Review: Hot card-on-card action... now in high definition.
The Xbox 360 has been the home to a surprising number of Japanese RPGs in the first few years of its life. There is definitely more to the system's lineup than its First Person Shooter and racing game reputation would suggest. The latest RPG to make the jump across the Pacific is Culdcept Saga, the sequel to the Magic-meets-Monopoly hybrid Culdcept.
For those that are already part of the Culdcept cult, you might want to skip this reurn of the rules. But for those who have never played Culdcept before, the idea of mixing Magic: The Gathering and Monopoly might sound like a strange one. So for you, here is how the world of Culdcept works: Players of Culdcept are known as Cepters. The goal of the game is to earn the target amount of magic power (called G) through a combination of collecting tolls, raising levels, and building chains. Players travel around the board passing forts and castles to earn extra G (like passing Go). Each board features several colored territories that a Cepter can claim with a monster (like buying a property). As players move around the board, they have to pay a toll (rent) if they land on another Cepter's territory. A player can build chains and charge higher tolls if they own more than one territory of the same color (like a Monopoly if you will). During a player's turn they are also able to buy level upgrades (Houses and Hotels) to force other Cepters to pay a higher toll if they land on their territory. If a player's magic power goes bankrupt they have the option to sell their territories (like mortgaging, but not quite). And if a Cepter loses all of their magic, they're Magic Depleted (or Bankrupt).
Culdcept also culls plenty of substance from Magic: The Gathering with it's card battling system. Creatures have two gauges, Hit Points and Strength. If a creature's strength is greater than it's opponent's Hit Points then they win the battle. Creatures can also gain extra strength or hit points through the use of item cards like armor, weapons, or other mystical items. if they're part of a color chain or if they have support from another creature in an adjacent territory. Combing Monopoly and Magic also gives you the option of Land Transformation, (which is like turning New York Avenue into a blue property) so a blue creature can get blue territory bonus hit points. Rounding out these Magic elements is the little booster pack of cards you receive at the end of every battle.
Still with me? Good. For everyone that's played Culdcept before, it's plain to see that Saga is really just Culdcept in a high definition wrapper (and even then, the graphics are very basic). The gameplay is exactly the same and a good portion of the cards were first seen in the original game. But it's through the use of the cards and the battles against other Cepters that the strategy and obsessive detail of a game like Culdcept shines through. It may be very similar to the first game, but for someone who was begging for more after the end of that game, more Culdcept (and all that comes along with it) is welcome.
Namco Bandai also seems to have fixed a few of the lingering problems that made the first game very frustrating at times. For starters, the computer AI seems less likely to cheat with lucky dice rolls than they did in the previous game. Matches now hinge much more on the strategic use of cards in creature battles than on the computer skipping over square that would cost them G while the player doesn't. Matches also don't seem to be a lost cause before they're half over anymore either. In Culdcept, it was not uncommon to fall behind in the first hour of a two hour match and never take the lead again. That does not seem to be the case in Culdcept Saga. I don't know if the boards are more balanced this time or if the computer is "cheating" less, but the battles are much more enjoyable as a back-and-forth battle is better than a runaway.
The story is pretty bland, even with the inclusion of a character that cheekily implies she wants to use the main character for teenage dominatrix sex. Beyond that little bit of weirdness, it's your standard story of a lone teenager out to save the world (and a beautiful princess). He battles overconfident villains, an evil priest, a whiny bandit sidekick, a marauding empire and the champions of a colosseum. There's also gods and goddesses and a series of trials to make sure the man character is worthy and pure of heart. As with the first game, the story is forgettable, but the hot card-on-card action will keep pulling you back in.
Culdcept Saga does have one major addition over its predecessor: online play. While local multiplayer is still an option, Namco Bandai has included four-player online play in Culdcept Saga and it works like a dream. While it's a shame that matches that could take several hours can't be suspended and picked up later, that's not really an option when playing with strangers. But it would have been a nice feature to include when playing with friends.
The one downside to the Culdcept experience is that the game can get overly repetitive at times. The strategies that are needed during hour one are not all that different from the strategies that will be needed during hour thirty which are not all that different from the strategies used in the original game (because the cards are so similar). Choosing the right spells to stock your deck with becomes much more important towards the endgame, but that is just a minor part of a player's overall strategy. However, this should not be looked at as a major problem, because the concept behind Culdcept Saga is just so much fun that these small feelings of malaise disappear quickly.