Culdcept Saga Review

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Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: OmiyaSoft and Jamsworks

Platform: Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Long ago, the goddess Culdra made the Book of Creation – the Culdcept – a book that can create worlds and control the universe. The Culdcept was so powerful that it became the object of a struggle between the gods. To save the universe from this struggle, Culdra shattered the Culdcept.

Fragments of the Culdcept became stone, card-shaped tablets that were scattered around the world. Over time, "Cepters" emerged who could harness the power of these cards, using them to invoke monsters or even change the fabric of reality. This has led to a horrible cycle in which the Cepters come into conflict until one controls the cards, ultimately uses the cards to create a new world and then shatters the Culdcept once more, starting the process anew.

This time, players take on the role of a young boy who discovers that he is a natural Cepter, shortly after being sold into slavery. Once he fights for his freedom for the amusement of the populace, he joins forces with a princess on a quest to save the world through his mastery of the cards.

Kyle Ackerman

Culdcept Saga is a mysterious beast, combining the general play of a collectible card game (like Magic: The Gathering or the Marvel Trading Card Game) with the board game Monopoly and a little bit of gambling or investing strategy thrown in. Like other collectible hobby games, the profusion of rules and exceptions to those rules makes Culdcept Saga... complicated. Anyone with a firm grounding in collectible card games and some experience with Monopoly will find Culdcept Saga hard to put down. Anyone without that background will find the learning curve for Culdcept Saga so steep as to be nearly impossible to climb.

A History Lesson

Let's go back in time to 2003. Culdcept Saga may be a one-of-a-kind experience, but it's not the first of its kind. A few years ago, Culdcept was released for the PlayStation 2. It was, fundamentally, the same game, albeit with fewer cards. It was also a big hit with the few hobby game fans in North America who actually got to play it.

The many updates that transform Culdcept into Culdcept Saga are welcome, turning it into a richer game with new levels and a lot more cards bring the total card pool up to something around 470. While the game feels more expansive and richer, it also feels like it hasn't come nearly as far as it should have over the more than four years that have passed since the original.

The graphics are the worst culprit. The graphics are vastly superior to those found on the PlayStation 2 version of Culdcept, but don't approach the potential of the Xbox 360. It seems like characters and monsters were added, and the resolutions were improved (for both characters and environmental textures), but the graphics still seem dated and often lacking in detail (for an Xbox 360 game). The simple card interactions just can't stand up next to recent releases like Eye of Judgment for the PlayStation 3. Cut-scenes are the worst, looking like they were pulled directly from the PlayStation 2. Culdcept Saga would benefit tremendously from either a lot of art and animation time to bring the game into the present day, or a decision to make the game far more abstract. Fortunately, the core play just isn't about the graphics.

A Paragon of Simplicity

So if you are thinking about playing Culdcept Saga, how can I describe it in terms that are easily comprehensible? Players make decks of 50 cards from a pool of available cards, consisting of monsters that can be summoned to attack or possess territories, items that influence the outcome of combat, and spells that change basic play mechanics. This is consistent with collectible card games, in which building your pool of cards and constructing a legal deck are as much the fun as actually competing against other players.

In all such games, spells and creatures can only be played using some sort of fuel – in this case, magic power. Magic power is increased by possessing (and upgrading) territory and collecting tariffs (like "rent" in Monopoly) from people who land on those spaces and can't defeat your defending creatures. Magic power is also increased by passing certain checkpoints on the board (like passing "Go" in Monopoly). You roll a die to move around the board, but boards can have branching and changing paths, and spells or creatures can affect die rolls and movement, making the interplay of Culdcept Saga's many elements extremely complex. To win, a player must collect a certain amount of Magic power and then pass a checkpoint.

Culdcept Saga's complexity doesn't end at constructing a 50 card deck, managing a six-card hand and carefully managing everything from movement, to summoning, to card advantage to achieve victory. After the first, few single-player levels, players can also purchase Symbols from temples. The value of these Symbols is linked to the number of territories of a certain color and the extent to which those territories have been upgraded. Like an investment game, the secret is to buy low and sell high. Since the value of these Symbols counts toward the winning Magic power total, players can buy lots of cheap symbols and upgrade territories to make even more magic, attack other players' territories to undermine the value of those Symbols, or even buy a lot of Symbols to discourage other players from upgrading.

Sounds simple, right?

You'll Need Crampons and Pitons for This Learning Curve

Even once you've mastered the basic elements of the game (which should happen surprisingly quickly, if you're familiar with the basics of collectible card games), there's still a lot to learn. There are a lot of spells that govern how players (Cepters), territories and creatures act, and it's hard to find out what those spells do before running afoul of their conditions during play.

All of this would be fixed by better contextual help or a more-thorough manual. The best players can hope for is a page on the manual that describes may of the modifiers in general terms. Again, experienced players will catch on, but only through a lot of effort and a few mistakes. It's worth spending a lot of time with the single player game simply because it will take a lot of play to become familiar with the cards and conditions of play so that you can confidently take on live opponents.

Variety is an Understatement

That complexity may be challenging, but it's also what makes the game so obsessively interesting. Even with the same deck, every game can play out in a drastically different way. Add to that the ability to play on a lot of different boards with a total of up to four simultaneous players (multiplayer games have a totally different feel from one-on-one matches) and there's nearly endless play.

There's an extensive single-player campaign that lets players slowly explore their potential as a Cepter while collecting new cards to become increasingly powerful. The story didn't do much for me, especially with the awkwardly animated cut-scenes, but the progression of increasingly complex boards and better selection of cards was enthralling. Still, the single player game is really only training for multiplayer play, because however competent the AI may be, it can't hold a candle to a clever cardmaster.

A Living, Breathing Opponent

Multiplayer lets you compete on Culdcept Saga boards against up to four other people, thanks to Xbox Live. You can play with custom decks or preset decks (to keep the playing-field level). Multiplayer is where Culdcept Saga is richest, simply because the game is far too complicated for the AI (and the AI's not bad) to manage all the interwoven factors as well as a decent human opponent.

The one problem with such matches is that a game of Culdcept Saga can go on for a long time. As much as four hours. Sometimes it's an even match to the last, and sometimes a player quickly runs away with the game. Keeping a group of strangers engaged on Xbox Live in a game is difficult, so don't count on playing a full game with all its players unless they are all long-time card-playing friends.

To make matters worse, right now on Xbox Live, Culdcept Saga seems to have connectivity problems. Other players were frequently reported as disconnected despite the fact that they were still on and playing, often accompanied by laggy pauses. Other players reported seeing similar messages about me, so voice chat was regularly punctuated with, "Hey! You still there?" And other players reported having this problem with all of their games, too. (When this happens, you typically won't get multiplayer rank points or achievements.) Both because of this and the game time, most multiplayer games you'll find online are won at smaller Magic totals, meaning that online games don't explore the full range of Culdcept Saga's strategic possibilities.

Want to be a Cepter?

Culdcept Saga is a game of extremes. There are a lot of things to be annoyed by, yet there's even more to be impressed by and enjoy. In terms of annoyances, the sound, despite being comparable to the top-notch combat music from a typical turn-based, console, Japanese role-playing game, was only recorded in short, repetitive sequences that get really irritating after hours of play. And the voice-overs meant to narrate the action can be wearisome, especially when you hear "Warp to an unknown land!" for the fourteenth time as your Cepter is transported exactly where you expected.

But that's easily offset by the game's intricacy. Culdcept Saga has the strategic depth of the Mariana Trench. It also fulfills that compulsive need to acquire that all collectible card games court, promising to trickle out a few more cards after every few hours of play. That need to collect and make my deck even more powerful and interesting kept me playing days beyond when I thought I'd quit. You get more cards the higher you place in a multiplayer game, but you get that reward regardless of whether you play the single-player campaign or compete online, so nearly everything is rewarding to the collector.

Culdcept Saga has its flaws and I would have appreciated a more dramatic visual upgrade from the PlayStation 2 game Culdcept, but it's still extremely engaging, in the style of collectible card games, with board-game and investment-game components. If you were doubting Culdcept Saga as a purchase, also keep in mind that the game is retailing for $40, making it a less painful purchase (especially given the amount of play it offers) than most Xbox 360 titles. And given the nature of collectible card games, we might even get additional cards as part of a downloadable expansion through Xbox Live.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 17, 2008 11:56 AM.

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