Genre: Collectable Card Game
Release Date: January 2, 2007
Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Spirit Caller thrusts you into the world of the Duel Academy, a private school created by the former Yu-Gi-Oh antagonist Seto Kaiba to train a new generation of duelists. Duelists are divided into three different "houses": Ra Yellow, Obelisk Blue and Slifer Red. Blue is home of the top duelists, with luxuries aplenty, Yellow is average all the way through, and Red is home to those who are considered the lowest of the low. While the animated show follows the adventures of Jaden Yuki, a newcomer to the school, Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Spirit Caller places you in the role of a new character to the story. Retroactively added into the storyline from the beginning, your avatar works Jaden as he explores the mysteries of the Duel Academy.
You'll spend most of your time exploring the island on which the academy is located. The island itself is divided up into five sections, each housing different environments, from forests and mountains to the dorms of the three "houses." Moving around one of these areas activates a radar, which slowly turns your cursor red the closer you get to another person. While some of the folks you encounter on the island just want to talk, most will challenge your character to a card duel. Beyond those duels, certain events can be activated by visiting specific spots at specific times. The problem is that there's no indication of when or where you need to be in order to advance the plot. It often boils down to just searching and fighting constant random duelists in the vain hope that it will activate the next plot event.
Of course, the main reason one would purchase Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Spirit Caller is for the duels. The Yu-Gi-Oh card game is fairly similar to Magic: The Gathering or other Collectable Card Games. Two (or in rare occasions, more) players create a deck of between 40-60 cards, which are divided into Monsters, Trap, Ritual, Fusion and Spell categories. Monster cards are creatures who can be summoned to do battle; Spell cards have unique effects ranging from powering up monsters to destroying everything on the field. Trap Cards are similar to Spell Cards but can be activated to counter an enemy's action. Ritual and Fusion cards can be used to summon powerful monsters that are not usually viable for regular combat.
The two players battle until one has lost all of his "Life Points" or "LP," and after the ordeal is over, the player is awarded with Experience and Duel points. As expected, winning a battle nets you a number of Experience points, and gaining enough EP brings up your School Level. As your level rises, you can purchase new Booster Packs, challenge more powerful duelists, and further advance the storyline. However, this comes with a very notable downside: You have to fight these duels in order to continue with the game, which doesn't sound too bad at first because duels are the entire point of Yu-Gi-Oh, after all. The problem is that leveling up requires a lot of duels, and until you reach a significantly high level, you'll only have a few people against whom to duel. Fighting these same foes over and over quickly grows frustrating. Once you've created a solid deck, you can tear through most of the enemies with ease, but even a short duel can take upwards of 15 minutes, depending on your luck with the cards. Continuing the plot quickly becomes a matter of grinding against the same foes over and over.
As I mentioned above, you also receive Duel points for completing a duel. Functionally the monetary unit of the game, the amount you are awarded depends on how well you fought. Performing chains or summoning multiple monsters can grant you a small bonus, while performing unusual feats, such as defeating a foe on their turn or doing exactly enough damage to defeat them, will further compound that bonus. DP can then be spent at the School Store in order to purchase new Booster Packs to augment your card deck. Creating one's favorite card deck isn't quite as easy as you might expect because Booster Packs will eventually sell out, and the store is refreshed roughly once a week. Even if you don't purchase them yourself, other students will buy them as the days go by. This can be especially frustrating during the early parts of the game, as you seek cards to flesh out your terribly weak starting deck.
Beyond duels, there isn't much to do on the island. Every Monday, your avatar is required to take an exam. A fairly basic timed multiple-choice quiz, these tests will be frustrating, if not impossible, for anyone but the most die-hard of Yu-Gi-Oh fans. Players are expected to have memorized almost every card, their functions, their attack and defense, and even their artwork! The "good" news is that performing well on these tests doesn't seem to matter at all. Some scores give you new titles for your character, but otherwise, they seem like an oddly pointless waste of time. Puzzles are also available at the school, although they are optional. Puzzles invite the player to attempt to win a duel under specific conditions and with a pre-created deck of cards, in exchange for DP and some rare cards. These puzzles are very well designed and offer a significantly greater challenge than the lackluster A.I. opponents.
For those seeking a more fulfilling challenge, Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Spirit Caller offers a Wi-Fi-enabled multiplayer mode. Using the cards unlocked in your single-player adventure, you can take your deck online and face other gamers to test who is the real King of Games. Online matches function almost identically to the single-player game, although a time limit is imposed to keep duels flowing at a constant rate. Like the single-player mode, players receive Experience points for every battle they win. Special filters can be activated to ban certain cards on the "forbidden" list or to ensure that you only face foes on a similar level. While being able to play the game online against others is fun, it does have its flaws. One must go through the tedious single-player adventure in order to get enough cards to create a deck capable of competition. Likewise, the way Yu-Gi-Oh is balanced means that using your favorite monsters is functionally impossible outside of the A.I.-limited single-player mode. Specific monsters and spell cards are so powerful that leaving them out of your deck seems to invite an easy loss.
Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Spirit Caller is the rare breed of game that makes excellent use of both screens on the Nintendo DS. Be it creating a deck or dueling another player, information is easily visible, and the controls allow smooth movement through the many menus. Unfortunately, the actual graphics don't work quite as well. Most of the game is just bland, the world menu is simplistic, and the game menus are quite cluttered. Worst of all is the card art, which looks extremely pixelated, and any details are difficult to pick out. When a card is "summoned" in battle, a matching 3D image appears on the battlefield, but like the card art, the models are pixelated and generally look quite ugly. They also don't move at all, having only a static "offense" and "defense" poses. Combat is done via two cards matching up and then the loser exploding. It's dull, especially after you've seen it a hundred times.
Likewise, the music isn't worth pumping up the volume on your DS. The same few songs play over and over for seemingly every battle. When the tide shifts in battle, the music changes to a heroic rush if the player is winning, or a tense anthem if they're losing; regardless, both tunes quickly wear out their welcome. Sound effects are almost non-existent, with a few jangles used for when a card is destroyed or a special effect is activated. It's a sub-par audio presentation all around, when simply a wide variety of songs could have kept things fresh.
If you're reading this review, you're probably going to buy Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Spirit Caller no matter what. The game itself should appeal heavily to Yu-Gi-Oh fans, with the online gameplay adding a near-infinite amount of replay value while saving the player the hefty costs of real cards. However, be prepared for a massive amount of grinding in order to unlock all of those cards, as well as a confusing interface and poor game manual. For those who can't tell a Kuriboh from a Dark Magician, however, stay far away. Even if you can enjoy the actual card game, the rest of the title holds little enjoyment.