"Any game where the music makes me immediately drop my controller, grab my bass guitar, and play along to learn my favorite pieces is something special."
RPG players are often seen as patient and methodical in their thoughts and actions, yet many of us also love fast-action twitch games. I myself enjoy good fighting and rhythm games, and during my time at RPGFan, I've encountered many colleagues who love intense space shooters in the vein of Thunder Force, R-Type, or Gradius. Over several console generations, we've seen traditional RPGs embrace more twitch elements to keep gameplay fresh, often utilizing them in the battle engines of entries like Legend of Dragoon or Shadow Hearts via their respective Addition and Judgment Ring systems. A new entry in the realm of traditional turn-based twitch-mechanic RPGs is the delightful Virgo Versus the Zodiac.
The retro-styled 8-bit visuals are terrific. When I first saw screenshots of Virgo, my first thought was "Man, this game looks adorable." Due to the smooth and detailed sprite animations, it looks even better in motion, particularly during battles. The monster designs are super creative and even standard enemies are interesting to observe as they engage you in battle. Indeed, the pixelated 8-bit sprites, environments, and cutscenes are lovely, but the HD anime character portraits are great too. I love how detailed they are, and their modernness juxtaposes with Virgo's retro presentation, punctuating the absurdity of its world. Along with all the major eye catches are the sundry smaller visual details that make the game feel lovingly crafted. For example, the fonts are stylish yet legible, and I love the way some letters visibly warble when characters are being melodramatic.
Absurd melodrama is the name of the game regarding the story. Our anti-heroine, the eponymous Virgo, doesn't like the way the Zodiac Realms are now run. Having idealized the one-world government of the bygone "Golden Era," she now seeks to depose each realm's leader. Her comical zeal for bringing everyone to heel reminded me of Chou-Chou from the Mugen Souls series. The overall premise is rather shallow, as are Virgo's motivations for trawling through dungeons, defeating enemies, and smiting bosses. Still, her little quest in the name of righteous indignation was a wildly entertaining mix of wacky hijinks and surprising gravitas, and the characters were colorful, if one-dimensional.
Though I was willing to embrace the chaos, overlook some things that didn't quite add up, and enjoy the crazy ride, there were some NPC plot points that were sadly left hanging. Despite that, I was hooked enough to see Virgo's journey through to its conclusion, and the ending I got was quite solid. I only wish there were a New Game Plus mode so I could more easily experience all the endings. As it stands now, a second playthrough would mean starting again from scratch.
A significant part of why I enjoyed following the narrative was because of Virgo's outstanding music. The compositions are wonderfully varied as they encompass myriad genres, and even through laptop speakers, the instrumentation's quality is crisp and lush. I would sometimes stay idle in the game simply to appreciate the soundtrack. And when I was able to access the in-game jukebox, it was all over. I would often play the track "Too Dramatic," grab my bass guitar, and try and learn its deliciously snaky bassline.
Outside of the music, the other sound design aspects are fantastic. I loved the use of differently pitched bleeps and bloops to give each character their own "voice" during conversations. The varied sound effects during battles and event scenes are wonderfully done and punctuate the game with pizzazz. I can't praise the composers and sound designers enough for what they've done here and I hope to hear their work on future projects. Virgo Versus the Zodiac's sound department deserves to make it big, because this game has some of the finest music and sound design I've heard this year.
Don't let the game's cute visuals and stunning music fool you. Virgo is deviously challenging, with surprisingly deep gameplay mechanics, cleverly designed dungeons, and a handful of mini-games (including a top-down space shooter for those feeling extra twitchy). Equipping characters properly, learning to work the systems, and utilizing a strategic defense-first approach in battle is important, because even enemies in the first dungeon can send you to the Game Over screen if you're careless. Akin to rock-paper-scissors, the title's "Zodiac Quality System" sorts enemies and playable characters into one of three alignments, so having a variety of equipment for different situations is key. But because you accumulate so much equipment, the menus can become cluttered and there is no way to organize items based on their attributes.
Alignments also play into the story. Decisions made throughout the game affect Virgo's own leanings, as well as which of the several endings she subsequently receives. Some choices are presented within the story, whereas others are battle choices (e.g. sparing an enemy if they beg for mercy). Choices are color coded, so it's easy to proceed to a desired ending.
The most touted feature in Virgo Versus the Zodiac is its traditional turn-based battles, featuring a wide variety of twitch-style button presses to keep combat fresh. Not only was I reminded of games like Legend of Dragoon, Shadow Hearts, or Mario & Luigi, but it was also reminiscent of many non-RPGs like Gitaroo Man or Hatsune Miku. If you're not a good twitch player, don't worry, because Virgo has three difficulty levels to choose from. Yes, some of the actions require precise timing, but they're never as frustratingly finicky as in Legend of Dragoon; the only times I failed to connect were when I got overzealous with my trigger finger, either jumping the gun or pressing the wrong button by mistake. Do note that there are some mild platform jumping sequences, but nothing to make you smash your controller in disgust like with Xenogears' infamous Tower of Babel. Speaking of controllers, although the game plays well enough using a keyboard, I found using a gamepad to be far smoother. The default button mappings didn't 100% follow what I'm used to, and though there are customization options, I quickly got used to them within a minute or two.
Virgo is a great game, plain and simple. While every aspect of the game is worthy of praise, the ace in the hole is easily its sound. Any game where the music makes me immediately drop my controller, grab my bass guitar, and play along to learn my favorite pieces is something special. Delightfully, it marches to the beat of its own drummer and I loved every second of the 14 or so hours I spent with it. If you are into unique turn-based JRPG style games with twitch elements to keep battles interesting, you simply must play Virgo Versus the Zodiac.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.