Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution is the next installment in Sonic Team's spin on Sega's popular Phantasy Star franchise. While the previous entries in the series for the Dreamcast, GameCube, and Xbox have been action RPG-style online games, this latest entry is a pretty radical new direction for the series. Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution takes a giant leap away from the gameplay of its predecessors and plays like something in between a simulation game and a card game. PSO Episode III Takes place 21 years after Episode II. Civilians on board the Pioneer 2 have not yet landed on Ragol, so they are getting used to living their lives aboard the ship. On board Pioneer 2, a new convenient technology, called C.A.R.D., is being tested out. C.A.R.D. allows objects to be compressed into a (surprise) small card, which can then be restored at any time needed. Meanwhile, the government is making plans for the urbanization of Ragol, while a struggle for power is happening underneath its surface. You can either play as the government side, called the Hunters, or the antigovernment resistance group, called the Arkz. Playing through both sides of the story, via the offline scenario mode, can uncover what's happening with the government and why the Arkz are rebelling against the development of Ragol.
In a major change from past PSO titles, PSO III is dedicated to being a card game and has no fields to explore as in the previous games. After receiving a mission at the lobby and heading to the transporter, you're sent directly to the card battle platform to fight an opponent. Once the battle is complete, you're returned to the lobby where a new card battle mission awaits. The change is definitely understandable, as an average two-on-two battle can take about a half an hour to complete.
In another change from the past PSO titles--while you're still prompted for a character creation at the beginning of the whole game, the character only shows up in the lobby. The game explains that your character is the commander for the battles. The actual fighting is done by a preset assortment of characters, and each has different strengths and weaknesses.
PSOIII has a turn-based battle system that follows a pretty standard structure, where battles continue until the main character from either side loses. You start off by rolling a pair of six-sided dice at the beginning of each turn. The die with the higher number represents the number of action points--or the number of actions--you have for that turn. The die with the smaller number is used as the defense point during your enemy's turn. While the maximum number of action points a player can earn is six, you can earn a dice bonus that adds to the dice count. Apparently, the bonus is given to players who defeat a certain number of monsters.
Once you've rolled the dice, you have to prepare for the fight by equipping weapons or placing monsters on the field, which depends on whether you're playing as a Hunter or an Arkz. The Hunters specialize in hand-to-hand combat and have the ability to equip weapons that strengthen their attacks. Multiple weapons can be equipped at one time, and the more weapons that are equipped, the more times the character can attack on a single turn. Each weapon is unique. For example, some weapons have a wide area of attack, and some weapons are especially effective against certain enemies. Stronger weapons tend to require more action points to be equipped, while weaker weapons take fewer action points. The weapons also act as protective gear for the characters and can absorb the damaged inflicted by enemy blows. Each weapon has its own number of life points, which can lower when attacked by an enemy. For an enemy to inflict direct damage to your character, he or she must keep on attacking the character and must break all of his or her weapons first. Weapons are equipped on the character, throughout the match, until they are broken.
Arkz, on the other hand, can't equip weapons, which makes them vulnerable to attack and unsuitable for direct combat. However, they have the ability to summon monsters on to the field and can order them to fight. Once you summon a monster on to the field, you're able to take active control of it. Much like the Hunter's weapons, each summoned monster has a different range of attack and has its own unique traits, such as the ability to fly over characters. Weak monsters can be summoned with little action points, while stronger monsters require greater action points. In addition, weaker monsters can be summoned to cells that are far off of the map, while stronger monsters can only be placed near the starting point and need to be moved around and positioned in a desired location. Each monster can attack once during a turn, so the number of monsters (plus the main character) equals the number of attacks that can be executed during a turn.
After preparations, you can move your character or monster around the map to get him or her into a good position for the impending fight. For example, if your character can only attack a cell that's directly next to him or her, he or she needs to be positioned right next to the enemy. If your character can attack three rows of cells simultaneously, you'll want to move to an area where the enemies are situated side by side. Map positioning is an especially important factor for the Arkz, since they need to constantly keep monsters between them and enemies in order to avoid direct combat. One action point gets depleted for every cell that a character is moved.
After setting everything up, you're finally able to attack the enemy. One action point is required for each attack with a weapon or a monster, depending on whether the player is a Hunter or an Arkz. You can also chose to use an action card, which strengthens your character's attack or gives him or her a special property for that turn, such as the ability to reach a distant target or to stun an enemy. Stronger action cards tend to require larger numbers of action points. Your enemy can use a card, like a dodge or a guard, during this phase to decrease the damage from your attack.
Your turn ends after attacking. You can opt to have your cards randomly restocked at this point. Before the restocking phase, however, you can dispose of any cards at hand that are not needed. Your enemy then begins his or her turn, and you're prompted to choose a card to decrease damage in the event that your enemy decides to attack. Once the enemy finishes attacking, it's your turn to make a move again.
All the actions--such as attacking, summoning, and guarding--are done by picking out cards that are randomly placed on the bottom of the screen at the beginning of the match. There is a bit of luck involved in playing the game, since the cards are also restocked randomly and you won't always get a hand that you'll want.
It's very apparent that Sega's Sonic Team went to a lot of effort in making the game balanced and worthwhile. While the fundamental gameplay doesn't require too much experience with card games, there are actually nine different parameters on the cards that can be taken advantage of in making the gameplay deeper. Most of the cards also have special rules that apply to them, which are described in multiple pages by flipping the card over and over with the R button.
Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution is currently slated to ship early next year for the GameCube. Look for more on the game in the coming months.