Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: February 5, 2008
I'm not a patient man. I don't do puzzles, and I don't have the attention span to sit through marathon sessions of TV shows on DVD. Why am I telling you this? In order to understand most of my problems with Culdcept Saga for the Xbox 360, you have to understand where I'm coming from. For the most part, Omiyasoft did an incredible job combining a board game with a collectible card game, but unfortunately, if you're impatient like me, the severely slow, drawn-out gameplay does more harm than good.
If you've never played a Culdcept game, I'm not surprised. There have been about five of them released in Japan, but the U.S. has only seen one of them: Culdcept, a PS2 port of the original Sega Saturn game. On the surface, the gameplay is pretty simple: You have a deck of 50 cards, with a hand of about seven cards. You move your avatar around a board that's composed of multi-colored squares, called territories. If you land on an unoccupied territory, you can play a creature card to guard it, and that territory becomes yours. If anyone else lands on it, they have to pay a toll, or they can try to fight your creature with a creature of their own. You continue around the board, buying territories and battling creatures, to raise your maximum magic score. When that score reaches a certain number, which is pre-determined by the match, you win.
That was a very, very simple overview of Culdcept Saga. The gameplay gets much more complex and strategic when you throw in elements (i.e., fire, air), items and spells, and overall, the complexity works in the game's favor. There's no "one way" to play through any given match, and there are almost 500 cards with which to compose your deck, so if there's one thing to say about Culdcept Saga, it's that there's a lot to do. If you can stand to put up with some rough spots, you'll enjoy pretty much all of it.
For every positive, there's usually a drawback, and with Culdcept Saga, it's that the game is so complex that it feels a bit overwhelming at times. You're basically thrown into the title with next to no tutorial; you're expected to figure it out for yourself, but they don't give you enough information to even come close. There is an in-game help system that explains a lot of the basics, such as status effects and creature abilities, but there are some things — when your opponent uses items — you can only learn through trial and error. You'll end up replaying at least one of the first few missions multiple times while you try and figure out why you keep losing. This wouldn't be that big of an issue, if not for my first real gripe: The matches take a really long time.
Even your first match will take you 30 to 40 minutes to complete, and that's the easiest match in the entire game. Some of the later ones will take over an hour, and if you lose the match, you have to start it all over again. Culdcept Saga tries and compensate for this a bit by giving you a few cards if you lose a match, although if you'd won, you would have received quite a few more. Even with that, though, you still feel strong disappointment when you realize that you worked very hard for over an hour, only to have your opponent sweep in, take your magic and win the match.
This is made worse when you realize that there wasn't much you could have done about it. This isn't like an RPG, in which you can just power-level for a while and come back to beat the snot out of everyone. There is quite a bit of strategy involved in the game, but there's also a lot of luck. Sometimes, you just don't draw the cards you need to win, and even your most powerful creature can be taken down if your opponent has the correct spell.
Don't let this scare you off because Culdcept Saga really is a good game. All of the cards seem well-balanced, and, as I said, the right cards can make all of the difference in the world. It just gets frustrating to have to continually replay levels while you wait for things to go your way.
Fortunately, the game gives you some ways to experiment and shake up the matches when you have to replay them. Culdcept Saga allows you to store multiple decks, and there are almost 500 cards to collect, which means that you can compose some great decks that might give you the edge in certain situations. I've got a pretty killer air/water deck that won me more than my fair share of battles.
Unfortunately, beyond the gameplay, Culdcept Saga starts to fall a bit flat. In the single-player mode, you'll play through quite a few completely different stages that are precariously tied together by a weak story. It's your typical Japanese RPG fare. You play a spunky youth who discovers that he wields great power, and he uses this power to save the world. It's all stuff that you've seen before, and for what it is, Culdcept Saga does a pretty good job. Your characters are fun and quirky, and a few of their actions and responses will elicit chuckles. Fortunately, the focus of the game is not on the story, and the only reason you play through the single-player mode is to build up decks to play against other humans.
And that's where a lot of the real fun starts. Unlike its predecessors, Culdcept Saga takes the fun online, where you can try your deck against some real challengers. Anyone who plays Magic: The Gathering will tell you that the real fun is in playing in large social groups, and Culdcept Saga emulates this pretty well. There are some odd design choices, like times when you can see your opponent's hand, but it's still a lot of fun. Like single-player mode, you get cards for winning or losing, so even if your deck doesn't do so well, you'll still receive a reward for trying. There's also an offline versus mode, if you have a friend who likes to play. When it comes to the social side of collectable card games, Omiyasoft has got you covered with Culdcept Saga.
However, it appears that they didn't spend as much time with the presentation because it's pretty bad. The weak story is delivered by even weaker voices, as each character sounds either incredibly bored or ready to cry. The music isn't any better; each map has its own song, and what they are, they aren't really that bad. The problem is that the songs aren't really that long, and the game continually loops it. Since I've already mentioned that some matches can take over an hour, you'll get sick of the songs really quickly.
The graphics in Culdcept Saga don't inspire a lot oohs and ahhs, either. They pretty much look like they did on the PS2 version, although there's a bit of an upgrade, it's nothing you couldn't have seen on the last generation of consoles. The art on each individual card is actually pretty neat, as each one is represented by a professional illustration. When you play the card, you get a poor 3D representation that just sits there and loops the same 10 frames of animation.
The rest of my problems with the game are pretty small nitpicks. The enemy AI does almost seem too lucky at times, drawing the right cards and getting perfect dice rolls that lead them to either miss your really powerful creatures or land on your weaker ones. By the same token, your card draws and dice rolls seem to prevent you from achieving victory. I'm sure there's nothing to it, and it's all as random as the developers claim, but I just thought I'd mention it as an observation. There were times during the title's 30-plus hour campaign where my character would stop one square before the goal, only to have my opponent roll just enough to carry him over the finish line.
Truth be told, there's a lot to love about Culdcept Saga for the Xbox 360. You have an incredibly deep game that allows a ton of customization, so if you enjoy collecting things, the game has more than enough to keep you busy for hours. Some fun multiplayer modes add an excellent level of value to this title that's already priced at 40 dollars. Be forewarned that you need to have patience to play this game. Your matches are long, and the gameplay can sometimes seem slow, but any fan of collectable card games should definitely pick up this title because I've never seen the genre represented so well as it was here. Others might want to rent it first to see if they can take the game's slower pace. If they can, they're in for a treat because there's a lot of game to explore in Culdcept Saga..
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