Yu-Gi-Oh! is one of the few children's franchises that seems to have lasted longer than originally planned. This is especially true for the video game versions, which, like SpongeBob SquarePants and Dragon Ball Z, have had titles on several different consoles for several different generations. While the series has done pretty well on home consoles, it's really thrived on portables, where versions seem to come out on a yearly basis. This year proves to be no different, as the PSP gets a new entry based on the latest TV and card series. Unfortunately, only die-hard fans will really be able to glean any excitement from Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's Tag Force 4.
The game features a few different modes to toy around with. Story mode is where you'll be spending a large chunk of your time. You start off as a kid who suspiciously looks like the same one from the previous games. You travel from environment to environment, picking up discarded cards on the street. Interestingly enough, this is how you end up meeting the cast of characters you'll deal with later on in the game. Once you pick up every last card on the street, you realize that you have just enough to construct a working deck. With that knowledge, you go back out into the city to compete with others in the game of Yu-Gi-Oh!
The nature of Story mode is pretty open-ended; there's no one true path you can take to complete it. Your unofficial goal is to simply befriend the major characters you meet and take them through multiple duels to end their respective stories. Once they decide to team up with you, you have to ensure that their heart levels are increased while in your company. Winning duels will get that meter filled faster and give you access to more duels, but there are other methods to increase or decrease that meter, such as buying them gifts or engaging them in conversation with the correct responses. In a way, it's like a dating sim but without the romance and more card combat thrown in instead.
The open-ended nature of the Story mode might be appealing, but it does one thing that degrades the mode's importance: As a character, you have no story of your own. You simply act as an escort for other characters and watch as they go through their tales while you fight on their behalf. From a plot perspective, there's no reason for you to do any of this, so gamers who are used to caring about their characters will feel very disconnected with the ones in Tag Force 4. Even a flimsy reason for your character traveling and fighting in the city would help you care just a bit and give you a little more reason to fight and gather every item possible. As it stands, Story mode is simply a method to see more fights and get the cards you want for your own fights, but nothing more.
Free Duel is your standard versus mode. You can choose from a standard one-on-one battle or a tag-team battle, each with customizable rules. You can choose any of the big name characters as your opponent, but you must always play as yourself and are limited to decks you've created and cards you've accumulated through Story mode. It gives you a good way to train with cards you already have but no real opportunity to experiment with decks created for the other characters in the game. In a way, you can think of this more as a training mode than a true versus mode. Fortunately, you have the option to have the CPU battle against itself using other characters. While the action goes by quickly, you'll have the opportunity to see what strategies can be used against you.
For players who are new to the game, the most important section would be the database. This is where you can get better details on everything in the game world, from the characters to the cards. You can also use this option to go online and update the game rule set as well as get free cards that are periodically given away. If you happen to have the UMDs for the older games in the series, you can get them recognized to open up new characters and character variants for the whole game, complete with their own card sets. For new players, the most important feature of the database is the tutorial mode. Make no mistake: Tag Force 4 is complicated and has many rules and techniques that game veterans are still learning. Those who are hoping to learn through trial and error will be frustrated and often find themselves on the losing end of the spectrum. It's too bad that this tutorial wasn't somehow incorporated into the Story mode, but at least it's here if you're willing to look for it.
Network mode is back but offers no real changes to the game. You have the ability to trade cards with other players, and you can still fight other players in one-on-one bouts or tag-team matches with customizable rules. The game plays fine with no hint of lag, but it is still only letting all of this occur in Ad Hoc mode. The lack of true online hurts even more when you notice that there's a full lobby system available whenever you enter Network mode. In short, everything is fine for multiplayer as long as you stick with local multiplayer.
The graphics, for the most part, lean toward being very eye-pleasing. This is especially true for the exploration portions, which change views from isometric to side-scrolling but still retain the super-deformed sprite look from games past. The look is clean when put up against the environments, with bright colors and little details on every inch of the screen. Card battles also retain a clean look, though everything feels busy with all of the stats and card flavor text occupying every conceivable space imaginable. The cut scenes for seemingly simple actions, such as drawing a card and laying it facedown on the board, are exaggerated like the series.
The graphics also start to show some flaws. Characters have a thin cel-shaded look, and the black borders start causing massive bouts of jaggedness to the lines. There are times when they pull cards to show which cards are pulled, but the lack of detail in the cards shows that they simply took the same resolution cards from the board screen and zoomed in on them for cut scenes. While they look fine on the board, some of the artwork becomes a muddled mess during these scenes. Finally, the main menu needs to be worked on. It isn't often that you hear a complaint about menus in a game review, but when you go exploring a menu and see that it becomes hard to read a sub-menu because the previous one isn't darkened enough to make the new one legible, you know there's a problem.
As far as sound is concerned, it works as long as you don't have very high expectations. The music actually turns out fine, with heavy battle tunes during card fights and more lighthearted fare during the exploration sequences. The sound effects are the same as those from the TV show, so they fit with the source material perfectly. What will bother gamers, both fans and non-fans alike, is the lack of voice acting in the game. Considering the amount of text and characters encountered in the exploration sequences of the Story mode, it's not surprising that there aren't any voices. What is surprising is the lack of vocal work during the card battles. For all of the posturing done at every move, you never get to hear any of the characters say anything. You'll see text and see lip movement, but nothing comes out of their mouths. The same thing happens when they get hit. You'll see them flinch and read about them grunting from the hit, but you never hear them complain about getting hit. With the capabilities of a system like the PSP, it seems like a gross misuse of the technology when something as simple as voices can't be implemented for a game that's meant for kids.
Is Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's Tag Force 4 a game worth playing? If you're already a fan of the previous games on the PSP, then yes. You'll lament the lack of voices and wish that you had more scenes of your favorite creatures unleashing their special moves, but the multitude of new cards and different strategies will be more than enough to get you excited to duel. If you're a fan of the TV series, nothing that I say will phase your excitement level for this game. For everyone else, the game proves to be difficult to get into without some dedication to learning what it has to offer, and the lack of any eye or ear candy won't help you warm up to it, either. As is the case for most games like this, only fans should bother giving this one a spin.
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