Those of us who are fans of traditional JRPGs know that our craving for new games is not often satisfied. Although there are many games created and released in Japan, a number of obstacles including localization expense, make Japanese developers reluctant to risk bringing a new game to the western market. But what if that huge risk is taken out of the equation? French publisher Kobojo thinks they’ve found a solution: create a western based JRPG and take the conflict of localization completely out of the equation. Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey, the first western JRPG of its kind, brings us back to the golden age of the JRPG. With an international powerhouse team spanning through Japan and Europe, this free-to-play game, available on iOS, Android, PS4 and PS Vita this year, promises to bring us that nostalgic feeling that’s been missing for so long.
zodiacinsert3It all started two-and-a-half years ago under the leadership of Mario Rizzo, CEO of Kobojo and Game Director on Zodiac. With years of experience working on games such as Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies, the team sought to tackle the daunting task of creating the first western JRPG for both the Western and Japanese markets. He and the team at Kobojo are working hard to recreate a piece that has been missing from the RPG market. To do so, they sought to collaborate with veterans in the JRPG industry, such as Hitoshi Sakimoto and Kazushige Nojima to make Zodiac exactly the way they envisioned it, and the support from the Japanese developers working with the project has been excellent.

“I think the feeling is they are very excited to see western companies developing games for this market and joining in this genre of game-making,” Rizzo tells us. “You don’t get the classic JRPG’s anymore. They’re gone. You have FFXV, and then you have mobile games. What you have in between, is something very different. We wanted something more like FFVII. And that was why we wanted to work with Nojima-san and Sakimoto-san. These are some of the bigwigs from the old guard of JRPG’s. They knew the spirit of the kind of game we wanted to make, which is why we think the partnership works so well.”

About six months after its conception, a member of the team met composer Hitoshi Sakimoto. Sakimoto-san is a huge name in the RPG world, having worked on projects such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, Final Fantasy XII, and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. His sweeping orchestration is sure to bring an epic feel to the game. “He is a very nice guy,” Rizzo shares with us. “He was giving a concert in Paris where one of our team members was in attendance, and he decided to invite Sakimoto-san back to the studio. Sakimoto-san had never worked with a Western studio before, but he saw the game demo and he was very impressed. He said that he wanted to be part of the project. And slowly, over the next two years, he introduced us to the rest of the Japanese industry, and I want to say we all, at some point, became friends and worked together.”
zodiacinsert6With Sakimoto-san as a first connection to the Japanese game industry, the team went on to meet Kazushige Nojima. If this name sounds familiar, it’s no wonder. Nojima-san handled writing on some of the most beloved games Square Enix has ever produced: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, and Kingdom Hearts. Nojima-san quickly began working with the team to create the scenario for Zodiac, and over the course of 6 months, they created over 30 000 lines of dialogue and 47 cutscenes for the game.

With a name as big as his, however, there has been a lot of speculation as to how long and how involved Nojima-san will be with the project. Rizzo was quick to address these concerns head on.

“He was working on the Final Fantasy XV scenario when we met him, and he told us he would love to write Zodiac,” he goes on to say. “Nojima-san is on a rolling agreement with us, where we are going to add content, usually every month. He has responded to a lot of press speculation about his commitment to the project by saying he hopes to continue for many years on the project. So does Kobojo.”

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Having a music and writing team of that caliber, the art and animation team must match that level. So it should come as no surprise to anyone to discover that the core of the animation studio is comprised of artists who are former Studio Ghibli and Disney animators. The choice to animate the game in a two-dimensional parallax style — layers of two-dimensional environments — was an excellent one. It brilliantly showcases artwork that feels like a combination of the style Studio Ghibli is known for, and the ornate character design that is reminiscent of the Yoshitaka Amano style of concept art from the Final Fantasy franchise. With beautifully hand-drawn cutscenes and intricate character and level design, Kobojo has definitely captured the feel they are seeking.

Collaboration and advice from veterans in the Japanese game industry were essential to animating in this style. Fans of Dragon’s Crown by Vanillaware, Rizzo and the team approached George Kanitami for advice. Flattered that Dragon’s Crown was an inspiration to such an intriguing project as Zodiac, he was eager to help the team, Rizzo shares.

“Kanitami-san advised our animators on working with a 2D animation system. He told us what kind of tools we should work on, how to draw the world. He was very helpful as he looked at our early prototypes. This is how the Japanese industry is though. I was very surprised. It’s not like the West. When I was working in the West, everything’s a secret, nobody shares, nobody wants to talk about anything. When I went to Japan, Kanitami-san started showing me his current projects, excitedly sharing new games and ideas, and openly offering ideas to help us with design and programming problems.”
As if that wasn’t enough to whet your pallet, the gameplay in Zodiac combines all of the best things an RPG could offer. The world is expansive and fully explorable; anywhere you can see, you can go. The main story line is expected to last an hour per chapter, with countless hours to be spent searching for new characters, resource caches, treasure chests and completing side quests. There are 12 unlockable classes to play as, each with unique skills, weapons, armor and accessories, thanks to the crafting system that will allow for thousands of combinations. The battle interface, a typical turn-based RPG style, is streamlined and clear. Players can cast magic, use devastating special attacks and even have their character change jobs on-the-fly to suit any given situation. Veterans and new fans alike will have no problem mastering the system to defeat enemies and challenging bosses. One of the most exciting features of gameplay is the online multiplayer aspect of the game. You can invite friends to join you as you journey through dungeons and boss battles to help you win the day.

When you hear the term “free-to-play”, it is easy to be concerned with how much of the content and characters will be missing from your gameplay experience if you are not willing to spend money. According to Rizzo, however, “free-to-play” really does mean free. All updates, and new chapters will be free and playtime will not be gated. There will, of course, be optional things to buy within the game, such as weapons, re-rolls, and consumables, which can be earned through regular gameplay anyway. “For us,” says Rizzo,  “it makes more sense for a core game, not to gate gameplay, not to hold story, or charge for it.”
zodiacinsert12There are so many reasons to be excited about Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey. If it can live up to the potential it set for itself, who knows what that could mean for us JRPG fans in the west. And the expectations are set high, considering the astounding talent pool they are drawing from. We will see very soon if our hopes will be fulfilled.

Do you think they will? Let us know in the comment section below!