited item space in the "travel bag," which is a concern since enemies drop a lot of stuff. These are JRPG issues that I thought we left in the dark ages. Straightforward tasks like resource management should not be this awkward.
Some design choices are good, though. Enemy encounters are visible, don't come up very often and once a battle is finished, it's finished and the enemies do not respawn. There is little need to extensively grind for levels, even though characters not in the active party of 3 do not gain levels. Much like in Suikoden, taking a lower-leveled character out with a group of higher-level characters is good, because the lowbie gains levels VERY quickly and will soon be about on par with the higher-level characters.
Before entering a story arc, players have a choice of playing that arc on Story, Titan, or Heroic difficulty levels. Story is the default, and the more difficult levels can be unlocked when the main character reaches a certain level. Plot is not affected by difficulty level, though some boss battles on Story can pose a challenge to those who don't strategize properly.
The story takes place in the kingdom of Orcanon, where peace is tenuous at best. Tensions run high between the entitled Hyumes (humans), arrogant Fawlkons (birdfolk), tree-hugging Orsa (beastfolk), treacherous Geckal (lizardfolk), and the passive Phyltrians (merfolk). Lady Dorothea, ruler of the realm, has fallen ill and her beautiful, intelligent, and trustworthy assistant Lady Yueno has ascended to the throne.
The player takes on the role of Cael, a cavalier young soldier whose earnest older sister Ulan is captain of the guard. Cael's most loyal companion/steed is Saber, his Flyon (flying lioness) with whom he happily patrols the realm. Assigned to patrol the city's perimeter during the festivities and make sure the tower holding the sacred Celestial Shard is secure, Cael runs into some trouble. An imperceptible force draws him to the tower, and the Shard falls into Cael's hand, causing him to faint. When he comes to, a Fawlkon officer named Kadyn is leading him to a holding cell, because direct contact with a shard is a punishable offense. Just then, the alarm goes off. There's been a jailbreak, and a sadistic and powerful Geckal criminal known as "the smoldering one" has been freed to wreak havoc on the realm. Kadyn joins up with Cael to quell the riot, and they soon find themselves on a politically-charged adventure of peril and mystery.
The plot isn't bad, but it doesn't break a lot of JRPG conventions and progresses in a choppy manner. The dialogue is quite stiff and wooden, which doesn't make the player characters or NPCs all that interesting. When characters lack personality, I simply cannot invest myself in their plights and get myself motivated to keep playing. Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey is the first part of a planned series, and I have zero desire to find out what happens next to the world and characters in sequels or DLC.
Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey is one of those games that makes me want to scream like a frustrated parent or teacher, "BUT YOU HAD SO MUCH POTENTIAL!!!!" The game is absolutely gorgeous to look at, but an absolute slog to experience. The plot and characters are bland, the music lacks pizzazz, the menus are a mess, and the gameplay is slow and repetitive. After the first couple of dungeons, I had to force myself to keep playing, and even then, I lacked the motivation to play for more than 15 minutes at a time. When I play an RPG, I want to be so engrossed that I'm at it for several hours and it feels like I've only been playing for a few minutes. You would think that a game like this with a "supergroup" lineup in its development team would be something special, but this is a case where one member of the supergroup went above and beyond and everyone else just coasted, leading to an overall disappointing product.