NEC brings the popular Japanese card-based strategy game to the US.
Culdcept is a popular Japanese strategy game that made its first appearance for video game consoles on the Sega Dreamcast. The game blended elements from both card and board games to offer an engaging experience that went down well with Japanese audiences. The first installment was followed by a sequel and has since moved on to the PlayStation 2--in the wake of the DC's demise. Despite the series' popularity, it appeared that Culdcept would join the ranks of many Japanese games that never make it to US shores because of their niche appeal. Fortunately, the newly revived NEC has opted to bring the first installment of the series to the PlayStation 2. We got a chance to try out a preview version of the game and are pleased by what we've seen.
Culdcept offers two main modes of play: a traditional story mode, offering a series of battles that unfold along with the story, and a two-player mode that lets you take on a friend. The single-player game's story is a rather involved tale that revolves around a search for a gifted individual, known as a "cepter." In a convenient turn of events, the cepter is key to saving the universe. It seems the goddess Culdra has sealed the power of the universe's salvation in a convenient card form and needs the aforementioned cepter to venture out and find the card before things in the universe get ugly. Discovering the right cepter for the job, however, is going to take some work. This is exactly where Culdra's right-hand man (or "cane"), Goligan, comes in. The magic cane is sent out to find the cepter, who can save creation. Goligan's at the start of his search when he encounters trouble, in the form of the villain, Ryvern. Fortunately, you'll be on hand to lend a hand, which is why Goligan flags you as a potential savior. Whether you are actually a savior is up to you, as the pair of you will travel the countryside engaging in battles and earning cards as you search for the key to salvation.
While the notion of roaming a continent with a talking magic cane sounds like an H.R. Pufnstuf episode gone horribly wrong (and may turn off some), those who stick with Culdcept will be pleased by what they find. The board game--which makes up the core of Culdcept's combat--is essentially a souped-up version of Monopoly with mythical creatures and slightly more involved rules. Each "battle" is a board game set on a variety of different boards. You start each turn by drawing a card to add to your existing hand. You then press the X button to stop the onscreen dice counter on a number that lets you know how many spaces you can move. The goal of each battle is to achieve a set amount of magic power, which you earn by going around the board and laying claim to colored squares that each represent an elemental type. You subsequently use a creature card and summon a minion to hold down the fort. As you claim more and more squares of the same type, you earn more magic power as you pass by the game's starting point and checkpoints, which are distributed along the board.
To boost your magic earning, you can upgrade the level of the land you occupy, which increases the "toll" your opponent pays when he or she lands on your square(s). If you buff up the level of your land enough, your tolls may be so astronomical that they'll win you the match when your foe pays them. However, there is an "out" from this extortion: It's combat. When you land on an occupied square, you're able to choose a creature card from your hand to pit against the occupying critter. Before the cards engage, you're able to choose a stat-boosting card, if you have it, thus giving your minion an edge in battle. If you manage to defeat the occupying creature, then you won't have to pay the toll. Even better, you'll take the square as your own. If your monster is defeated, you have to pay up and live with the shame of defeat. The mechanics get a bit more complicated as you progress deeper into the game, but once you have the core down, the additions to the rules are manageable. As you win battles you earn cards and are able to edit your deck, or you can create a new one to better suit your playing style. The key to victory is balancing the various card types into a well-rounded arsenal. In addition to creature cards, you can find item cards that can be used to augment your creature's abilities, and you can also find spell cards that yield a variety of advantageous effects for you. Overall, the system is very user-friendly and easy to pick up. The game even includes an in-game manual to which you can refer any time you have questions on how things work.
The graphics aren't technically impressive, but they compensate for their lack of polygonal prowess with a sleek sense of style. The game's presentation mixes CG cinemas, 2D sprites, some subtle 3D effects, and rich painted art in a cohesive package that works nicely. The CG cinemas are nicely done and are used sparingly. Outside of the lengthy intro cinema that sets up the game's story, the rest of the CG is reserved for small clips that introduce you to the newest environment you'll be dueling in. When you're in battle, the graphics are 2D, but they're dressed up with special effects in much the same way as the sprites in games like Disgaea or the original Final Fantasy Tactics. The game's world map offers a bit of 3D, but you won't spend much time there. One of the most impressive graphical elements of Culdcept are the various cards used during the game. Thanks to the contributions of various well-known Japanese artists, the cards sport a rich look that's quite a sight to behold. The cards are given some graphical flourish, much like the character sprites, thanks to a variety of special effects meant to simulate battle.
The audio is sparse but gets the job done. You'll hear some narration throughout battle, and you'll hear assorted cries from your creature cards as they fight one another. The sound effects are equally sparse, and they don't stand out much. The strongest element of the audio is its score, which offers a good accompaniment to the action.
So far, Culdcept is shaping up well. The gameplay is solid and, ultimately, pretty accessible. NEC is doing a good job of localizing the game, as our preview version read well and seemed to be coming along fine. The game's presentation is quite slick, and the art for the various cards is exceptional. While fans of the series will, no doubt, snatch the game up, those unfamiliar with the Culdcept games may want to check them out as well. The single-player story offers a solid challenge, while the two-player game has all the appeal of a traditional board game, ensuring a nice amount of replay value. Culdcept is currently slated to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2.
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