When there's blood in the water, you're sure to attract sharks. Despite initially seeming like a secondhand Pokémon knockoff, Yu-Gi-Oh!'s specific brand of tween-friendly, self-aware card battling eventually took root, and the franchise became a bit of a phenomenon, making ridiculous amounts of money for its creators and license holders. Wizards of the Coast, creators of the seminal collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, has been in the business of collectible card games for more than a decade, but with nothing to compete directly with Yu-Gi-Oh!, it had to make something up. Which brings us to Duel Masters... Familiarly, young suburban card-game enthusiasts play against one another in contests where cards unleash the power of fantastical powers in the real world, making for larger-than-life conflicts. There is already a collectible card offering, a cartoon, a comic book, and various toys that bear the Duel Masters name, and now Atari and High Voltage Software have created a digital version of the card game with a light story wrapped around it. If Duel Masters already has its hooks in you, then the game will be inherently appealing because it executes most of the basics with just enough competence. However, it's otherwise fairly unimpressive and probably won't do much for the uninitiated. But then again, it doesn't really have to.
Wasting no time with introductions, Duel Masters kicks off as Widow, an evil, black-clad master of the duel, breaks a barrier between this dimension and wherever it is that the creatures from the cards hang out. This spells certain doom for the world, or at least for the subdivision where the game takes place. Knight, the do-gooder foil to Widow, recruits a team of five young players to seal the creatures back in their dimension, which is apparently done by playing loads and loads of games against various artificially intelligent opponents. Though Duel Masters has a fate-of-the-world setup, your quest will take you to such exotic locales as...the mall! The park! And, most thrilling of all, a card shop!
Ham-fisted setup and mundane locales aside, the actual card-battling in Duel Masters is pretty good, and it puts some interesting touches on the standard one-on-one card-dueling mechanics. Armed with a deck of 40 cards that feature either creatures or spells, your goal is to break all five of your opponent's "shields" and then strike a winning blow directly against him or her before he or she can do likewise. The unique twist is that to put a card into play, you need a certain amount of mana. The only way to increase the amount of mana you have is by sacrificing cards from your hand by placing them into your mana pool. Further complicating things is that each card has a certain alignment--fire, water, earth, light, or dark--and you'll need to sacrifice at least one card of the same alignment before you can play that card. The mana system has a profound effect not only on how a game plays out, but also on how you build your deck. You'll want to have enough filler cards to throw into your mana pool, and you'll also want a good balance of creature cards, particularly with low mana costs, for the beginning of a match. Conversely, you'll want more-potent cards for when you're nearing the endgame. If this all sounds overly esoteric and confusing, rest assured it's actually quite easy to pick up. Incidentally, the game also features a pretty good interactive tutorial for familiarizing yourself with the basics. The AI opposition is also pretty lax at the start, and it takes its sweet time doing anything that requires particular cunning. Experienced card gamers will probably find a lot of the action to be pretty easy, with most matches flying by in well under 10 minutes.
If the turn-based gameplay is too slow for you, Duel Masters also features an extreme mode, which you can opt for at any point between battles during the story mode. This offering adds some real-time elements to the action by not strictly enforcing turns, though the action is still throttled by your slowly regenerating mana pool. It's significantly more manic than the standard turn-based mechanics, but extreme mode can also get rather confusing, and unless you're already intimately familiar with the ins and outs of how Duel Masters is played, it's probably best to start off with the more methodical turn-based functioning.
When you're not engaged in battle, the game employs a cel-shading effect for its characters, which helps make it look like its cartoon counterpart, though it's not particularly detailed or even really interesting-looking. The look changes dramatically when you're actually fighting, with the action taking place in one of five different arenas, each themed after the different alignment types. Here your cards are represented by actual monster models, which can be hard to really make out from the wide angle of the arena that you'll be seeing most of the time. The game does cut to a prerendered video clip whenever these monsters come into play, which gives you a much better look at them. However, these sequences drag down the pacing of the gameplay severely. Fortunately, these can be turned off at your own discretion. Whether in the real world or in the card-battling arena, the graphics don't impress, but more importantly, the overall aesthetic of the game just doesn't feel cohesive. The actual duelists have that American anime look to them. (Think of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Jackie Chan Adventures and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect.) Additionally, a lot of the creatures have a bizarre Heavy Metal magazine-style biomechanical look to them, though even among the creatures you don't get a really unified theme.
The sound doesn't do much to bring the game's feel together, either. The monsters' sounds are all pretty unremarkable, the music is basically limited to some transitional rock guitar squeals, and the voice acting is either too stiff or too hammy, which has a pretty significant impact since there's quite a bit of speech in between matches.
Stylistically, the game feels familiar and worn-out, like an image that's been photocopied too many times. The actual card-battling mechanics have a slightly unique feel, and the gameplay is relatively easy and straightforward, making it attractive to younger players who are looking to engage in some card-battling. However, the game still just isn't a worthwhile purchase for those who aren't already sold on Duel Masters.