Zodiac is Scotland's answer to Final Fantasy 7

We don’t typically associate Scotland with roleplaying games. Yes, the capital boasts a proud development lineage, what with playing home to Rockstar North and the cultural and sales phenomenon that is GTA. But the coastal city of Dundee acting as a crucial base for a JRPG/MMOG handheld hybrid? That’s new.

Yet French developer Kobojo recently established a tight clutch of 24 coders and artists in the city, an expansion made to help it aggressively pursue high-end production values. That new team is now hard at work on a persistent online RPG of quite daunting scope, aiming for a world the size of a Final Fantasy for players to quest together in. Currently known by the working title Zodiac, it draws on steampunk and anime influences to inform its art direction, then tethers it to traditional Japanese fantasy in a free-to-play adventure that’s destined for Vita, tablets and smartphones, planned to be ready for general consumption by the end of this year.

Dundee might not be renowned for its RPGs, but the Japanese talent that Kobojo has brought on most certainly is. Sound design is being handled by Basiscape, a Tokyo company helmed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the celebrated composer of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. Also on the payroll is Kazushige Nojima, the writer responsible for penning scripts and scenarios on over ten Final Fantasy games. “For guys who are industry legends, they’re very normal,” Kobojo president Mario Rizzo tells us. “We first met [Nojima] in an Italian restaurant in Japan and just drank beer and talked about professional wrestling. By the end of that meal, he said he’d like to work with us.” Considering he is still committed to conjuring scenarios for Final Fantasy 15, it says much of Zodiac’s potential that the writer is willing to split his focus across two titles of such radically different stature.

Rizzo cites the game’s fierce ambition and his studio’s artistry as the primary factors that piqued Nojima’s interest, though both Final Fantasy alums had their concerns. Indeed, there’s a considerable amount riding on Zodiac rising above the stigma of its F2P status. “These guys are so well known in the industry that part of the deal was, ‘If we don’t say it’s OK, it’s not OK’,” Rizzo says. “Meaning, ‘You can’t release something that’s going to damage our reputation.’” No pressure, then.

Securing the services of key Final Fantasy creative talents is doubtless a bold statement of intent, but Zodiac still has a way to go before it can be said to live up to the seminal JRPG series. First impressions after a hands-on with an early offline iPad version are that this is a safe take on the formula, albeit a searingly pretty one. Perhaps that will change when you’re battling alongside other players, and who knows what surprises await in the promised roster of 12 character classes, each with different godly powers at their disposal. Still, there’s little evidence of divine intervention in the vanilla turn-based combat we try, although it doesn’t help that the UI iconography is still being ironed out. As such, the assortment of elemental attacks and HP potions your three-strong band of leather-clad adventurers call upon are mixed into a cauldron of vague violence, punctuated by the odd, accidental healing interlude.

But there’s no question that, if nothing else, the foes you will face are gorgeously ghastly. We clap eyes on creaking mechanical crow monstrosities that brandish electrified staves, encounter majestic bipedal felines whose manes somehow elegantly blend into the craggy spines of giant armadillos, happen upon a deliciously odd race of adorable purple simian ninjas. At least Nojima will have a packed bestiary around which to craft his combat scenarios.

Indeed, a vast library of backstory and battle scripts has already been written, according to Rizzo. “The depth of the characters within the story is huge,” he says. “When we had the initial meeting with [Nojima], we had a scenario, but it wasn’t a high-level one; it was close to a 20-page outline. Three or four months later, he came back with 200. He works that way because his benchmark is always Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts. We told him we wanted something the size of Final Fantasy. But it’s a case of being careful what you wish for with him, because then you get something the size of Final Fantasy.”

While Kobojo clearly has sizeable logistical challenges ahead – to name just one, creating enough game to carry off Nojima’s volumes of text – there are also stern questions to be asked. As a free-to-play game, how Kobojo handles those microtransactions will be key; it is not just a matter of keeping Nojima and Hashimoto on side, but also winning over and then keeping fickle App Store customers and sceptical Vita owners.

The company’s current plan is to charge for high-end weapons and consumables – non-vital items that won’t block the full-fat experience for those unwilling to fork out. How the game walks this most perilous of tightropes will be crucial. Yet with Nojima and Sakimoto in its corner, Kobojo feels there’s no challenge ahead that it can’t overcome.

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