The further and further we get into the Xbox 360’s lifespan the more it feels like a spiritual successor to the PS2. No I am not referring to reliability or system sales, I am more referring to the idea that quirky titles that would otherwise be washed aside continue to appear on the console. Namco’s latest offering is a perfect example of this trend. Consider this: would you ever in your life think that Microsoft’s FPS box would be home to a light-hearted card collecting board game that resembles a cross between Magic the Gathering and Monopoly? Neither would I, but once I got sucked into the world of OmiyaSoft’s latest creation I couldn’t help but wonder why there aren’t more of them on the system.
If you have never heard of Cudcept don’t feel ashamed. The original game released on the PS2 years ago and sold about as many copies as Yaris would have had it not been free. Not that the original was a bad game, it just didn’t catch on like it should have. Now with Culdcept SAGA Namco is hoping that the impulse purchasing mentality of 360 owners will open them up to this interesting take on card collecting and board games. Now if you have heard of the series, firstly pat yourself on the back, and then prepare for a familiar experience as SAGA is less of a sequel and more of a re-imagining of the original.
The premise behind Culdcept SAGA is simple on the surface and deviously addictive at its core. There are a variety of different boards to play on each with their own style. The idea is to land on these areas and spend your magic points to summon a creature on the block. Each block is represented by a certain flavor ranging from fire to water and every other typical element you can imagine. This is where the first layer of strategy comes into place as your monster cards contain specific elements as well, and if you place them on a same-element land their power increases.
The similarities to everyone’s favorite monopolizing board game don’t stop there though. As with any game of this type you roll a die to determine how many spaces to move. If you land on an empty space then the choice is obvious; take it over. However, if you land on an enemy space you have two options. You can either pay the toll or you can pit one of your monsters against the current landlord of said space and duel it out for ownership.
While they add a nice layer of strategy battles are not visually all that appealing. You will basically see two large (although gorgeously drawn) non-animated cards each with set strength and hit points. Before each duel you can also select power-up cards if you have any to either strengthen your defense or give you a boost in attack power. The nice thing about battling is that before deciding to engage in combat you can check your cards and see if you have a chance at winning with little icons that display whether your creatures are stronger, weaker or evenly matched to your opponent. If you do manage to land on a space you currently occupy though you can choose to perform various maintenance duties such as raising the level of your land (think adding more houses or hotels in a game of Monopoly) or adjust the positions and placement of your monsters. Regardless each turn in SAGA can be a crucial opportunity for the outcome of the game.
This brings me to the biggest gripe I have with Cudcept SAGA. Games are entirely too long when you lose. Some matches can last upwards of two hours depending on the number of players and when you spend all of that time only to lose at the last second you really feel a lack of accomplishment, and frustration sets in. Of course not all is lost though as you will still obtain new cards to add to your deck, which managing is part of the fun to be had when not playing. What you must realize going into this game though is that you will lose and you will lose often.
Let’s talk about the real appeal of SAGA though; card collecting. With almost 500 different cards to collect throughout the game obtaining them all becomes an obsession. Even when you lose you still gain an ample amount of new cards to add to your deck. From here you can customize several different books with your cards creating different decks to use during battle. Fans of Magic and other CCGs will be familiar with the idea of building themed decks but even newcomers will quickly catch on to this addictive past time. There are even Achievements around building decks with only certain element creatures and obtaining victory so there is more than enough incentive to experiment.
Of course collecting cards while battling AI is certainly enjoyable, it is not the core of what Culdcept SAGA is all about. Just like any other game of this type competition is a must and with the ability to battle players over Xbox Live and possibilities of downloadable card packs players could be enthralled with this one for quite some time. Online battles can be played in several different flavors; with or without alliances and even against AI opponents. The only real drawback is that if you want to use your customized books there is no option to hide your cards. You can opt to participate in what is called a Blind Match, where all players receive a fresh random deck, but then it becomes more like a game of chance than anything else.
For everything Culdcept does exceptionally well there are a few areas where it feels lackluster. The first of course are the visuals. While no one expects a game focused around card battling to feature super-imposed-bump-mapping-greatness, it is a bit disappointing just how drab some areas of the game look. Environments are stagnate and character models resemble a cast of rejects from Sega’s latest Phantasy Star title. As I mentioned earlier the artwork on the cards is superbly detailed, but sadly not animated. Battles are about as exciting to witness as watching paint dry while the cutscenes in the story mode feel more intrusive than informative.
The sound however, is a different story. The orchestral tones and chipper melodies lay a nice audio foundation for the game. Sound effects are minimal and unimpressive so don’t expect this one to rock your surround setups. The only other gripe presentation wise is the convoluted menu system. Whether it’s because the game simply offers too many options or because the manual poorly explains what each one does achieving some of the most miniscule tasks can become a chore. For instance I wanted to play an alliance game with my wife against computer AI. It literally took re-reading the manual five times as well as digging through the menus at each option trying to figure it out. Granted once we found it the answer was obvious, but trying to uncover it when you are not sure what all the options mean is frustrating. Also a small side note, you can only have one saved Cepter per profile, so if you want to play locally and not have to start over constantly you have to create one on your own profile so as not to lose your progress.
Culdcept SAGA is a fantastic experience that is well worth the budget price of admission. It is easy to pick up, deviously deep with strategy and extremely hard to put down. While it does suffer from some issues such as uninspiring visuals and complex menus nothing can change the fact that once you get sucked into the world hours will pass without you even knowing, which is always a sign of a great experience. If you are an Xbox 360 owner looking for something without large guns and hulking soldiers and prefer a little “Monster Monopoly” to accent your collection of agro-induced gaming than give Culdcept a shot. There is a lot to love here.