Upper Deck Entertainment, one of the more prominent purveyors of collectible trading-card games today, has teamed up with Konami to bring Upper Deck's Marvel-licensed TCG to the PlayStation Portable with the succinctly, if dryly, named Marvel Trading Card Game. It seems like a solid representation of Upper Deck's robust, flexible, and rather popular Vs. System Trading Card Game, and it packs a feature-rich online element that's already teeming with activity. As is the case with most digitized TCGs, it's not a particularly exciting game to watch. If you're not already knee-deep in the real-world Vs. System Trading Card Game, or other similarly advanced TCGs, it can be a confusing experience, as well.
In concept, Marvel Trading Card Game is a straightforward exercise in strategy. Two players, each armed with a deck of cards, take turns "attacking" one another by playing various cards with unique characteristics until one player has had all of his or her hit points depleted. Cards are divided into several different categories: characters, equipment, locations, and plot twists. Characters are probably the most significant cards, as these are what you'll use to actually attack your opponent, while equipment and locations can be used to enhance their abilities. Plot twists are also of great import, due largely to the wide range of effects they can have, from simply buffing up one of your character cards for a turn to forcing your opponent to discard cards. Plot twists can also be chained together, which can potentially cause several reversals of fortune within a single character clash.
Before you can put any characters into play, though, you'll need to meet their resource requirements. You can choose to play any card in your hand as a resource at the start of your turn, similar to the way mana cards are played in Magic: The Gathering. Likewise, you can only add a single card to your resources during any given turn, which generally causes the action to build up slowly over the course of a match, since it will take time to garner the necessary resources to put your more powerful characters into play. There's certainly a significant element of luck to your success, since you'll be drawing cards randomly from your deck, but there are several thick layers of strategy to it as well. Which characters you play is important, as each has a unique attack and defense rating that will determine how it'll fare against other characters, but where you actually place them on the playing field can matter just as much. There are two rows you can play your characters in--front and back--and how they'll behave when placed in either can depend on whether they have flight abilities and ranged attacks. Where they're placed in proximity to other characters that share their team affiliation matters, too.
All of these elements can make for some really interesting play, if you can figure out what's actually going on. There's a series of interactive tutorials to help beginners, which are helpful, though you'll ultimately still have to jump in feet first to fully understand the ins and outs of the game. Even then, the interface is densely crammed into the screen, with loads of tiny, obscure icons used to signify lots of important stuff. Plot-twist chains, which will regularly determine the outcome of a specific confrontation, can be especially difficult to keep track of due to the way they're presented. Though the game does try to spruce things up with some nice background and card art, as well as some light particle effects, it can still look like some kind of alien tax return.
If you can get a hang of it, though, Marvel Trading Card Game brims with ways to play. There are two unique and lengthy single-player campaigns to play through, putting you in the role of either hero or villain. You can play against a live opponent locally, though the real achievement here is the game's online mode, where you can jump right into games with players from around the world or compete in numerous sponsored and user-created tournaments. The game also promises interoperability with the forthcoming PC version of Marvel Trading Card Game, which could mean an even greater pool of opponents to play with. Taking the digital trading-card concept to its logical conclusion, you can also buy additional booster packs and starter decks of "cards" to enhance your online deck.
With its good implementation of the well-known Vs. System, Marvel Trading Card Game will make those who've already got a taste for TCGs quite happy, and it makes pretty good use of the Marvel license on top of that. It's a step up in sophistication from the Yu-Gi-Oh! games that Konami has been churning out for years, and the online component is surprisingly solid. Still, it's a shame that the game's depth gets in the way of its accessibility to a wider audience.