By Drew D. / February 4th, 2020
|Title||Virgo Versus the Zodiac|
|Release Date||Dec 12th, 2019|
|Platform||PC, XBox One|
One of the many pleasures of playing indie titles is seeing the sheer drive and willingness of budding developers to create a unique experience. To see how these developers go about defining themselves and their works through innovation, artistry, or by taking the traditional and turning it into the extraordinary. These are all part of the satisfaction of discovering a standout indie title. Virgo Versus the Zodiac impressed me. A game driven by that willingness to be unique, Virgo Versus the Zodiac is one that I found myself captivated by, more so than many others in recent memory and one I can genuinely call a hidden gem.
Virgo Versus the Zodiac tells the story of Virgo, one of the lords of the Zodiac realms that make up the lands across the Milky Way. The twelve Zodiacs were once governed by the Rulers during a time referred to as the Golden Age. After the end of the Rulers reign, the Zodiacs took direct control over their realms, ushering in the Zodiac Age. The Zodiacs conduct themselves as they see fit, many of whom have created disarray between each other, as well as within their own realms, subjecting their denizens to unfair, sometimes horrific practices. Virgo, a being of purest order and structure without sacrifice of justice, is determined to restore the version of peace and regulation of the previous Golden Age. And, she is willing to strike down all who oppose her, deeming them heretics to the former law.
What initially seems like a straightforward story, to restore Virgo’s ideal order, is actually a journey of decisions and revelation. Though this main plot point, this drive of Virgo’s to restore the Golden Age, is our vehicle to forward the story, there are several underlying mysteries and events that will shape Virgo’s narrative path and ultimately, what she decides is her true end goal. Many of these revelations are hidden behind decisions that must be made throughout play. Decision making, in visual novel style, won’t change the intermittent story much. However, it will have significant impact with the way the characters feel, behave, react, and especially how the game concludes.
The overall story, with its history, mysteries, and branching, is quite intriguing. I found it easy to immerse myself in Virgo’s quest and was further driven to continue with each new twist along the way. The decision making is fantastic, as each path will reveal something entirely unique, such as secrets the characters may be hiding or unveil the mysteries of the world around Virgo. And many decisions made will reshape Virgo’s own character as she continues her journey. There are three potential paths, with three unique endings, and, again, each has something new and intriguing to offer. The narrative is equally strong, with impressive writing that brings a vividness to story and characters. Virgo’s dialogue is always something to look forward to and her personality is poignantly conveyed. The two main side characters, Algol and Spica, are also well written with distinct voices and lively personalities. Even many of the lesser side characters possess personality and individual voice, which is a notable feat considering the number of side characters the game introduces.
However, despite the strengths of the narrative and story, I took issue with several decisions in its execution. There is a ton of extra, unnecessary text. Most of this is pure fluff or used for a quick bit of humor. It contributes nothing to the main story or the lore that is often referred to. The game can also drag due to gameplay and breaks in-between, so having to work through this needless, irrelevant text can be taxing. Sure, it can be skipped, either by holding the text skip button or by simply ignoring most NPCs, but you may end up missing out on a scarce but shocking hint or secret regarding character or backstory. So the decisions to sacrifice immersive backstory for needless, useless filler is unfortunate. And I find it such an egregious issue because it seems like much more backstory, side stories, and history was initially planned for the game, yet was either drastically edited down or cut completely. For example, the Rulers are hardly fleshed out at all, despite their major role in the game’s history. Another; towards the end of the game, an entity called the Viruses are introduced, but are just as soon dismissed, despite having a tie to Capricorn, a Zodiac you meet early in the game, yet is consistently brought up throughout. Speaking of the other Zodiacs, the backstories of many of them range from painfully vague to utterly nonexistent. And finally, fragments of main and side story that are mentioned are either never addressed again or are wrapped up far too quickly, further hinting that there was perhaps much more originally planned. It’s such a shame; I would have loved to have seen the original story developed to its fullest.
Story aside, the characters of Virgo Versus the Zodiac are the real stars with their diverse, engaging personalities. I love Virgo, as she’s a tsundere badass. She’s a brilliantly created character full of stubbornness and unrelenting force. She is strong, unyielding in her beliefs and her resolve to accomplish her ultimate goal. Her character endures through her ordeal and additional sides to her personality are revealed throughout her journey. The play on her opposing sides is equally impressive, as Virgo’s difficulty to express her softer, more loving attributes meshes well with the moments when she does finally open her heart, showing her genuine affection and care. I also appreciate her anti-heroine aspects, especially in her willingness to strike down all who oppose her. Although her actions may frequently cross moral lines and though her thinking can be described as one-track, immoral, and perhaps more selfish than she realizes, because of the depth and richness of her development, I can come to understand, even appreciate, her motivation and drive. I can root for her despite her committed atrocities and I can feel sympathetic towards her when her actions have unpredictable and tragic consequences. Virgo is a character that will stay with me, having stolen a place in my heart.
Many of the side characters also receive significant depth, which only helps with the immersion and care we end up placing in them. Algol is awesome, with her wit, snark, and casual demeanor. Her personality is the perfect contrast to Virgo’s and the banter between the two is fantastic. I also enjoyed Algol’s side story, with her history and her motives in joining Virgo’s campaign. I felt similar sympathy for her as I do for Virgo in what Algol had to endure. I also loved Pisces, with her charming and air-headed personality. She is the perfect catalyst for Virgo to open up about her feelings, so much so that those moments of the game are easily the most memorable. Equally impressive are the times Pisces reveals that she knows and understands far more than what her bubbly, simple-minded style may convey. She is every bit as captivating as Virgo.
Unfortunately though, for every one character that has real substance, there are too many that come off as unremarkable. Many of the Zodiacs and side characters never receive any substantial development once their initial identities are established. Spica is a well-spoken Virgo fanboy/whipping boy who never really grows beyond this. He’s used in your party for combat and for comedic relief, but that’s it. Scorpio is a yandere, Capricorn is the typical emotionless realist, Taurus is the sleepy, boring extra, Leo is the feisty, arrogant type, Aries is basically identical to Leo, and the list goes on. What’s worse, several of these Zodiac characters are only ever seen once. It’s beguiling, given the title, themes, and story of the game. I realize that establishing and developing a minimum of twelve characters is an arduous task, but I expected more than just the single appearances of several of the Zodiacs and I expected more development from the Zodiacs that do play significant roles in the unfolding of the main story.
Moving on to gameplay, Virgo Versus the Zodiac takes the traditional, turn-based RPG scheme and makes its extraordinary. Though the familiar elements, such as leveling up, equipment and the likes are there, developer Moonana reworks it to make it outstanding. The majority of gameplay is centered on combat, in which combatants take turns, called Phases, to act. During the player’s Purge (attack) Phase, you can attack or defend. Typically when you launch an attack, the enemy will immediately enter a Counter Phase and retaliate. After an enemy attacks during their own Purge Phase, you will immediately enter your own Counter Phase depending on your equipment. This is the standard flow of combat and so defense is perhaps the most vital aspect of combat. Tied directly to defense is Vitality, which is a kind of block/guard points. All characters have Hearts (health) and Vitality and the key is to protect your Hearts by building up your Vitality. To activate Vitality, combatants must defend, or use their shield item, during their Purge or Counter Phases to store it up. Vitality points are drained instead of hearts as enemy attacks are incurred. Vitality also drops after every turn automatically, so defending or using special weapons that recovers Vitality every few turns is absolutely key to surviving in this game.
Another aspect to combat are the QTE events that occur when attacking and defending. Ranging from a single or multiple timed button presses, button smashes, or directional inputs, these QTE events will impact how much damage is dealt and blocked. Performing them perfectly will yield max damage and minimal damage taken. QTEs vary based on the equipped item, so mastering the archetypes is essential, especially for bosses and later in the game when difficulty rises.
Speaking of difficulty, Virgo Versus the Zodiac is tough, even on normal difficulty. Failing a QTE can easily turn the tides of combat against you and result in a quick game over. You must also be quick to recognize which of your party members is being targeted, as their actions are assigned to different buttons. Virgo is assigned to the A button, but if Algol is the main target, you’ll need to use B for the QTEs instead. The easiest way of finding out who is targeted is by looking out for whose Hearts/Vitality meter becomes visible. It also doesn’t help any that every action causes a text box to pop up. Get used to ignoring those quickly, as zero vital information is ever mentioned during combat. Finally, there is an affinity triangle that further impacts combat, and everything else really. Ambition (purple) is strong against Versatility (green), which is strong against Patience (red), and Patience is strong against Ambition. Enemies clothing are color coordinated, so you’ll recognize which affinity to attack with.
The overall combat system is also not the easiest to master, as it takes practice to become accustomed to the flow of combat and, especially, the use of equipment. There are two sets of equipment, one for the Purge Phases and one for the Counter. Each allows four types of equipment, for a total of eight equipable pieces. Each piece will raise and lower different stats, for example, a Versatile (green) piece of armor will increase Versatility defense, but may also lower Ambitious (purple) or Fixed (red) defense too. Keeping in mind the penalties are as important as focusing on your defense in combat. Along with stat changes, most equipment also offers a secondary ability or disability. These can range from restoring Hearts, decreasing total Hearts, increasing Vitality gains, increasing attribute damage, decreasing user and/or enemy attribute defense, guaranteeing a critical hit on your next strike, poisoning, burning, stunning, and innumerably more. Half the fun is discovering these abilities and the assortment of advantages and kinds of damage they can yield. Even if certain weapons or armor fail to impress with their stat changes or disabilities, the abilities they can offer may just make them worth their use. Finally, many pieces of Purge and Counter equipment requires one or several Phases, like a recharge, to pass after its use, or is unavailable from your first turn, as it requires a Phase before its use. All of this will seem overwhelming at first, but once you start taking notice of how your equipment works and how they’re impacting stats, the brilliance of this system becomes apparent. It’s perfectly implemented, it becomes easier the more you practice with it, and the changes to play style it offers is ridiculously high. I struggled at first, and I would even recommend new players to try playing on the easiest difficulty first and raising difficultly later, but now that I’ve mastered it, I can’t help but praise it. It’s astonishing the work that went into this and I am blown away with how solid this gameplay system is.
Completely random, yet a nice addition, as you journey to new lands, you have the choice of taking the dangerous route, which involves mini SHMUP levels. These can be skipped entirely, but if you choose to do them, you may be rewarded with crafting items and stars (currency). Not required, nor do they add anything to the story, they’re a nice extra bit of challenging fun and simple to dive into.
One final comment in regards to affinity, this system is, in fact, tied to everything in the game, including story decisions and endings. It is truly the foundation of the entire game. The Mutable attribute is tied to Versatility (green), Cardinal to Ambition (purple), and Fixed to Patience (Red). The most crucial decisions are colored for this reason, so you can recognize which story path you wish to follow. The Zodiacs themselves are color coordinated too, so your actions against certain Zodiacs (colors) further dictate what path you take. Even your party members also follow this affinity system. Virgo is mostly Versatile (green), strong against Fixed enemies, and her actions and QTEs are initiated using the A button (which is green on the Xbox controller). Algol is Fixed (red) and her actions and QTEs use the B button (also red). Same for Spica (blue/purple, X button). It’s all amazingly connected, down to the smallest details.
Despite my praise for Virgo Versus the Zodiac’s gameplay, I do have a few complaints. I mentioned it earlier, but the pacing of the game can be slow. Combat is time consuming, sacrificing play pace for strategy. I have zero problems with the need for strategy in play, but I do wish battles were faster. I would attribute the break in pace due to the sheer number of times you will be defending and only getting your licks in on a counter phase. Especially with tougher enemies, battles can drag. This pacing issue is only compounded when you reach one of the many lengthy cutscenes the game possesses. In these times, I wish the writing was tighter or better spaced with the action. Another complaint, outside of combat, there isn’t really much to do as you explore new lands. Tons of NPCs to chat with, but no thank you. Sure, there are also hidden items and stars (currency) to hunt for, but really not much else. The motivation to explore, other than perhaps finding a nice weapon or piece of armor, is limited. In truth, other than the occasional drag and the resulting loss of attention or immersion, Virgo offers stellar gameplay, so much so that I’m already looking forward to when I can replay it.
Perhaps equally remarkable to its gameplay, Virgo Versus the Zodiac possesses some of the most unique aesthetics I’ve experienced in a long time. The most obvious aesthetic element of the game is its visuals. Virgo implements a fantastic old school, 8-bit style. Everything from characters to landscapes are pixelated and for the most part, it’s adorable and charming. To add to the charm this simplistic style begets, major characters receive detailed portrait art that displays during conversations. These are detailed and beautiful, adding much needed personality for many of the Zodiacs while bolstering the allure of the established characters. Virgo looks the tough battle-hardened maiden and Pisces looks as adorable as her personality conveys. All of the portrait work is charming and impressive and it leaves me wanting more.
I do have one complaint in regards to the visuals, however. Despite the beauty of character and land that is achieved within the game, there is also this ambiguous element to the visual style. Many NPCs, as well as map elements like buildings and furnishings, are creepy. Not cute creepy nor horrifying creepy that could add to the moods of the game. No, there are just handfuls of character and design elements that are creepy to the point of being unpleasant. I understand Moonana was explicitly trying for that ambiguous style, after all, her logo is a crescent moon with dripping fangs, but I just found it all off-putting. Maybe it’s just not my style, but for someone like myself that values aesthetic appeal, especially when it contributes to the overall experience, I did not appreciate this.
As for the audio, not only do I have zero complaints, I think the soundtrack is a perfect complement to the game’s narrative and gameplay. This is a soundtrack that will impress, matching perfectly with events and narrative tones on screen. The electronic style and the variety of genres, from techno, rock, and classical to hints of punk and metal, are all incredible. Never once did I think a piece of music was dull nor did I ever feel indifferent with a single track. Each one is catchy, memorable, and a perfect fit for the game’s overall style. It’s amazing how well the soundtrack both stands out on its own and bolsters the experience without ever overshadowing it. Combined with the visuals, Virgo Versus the Zodiac has aesthetic appeal that will not only impress, but continue to awe with every playthrough.
Virgo Versus the Zodiac is an adorably charming rampage across the galaxy. A memorable main heroine worth making that emotional investment in, an impressive transformation of traditional game mechanics into the unique, and an aesthetic style all its own, Virgo Versus the Zodiac delivers an unforgettable experience. A single playthrough will take about 20 hours and provide plenty of reasons to replay well beyond. A hidden gem, this star yet shines dazzlingly bright.
Review copy provided by the developer
8 bitDegica GamesIndieJRPGMoonanaNanapixel graphicsQTERPGShmupVirgoVirgo Versus the Zodiac