For those outside its sphere of influence, Kazuki Takahashi's Yu-Gi-Oh! property could be summed up as a cross between Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering. Anime-faced youths battle each other in an ancient Egyptian collectible-card game, with the goal of collecting as many high-powered cards as possible and becoming a master duelist. Yu-Gi-Oh! The Duelists of the Roses takes some liberties with the standard Yu-Gi-Oh! collectible-card game format and the story line of the animated series. If you're already a fan of Yu-Gi-Oh!, these discrepancies probably won't dissuade you, and neither will the game's many technical shortcomings. But if you're not already familiar with the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime or collectible-card game, The Duelists of the Roses is a very uninviting title that will likely sour your interest in Yu-Gi-Oh! permanently.
The character names and faces in The Duelists of the Roses are all drawn from the standard Yu-Gi-Oh! story line, but all the action takes place during medieval times in England. Two factions are battling for control of the British Empire, and, oddly enough, most of these battles seem to revolve around a collectible-card game. You come into the picture as a nameless modern-day duelist, brought back to the past by one of the factions to help tip the scales of the conflict in its favor. Once you've decided which side you'll fight for, the story pretty much leaves the building, and you'll engage eight different AI opponents in a long series of collectible-card game battles.
But the gameplay in The Duelists of the Roses is not exactly your standard Yu-Gi-Oh! fare. Two of the biggest differences are the presence of a leader card and the use of a battlefield grid. The leader card basically carries all your life points, and it can gradually earn special abilities. The battlefield grid adds an additional layer of strategy to the game, introducing different types of terrain that can inhibit or enhance the abilities of your cards. Aside from these changes, the game basically plays like any other collectible-card game. You start off a game with a 41-card deck and 4000 life points. Each player takes turns moving their existing cards on the battlefield grid and putting new cards into play. The identity of your cards stay hidden until you go into battle, at which point the player with the weaker monster loses a number of life points based on the difference between the attack points of the stronger monster and the weaker monster--the player to run out of life points first--loses. The Duelists of the Roses is full of esoteric rules, most of which are explained in the noninteractive tutorial, but the game basically boils down to using your weaker monsters to defend your leader card, your stronger monsters to actively attack your opponent, and your spell cards to further tilt the odds in your favor.
Ultimately, though, your strategic skills are less important than the strength of the cards in your deck, and this is where The Duelists of the Roses runs into its first problem. You're given a choice of three different decks of cards at the beginning of the story mode, but all three of these decks are woefully inadequate against the first opponents you'll encounter. In fact, barring extraordinary luck, it's nearly impossible to win a match with the deck you start off with. The best way to overcome these terrible odds is to go into the game's custom duel mode, where you'll face significantly less-intimidating AI opponents and use the cards you win from these duelists to strengthen your deck. There's really no good reason for the game to be set up like this, especially if you consider the relatively young age of the Yu-Gi-Oh! audience. If you aren't aware of the importance of the custom duel mode, The Duelists of the Roses offers nothing but complete frustration.
The gameplay can prove to be rather wearing, and the game's visual and aural presentations offer little distraction. Most of the time you'll be staring at the drab-looking seven-by-seven battlefield grid, which is made slightly less drab by the 3D avatars that represent your different monsters. Truly, these monster models are the only thing you'll see in The Duelists of the Roses that doesn't look like it came directly out of an original PlayStation game. By default, you're treated to a real-time cutscene of the monsters going at it every time you attack or are attacked by a monster, but these are overly long, repetitive, and inherently not enjoyable to look at, thanks to the bad canned animation of the monsters and the ugly, pixilated look of the environments. Turning off these little sequences greatly improves the pacing of the game and makes the experience more bearable on a whole. Aside from the menu-select pings and blips you'll hear, the music that accompanies the action in The Duelists of the Roses is just about the only thing you'll hear in the game, and unless you're a huge fan of overly dramatic MIDI music, this probably isn't a good thing.
Yu-Gi-Oh! The Duelists of the Roses is a game that can really be appreciated only by dedicated fans of the series who have been eagerly awaiting a Yu-Gi-Oh! game for the PlayStation 2. The presentation is terribly stripped-down, and as an odd duck sort of hybrid strategy game, it doesn't offer much accessibility or depth.