Review: Culdcept SAGA

culdcept_saga.JPGPlatform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Omiya Soft/Jamsworks
Release Date: 2/05/08
Genre: Card/Strategy
Players: 1-4

I’ve been a fan of Culdcept ever since the game’s 1997 debut on the Japanese Sega Saturn, so as soon as I heard the series was making its way to the Xbox 360, you could say I was pretty ecstatic. While the core gameplay has stuck to the same deliberately paced, tough yet addictive learn as you go style for over a decade, that’s actually a great thing. If you’re looking for a game that’s absolutely going to make you appreciate losing while it makes you a better player at it, Culdcept SAGA has your name written all over it. Card battle fan or not, a few hours spent on the boards here will put hair on your chest, brighten your teeth and maybe even build up a few muscles you never thought you had. OK, that’s a bit of ridiculous hyperbole on my part. Nevertheless, the game is very tough on newcomers for a good reason. Playing against the computer and losing (often badly) allows you to learn the ropes as you earn new cards while also learning to tailor the perfect book to take into future battles. While the visuals and sounds don’t tax the Xbox 360 hardware at all, you’ll find yourself spending hour after hour in front of your TV seesawing between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Single player mode has you playing as a young lad sold to a slaver in order for his struggling village to survive. The strange dreams you’d been having pre-sale (yet don’t fully comprehend) are trying to tell you that you’re a Cepter, a card-carrying card fighter with skills to be reckoned with. As you make your way from your former village with your captor, you come across a strangely dressed young girl named Faustina who tries to get the slaver to sell you her way. She happens to be packing a deck of magical cards and can sense your innate power through them. As the slaver is refusing the offer, a tough thief named Rilara rushes onto the scene and upon seeing Faustina’s cards, forces a battle upon you. This first battle map is a small square affair, but Rilara’s deck is stacked with some powerful cards and more likely than not, most players will suffer a loss or three (or four) before putting her away.

There’s a bit more story as the game continues, but it’s the always-challenging gameplay that’s the draw from the beginning. The easiest way to describe Culdcept is Monopoly with Magic cards but with no pieces to lose or booster packs to buy. Your magic book is limited to 50 cards, you’re allowed up to six cards in hand (pulled at random by the CPU) and initially, you’re stuck with Faustina’s somewhat lacking book. Each stage takes place on a different board layout with colored tiles that represent different elements (Earth, Wind, Fire and Water) and later, tiles that feature multiple element attributes or morphing effects. The goal is to earn a set amount of magic per board while battling it out with creature cards, spells and magical items. Land on a blank tile and you can choose to occupy it with a creature or pass your turn and let the next player go. While you don’t need to match a creature to its element tile, doing so adds bonuses to strength and/or hit points and adding other creatures on opposing tiles adds an even better bonus.

Merely placing creatures on the board haphazardly is only good for a quick doom, so you’ll definitely want to plan a basic strategy for each board before you place your first card. Fortunately, you can view the entire board right after you draw a card (but before your die roll). All maps have a starting Castle where you collect a Lap Bonus based on a number of factors as well as at least one Fort that gives you a small bonus whether you land on it or pass by. Additionally, some boards have temples where fortunetellers let you pick a card type from your book or shrines that dispense random elemental effects that can turn the game around by draining or restoring creature HP, adding/subtracting properties to lands and more. Choose to fight it out if you have creature cards in your hand and here’s where practice pays off, as using support cards to beef up HP, strength and/or attack/defense ratings can quickly earn you new territory.

Pre-battle, the game shows icons that tell you at a glance if your card is weak, equal or strong against an opponent, however this doesn’t reflect Support cards. A super-weak card can be made surprisingly powerful against a formerly unstoppable opponent or an already powerful card’s attack rating can be drained to zero. On leveled up Fire territory, Cait Sith (nullifies attacks 40 and over) + Buckler (nullifies attacks 30 and under) can help you hold land (unless your opponent uses a magic scroll attack that wipes out the boot-wearing kitty). One strategic example is to secure territories before and after the castle and/or fort, stacking them with high tolls that can strip an opponent’s magic dry on a bad roll. Another tack is to try to gain all the elements of one or more colors along a long route, making a deadly path for nearly any foe. Every action you need to take costs Magic Power and unless you’re gaining some from tolls, cards or passing forts and castles, you’re at the mercy of the AI or other live players who know the game.

Win or lose, you’ll be rewarded with cards with more and better new cards for winning. You’ll also gain new accessories such as armor, weapons and such that allow you to change your avatar’s look, yet have no effect on gameplay. The game also stat tracks your performance and allows you to save up to one hundred replays, provided you haven’t suspended the match at some point. It took me a painful six tries to whip Rilara (it only took two in the demo version!) and when I eventually beat her, I saved the replay as “Finally!” In case you’re wondering (and yes, there’s a mild spoiler coming), some characters show up a few more times during the game armed with better books. Amusingly, the second time out (thanks to a great book of my own), I completely cleaned Faustina’s clock, forcing her off the board after she ran out of magic and territories to sell off. By the way, if you or an opponent run out of magic power and can’t afford to pay a huge toll after selling off everything you own, you’re reset at the starting Castle with a fresh book and only a small amount of Magic Points.

Although it seems impossible to win if this happens very late in a match, amazing comebacks will be the stuff of some great stories as in single or multiplayer modes. You can be trailing badly by a few thousand Magic Points with no good territories left when you suddenly run out of cards and your book resets itself. This is actually a great thing in longer matches as any good cards you’ve already played are back in your deck, making for a second chance at victory. Conversely, in matches where you’re leading, having your opponents’ books reset will wipe that smile off your face as you hope all their great creature or spell cards haven’t cycled back to the top of their decks. Even though you can see your opponents’ current cards briefly onscreen as the CPU selects them, you can’t see their entire deck at all, nor judge what strategy they’ll use. A player with a few Doublecast spell cards can suddenly lower your tolls by half while doubling the cost of your summoned cards or zap your Cepter or creatures with all sorts of nasty status effects. Unless you’re memorizing all their cards as they’re played out, it’s hard to know what type of book the opposition’s packing until you’ve been smacked about a bit.

As you move through the main quest, the boards get tougher and the opposition stranger. In true JRPG fashion, enemies as well as NPC’s are a fairly odd-looking lot. After a couple of battles in a coliseum that features a little surprise for the last match, you’ll come across Faustina’s cranky sister Anedia and her cute, (and hilariously hostile) fuzzy pet, Ticomon. Once you take down Ticomon, the game allows you to choose your path from four stages based on each element with appropriately themed boards and Cepters to fight against. You’re probably not going to become too emotionally attached to the characters in the game, but watch the cut scenes anyway for the requisite plot twists and some mildly (and intentionally) amusing dialog. I’ll need to go back and revisit some of my old saves from the PlayStation 2 version of Culdcept as I thought the overall storyline here was a *tiny* bit less engaging than in that older game. That’s probably due to the dry manner in which the narrative plays out, but in the end, the gameplay triumphs over any storytelling bumps. Then again, Faustina’s a lot easier on the eyes than the previous game’s talking magic staff, Goligan.

In terms of presentation, the game sticks to the Culdcept basics: clean board graphics, light Cepter animation, an assortment of lovely hand-drawn 2D cards and nicely 3D rendered backdrops for the card battles. The story sections feature quaintly dated 3D characters and environments with more hand-painted artwork before the cut scenes. Sound design gets the job done with mostly decent English voice acting and a couple of pleasing musical selections that add atmosphere to each board. You don’t need to be a gamer for as long as I have to realize that not *every* game on a “next-gen” console HAS to use all the bells and whistles the hardware provides. Visually, this is no Eternal Sonata, but as I’ve said elsewhere, if you only buy games for graphics, you’ve bought more than a few great-looking bad games. In terms of the close to 500 cards here, I’ll need to double check, but the majority seem to be from the PS2 version of Culdcept (which by the way, was a port of an import Dreamcast game). However, if you’re a well-seasoned Cepter, you know that there are endless hours of depth to be found as you create, edit and re-edit up to 16 different spell books. One other thing, that completely manual save function is in full effect here each time you edit your Cepter or book data, so definitely don’t ignore it before a new stage.

As solid as the gameplay in single player is, you’ll probably spend even more time in Versus mode against the AI or live players. Later on in the main quest you’ll be introduced to Alliances that allow you to share Magic Points and land on co-op territory with no penalties. Want to share the wealth? Grab up to three other friends for offline fun or head onto Xbox Live and take on some willing opponents. Voice Chat is available, should you feel the need to engage in a bit of trash talking or constructive card advice. Playing offline with newbies is a fun and funky experience as everyone stumbles around the rules for the first few turns until things click. Then, when people start getting things down, each time someone lands on a high cost spot, “Give it up!” will be the mantra heard for the next couple of hours. The game allows players to use their custom Cepters and books saved to Memory Units while a wide set of custom rules for multiplayer include setting match or move time limits, number or type of cards used and much more. Think you’re hot stuff, card master? Try the wacky “360” board with a 30-second turn time limit with creature only, non-spell card books. Maybe try lowering the card count to 30 cards per player and go three against one in a 50 round game – it’s all up to you.

Is the game perfect? Not at all, but none of the negatives here stop SAGA from being totally enjoyable unless you’re coming in to the game with expectations of head shots and bodies flying all around. Just as in a real life board game, every single move is played out with no way to fast forward or skip turns, meaning larger maps with more than two players can take up to three hours or so to complete. Of course, that means if you’re playing with other live opponents, make sure you’re all committed to that block of time or simply create a Custom match with a set time limit. The strict reliance on learning to play with a growing yet finite deck of cards means there’s no trading model implemented, but this isn’t an issue since the game relies on complete customized books rather than one or two killer rare cards. Still, brand new players going online that haven’t touched the main game will need to rely on skill and luck rather than great cards. Granted, previous installments of the franchise in Japan have had expansions, so it would be nice to see one for the 360 at some point (provided the game sells well enough in Japan to warrant an expansion that makes it out here).

One other thing for you Achievement Point junkies: if you don’t have an Xbox Live account, you’ll be missing out on a number of online Achievements. Finally, as mentioned above, suspending games don’t allow you to save replays, which isn’t too much of an issue unless you really wipe out the AI and want to savor the glory at a later date. The bigger issue is suspending also cuts you off from any story Achievements you’d have earned. So if you’re feeling sleepy at the beginning (or worse, in the middle) of what’s turning into a protracted battle, it’s best to either shut your console off and retry later or just forge ahead and live without those sought after Points.

In the end, as awesome as this game is, some reviewers (and unfortunately, gamers who should know better) will probably go on and on about the graphics not being up to “today’s standards.” In my book, that’s less a complaint about the overall quality here than a wish that this type of stupidly jaded “criticism” will eventually vanish. Forget fancy mapping techniques for a minute, please – It’s truly all about the gameplay, and Culdcept SAGA absolutely delivers the goods. Whether you’re new to this type of game or an old hand at card battling looking for something to keep you busy for quite some time, you’ll definitely get more than your money’s worth. In a perfect world, this is the sort of game that should be somewhere near the top of Live charts for online play, but that would require a huge shift in demographics to folks that go for one type of game over another. As it stands, it may be up to a mere few hundred thousand really smart gamers who want something unique with true longevity that make this one a keeper of a sleeper.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Endless hours of gameplay, especially with like-minded friends
+ Tough AI will generally keep you on your toes
+ Even when you lose… you win!

Cons:
– Not for sore losers, folks with no free time or graphics whores
– Tough AI sometimes pulls a few boners

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