Monday, March 3, 2008

Review: Culdcept Saga

Culdcept Saga (2008)
Developer: Omiya Soft.
Platform: X-Box 360
Purchase Date: 02/15/2008

After a long 1+ year of waiting, the game finally made it to the U.S. Culdcept is the second game that is capable of captivating me with such high level of intensity that I played its previous version on the PlayStation 2 for months on end. Just like Sonic Team’s original Nights, this game thrives on its almost infinite replay value. Sadly fated to be doomed commercially, the PS2's Culdcept was one of the most underrated games of our time. So how does this "sequel" fare? It looks like Saga is also afflicted with the same fate as well, which is mostly a very good thing.

Not ready to pay the mana toll? Kill the guarding creature!

Culcept Saga is easily described as a Monopoly + Card Game hybrid. If you thought Monopoly was fun, the developer has increased the addictiveness and complexities of the game to an almost unprecedented level. Money is replaced by mana and instead of purchasing lands, they can be occupied by placing creature cards on the properties as long as you have enough mana to summon them. Landing on another player's lands does not mean an automatic win for the proprietor – the visitor could avoid losing mana by the means of creature card battles. It is this active gameplay element that pushes strategy and luck - since the cards’ appearance and the roll of the die are random - into the stratosphere because anything could happen to any land at any time.

You face many unique opponents in the story mode.

“Cepters”, those who control the Culdcept cards, also gain the assistance of spell cards and item cards that can be used on the board and in battle. Mana fees can be multiplied by owning lands with the same elemental property on the board. The first Cepter to reach the goal mana requirement and return to the “Castle” wins the game. Add the ability to purchase elemental stocks that add in bonus mana per round, the creative and varied board layouts, and close to 500 different cards to collect, you will be pleasantly surprised by Culdcept’s genuinely crafted depths of gameplay. Since you can only take 50 cards with you to the boards (this rule can be edited in versus/online mode), the combinations of gameplay possibilities here are endless.

The illustrations are to die for.

The major star of the game is the artwork on the cards themselves. They are beautifully drawn by famous Japanese artists. These cards are flaunted all over the screen, they do a lot of crazy stuff during the battles, and they completely overshadow all other visual presentations in the game. The game has a simple look overall that could have been spiced up with higher polygons/details and more graphical effects on the boards as well as during the card battles.

The card battles are timeless!

For those who have played the PS2 version, this is a great "update" to that very game. Many of the cards have been completely redrawn and almost all of the new cards look remarkably better than before. I really do wish that they have done the same with all of the cards since the old ones look a bit out of place compared to the newcomers. With the beauty of high definition, you can now see the fine details on the older cards, which is a nice revelation. The boards are now bigger and more sinister than ever with new features like moving sections and lands that change their elemental properties based on their occupying creatures. These added even more layers of strategy into the mix! Everything on the boards are now drawn in 3D and the creatures are great representation of what they look like on the cards with some animated to perfection - just look for "Doppelganger" to see what I mean. In the previous game, the characters and creatures were presented with the typical Japanese short/kiddie look and it is good to see that the developer moved away from that style. The game now has a longer story mode that expands the game's mythos though they are filled with cringe-worthy voice acting. The online mode is definitely fun if you can find other dedicated cepters out there who would not drop the game when things are going sour for them.

Looking at this shot of the PS2 version made me love Saga even more.

Though there are definitely improvements in Saga, there are several missteps evident here as well. Firstly, the music is not as great as the ones found in the PS2 version. The previous game offered some of the most memorable video game soundtracks of all time. Though done by the same composer, the soundtrack here takes a more subtle and meandering approach compared to the whimsical, high energy, and melodically textured sound used before. It does get progressively better at later stages, thankfully. The voice announcers here are disappointing. In the previous game, the goddess sounded benevolent and the male announcer sounded dark and moody. Here they both sounded plain and juvenile. Secondly, the game seems to be missing some of the great special effects from the previous version. I found this somewhat strange and though they will be missed completely by those new to Culdcept, veterans will noticed that "Squeeze" is no longer squeezing the cards, "Temperance" is missing the water jug, and many attack and destruction animations during the card battle screen have been neutered. Lastly, the frame rate drops when there are too many creatures on the larger boards. The fact that this game could easily be made on a previous generation system and that publisher Namco Bandai delayed the game forever really made this problem even more puzzling. Even with these things being said, I am addicted again to Culdcept thanks to Saga. It is a worthy update to a masterpiece. Though the public is still scratching their heads not sure what to make of this game as seen from many mediocre reviews on the net, this is still one of the best games that ever existed on the market. Do not miss out on it for the second time.

RATING: 5 out of 5

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