Review: Zia and the Goddesses of Magic

The term 'role playing game' has always puzzled me. I get the connotations and I understand that titles with which it is associated must meet certain criteria to be classed as such...but don't you play a role in any game you play? Bear with me on this one, OK. I know I’m talking (writing) utter rubbish, but what do you expect here? Look, in Crazy Taxi you play the role of Gus, picking up passengers while wearing an open shirt and exposing the odd man boob. You are Gus. Similarly in Virtua Tennis, you assume the role of a square-headed Tim Henman and do things the man never did in real life, such as winning trophies; and therefore Virtua Tennis should technically be designated as a phantasy role playing game, too. Man, this gin is strong.

The thing is, these examples are not classed as role playing games, or ‘RPGs.’ No, RPGs fall into their own little genre identified by magic potions, stat points, levelling up and pointy ears/gigantic beards/scantily clad nymphs (delete as applicable). I'm going to be honest here and state that my experience with RPGs isn't as extensive as some other members of the Junkyard team, and I'm happy to admit that I've never finished Skies of Arcadia or Time Stalkers. The latter because it’s about as interesting as watching a group of pensioners play boules down the park on a Sunday morning.
That said, I have played other non-Dreamcast RPGs so I do have a decent level of appreciation for the genre (Ocarina of Time, Link's Awakening, Rainbow Moon, Fallout 3, The Witcher etc), and naturally there's also Shenmue but I'm apprehensive to class that as an RPG unless a hate mob of Shnemue truthers be mobilised against me. I'm already expecting a whole load of comments completely ignoring the main purpose of this review and just focusing in on the fact that I described any of the aforementioned games as RPGs, but fuck it. Haters gonna hate and I won't be posting this on Reddit anyway, so there's a 65% risk reduction of that straight out of the gate. What has all this guff got to do with the Dreamcast you may be wondering? Well, the latest indie release for Sega's little white box has landed...and it's an RPG!

Orion's Zia and the Goddesses of Magic was released at the beginning of September 2016 and is the latest new title to grace the Dreamcast, so let's take a look at what this curious little game is all about.

To reiterate everything I bleated about in the preceding paragraphs, the most refreshing thing about Zia is the very fact that it isn’t a shmup and it isn’t a puzzle game. Granted, we had the superb Leona’s Tricky Adventures a few months back, but the lion’s share of releases for the Dreamcast in recent times have squarely occupied the two mentioned genres. Not that I’m complaining, you understand; the vast majority of the post mortem releases have been of stellar quality, with puzzlers such as Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles and Fruit’Y scratching an itch; and shooters like Sturmwind putting most ‘official’ titles to shame. No, Zia is a true homage to the RPGs of yesteryear and the visual style instantly brings back memories of 16-bit games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and other contemporaries.
I’m going to be totally candid here though: when I first saw screens of Zia online, I wasn’t overly impressed and I didn’t hold much hope that it would be a game worth my time investment. While I have nothing but admiration for independent developers like Orion (check out our recent interview here), I almost immediately dismissed Zia as a cookie-cutter game built with tools like GameMaker and pushed out the door in the quickest time possible, simply to make a fast buck. It seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry are trying to jump on the Dreamcast bandwagon at the moment, happy to fart out any old shite just because the fervent community will lap it up. Yes, I'm a shoot me. After playing Zia for a considerable while though, I must concede that I was totally wrong. Zia is a thoroughly enjoyable homage to the RPGs of the 16-bit era, and while far from perfect, kept me engrossed for longer than any ‘official’ traditional Dreamcast RPG ever has.
Before I go any further, I’m not for one second going to try and compare Zia to stuff like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy or any other RPGs I have never played myself but have heard people bang on about until blue in the face. Zia is an indie game, made by a few hobbyist developers with a minimal budget…and to be brutally honest, it shows. But that’s not to say Zia isn’t worth your time if RPGs are your bag. No, Zia is not the perfect gaming experience and the reasons for that are numerous, but before I get to them allow me to explain the positives points.

First off, Zia sounds fantastic. The music is utterly brilliant and not at all what I was expecting. The various environments you will traverse all have their own mood music and these tunes range from upbeat pop-style jingles, to dark and foreboding dirges. Also, keep an ear out for the ‘mountain’ music which sounds a lot like Timber by Pitbull and Ke$ha. Don’t ask me why I know the name of that song, I just do. Moving rapidly on. The story is typical RPG fayre in that you play as the titular Zia and must rescue the 10 goddesses of magic from their various prisons around the land. You do this by finding them, battling through the labyrinths surrounding them and are then rewarded with a new ability - usually a new attack spell. This leads me on to one of the best things about about Zia - the battle system. While it is turn based, your various offensive and defensive moves are executed by combinations of button presses and you get these button combos by reading the spell books bequeathed to you.
Unlike in other games of this ilk, the spells you acquire are not automatically mapped to a certain button so you literally have to tap out the sequences before your battle timer runs down and the turn is taken over by your foe. It sounds complicated, but it really isn't, and before long your muscle memory will take over and you’ll be tapping out lighting and fire spells with ease…although it’s probably worth doing what I did and having a notepad laid out in front of you with your button combos written down for easy reference. The best point of reference I can liken this system to is the ocarina in Ocarina of Time, where you have to play the tunes in real time using the N64's C-buttons. Zia also has the capacity to level up offensive, defensive and magic attack points (which dictate the level of spell you can cast) and this is achieved by earning stat points. These stat points are earned by defeating enemies, so you can instantly appreciate the benefit of grinding around the environments defeating easy enemies to garner points to spend on these attributes. In some ways, this makes the game a little too easy to begin with, but the further to get the more reliant you become on your health regeneration spell and tactics.
So the music and the combat are top drawer, but what of the visuals? Or the character interactions? Well, both are a mixed bag to be honest. Interactions with NPCs - a staple in this genre - can be quite humorous (there are multiple references to other Orion games, which is a nice touch) but sometimes you’ll find characters simply repeating what they've already said and you have no way to skip their dialogue. This is especially annoying if you didn’t mean to speak to them and end up engaged in a long conversation you’ve already read. In keeping with the stylings of the genre, there is no spoken dialogue either, but I’m not going to knock Zia for that. Visually, the game looks the part and totally owns the 16-bit aesthetic, but in places Zia looks very basic with similar textures repeated and enemy sprites looking a little uninspired.

There are some nice visual effects such as transparent mist, snow storms and pyrotechnic effects during the battles; but everything looks a little static otherwise. Waterfalls don’t flow, curtains by open windows don’t flap, fires in hearths are simply static sprites of flames. Now I think of it, there are no contextual environmental sound effects either, so no footsteps on wooden floors and no crunching as you walk through snow. It doesn’t really detract from the the overall experience, but it’s the little details that make a good game a great game. I don’t want to be overly harsh for the sake of being overly harsh, as Zia does look perfectly fine for the type of game it is aiming to be and the locales are varied and perfectly serviceable. It’s just that sometimes it’s actually hard to tell what can be interacted with and what is a part of the scenery. This is especially true in the subterranean areas where often you cant tell if the thing you’re looking at is a boulder or a staircase to another level.
Now though, lets move on to the aspects of Zia that really irked me. As I said in the intro, I’m no expert when it comes to RPGs but one thing about Zia really didn’t make any sense to me…and that’s the complete lack of a map. Often, you’ll end up stumbling upon your next quest objective purely by accident as there’s very little in the way of direction to your next point of interest. All you can do it roam around the environment searching for a path you may have missed or a previously impassable area that has now opened up…but because there is no world map it almost feels like pure fluke if you happen upon the next area you are meant to go to. At this point, I feel it’s worth nothing that while I was playing through Zia on the Dreamcast I was also playing through The Witcher 3 on the PlayStation 4.

Now, while there is no comparison between these two titles when it comes to budget and scope, the one thing that I instantly recognised as missing from Zia was a map - something I rely so heavily on while playing through Geralt of Rivia’s (fairly pornographic) quest. This is almost inexcusable and makes traversing Zia’s world much more of a chore than it should be. I can’t even count the number of times I found myself taking a path thinking it might lead somewhere, only to find another dead end. On top of this, there’s nothing to actually find in the game world. You do have an inventory of sorts, but it is very rudimentary and there is no currency and there are no shops where you buy disposable items. They are simply not part of Zia’s remit. The point I’m trying to make is: if there were secret things to find and equip just by getting lost and happening across a chest or a hidden area, then great. But this isn’t the case and the lack of a map will invariably lead to frustration more than anything.
Another gripe I have with Zia is the saving system. You can save your game whenever you like (and I recommend you do it often), but if you enter into a battle with an enemy you know nothing about (i.e., it walks into you or you walk into it) and it happens to be extremely powerful, then you’ll get you’re ass kicked and it’s game over. So, if it’s 20 minutes since your last save and you find yourself up against a really powerful foe (remember, there’s no indication as to how hard an enemy may be before you enter the battle screen and their stats are revealed), then you can guarantee that you’ll be replaying the last 20 minutes all over again. In the grand scheme of things, this probably just sounds like a pathetic moan by someone who is shit at games in general, but in this age of auto saves and the like it really can detract from your enjoyment of Zia if you don’t get into the habit of saving your game every couple of minutes.
Many people will no doubt read this review to ascertain whether they should investigate Zia as a viable purchase, and so I want to be completely fair and honest. Would I recommend Zia? The answer is yes, but with a few caveats. While there are some annoyances and it sometimes looks like a sub-par Super Nintendo game, the humour and size of the adventure more than make up for the aesthetic shortcomings. Controls are responsive, the music is brilliant and the adventure will give you around 10 hours of gameplay (give or take). The combat system is totally unique on the Dreamcast and really adds something to enemy encounters, and the dialogue between characters and NPCs can be pretty funny at times. On the downside, expect a lot of grinding and getting lost in the sprawling environments. Also expect to be angered on the regular if you stumble into the path of a vastly superior enemy and have to repeat the last however many minutes it was since you saved. However, if you can look past those negatives and are prepared to pay the €40 asking price, then Zia and the Goddesses of Magic is one indie RPG you should definitely investigate.
As a side note, Zia and the Goddesses of Magic comes on a dual format CD. This means it can also be played on a PC should you own such a machine. If you’re a hipster wanker like me and use an Apple Mac…sadly you’re stuck with the Dreamcast version. On the plus side, rejoice! You can sip coffee at £7.50 a cup in your local artisanal coffee house and still look cool using your MacBook in a window seat. Can PC users claim the same? I think not.

You can purchase Zia and the Goddesses of Magic from the Orion web store here, and alternatively the game is now also available on Steam. Also be sure to check out our developer interview with Orion here.


doceggfan said...

Awesome review Tom. I would have like to have done another tag team review with this as well, but stupid life getting in the way

Unknown said...

You surely have a way with words as always. Great review. I dont think ill be buying this because it just feels like the asking price is a bit high. But at least now i can make that decision with enough info to know I'm right in making it. Very entertaining that, thanks for another one.

Damon Fillman said...

Great review, Tom. If the game wasn't turn-based and had some action-y elements instead I would've considered picking it up. As it is, too many cliche RPG tropes don't justify the MSRP. Seems like it would be a great $5-$10 game on PS4 or Xbox One.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comments! I agree that the asking price is a little high, especially when the game is £5 or so on Steam. But that said, I still have to applaud Orion for even bothering to release a new game on the Dreamcast...and one with undoubted quality at that!