I've been meaning to write this post for weeks yet everytime I sat down to do so, I decided to go downstairs and play the game instead. After all, let's be honest, the Internet needs another wannabe game reviewer like Xbox Live needs another pre-buscent, homophobic, xenophobe with a microphone. Nevertheless, I've spent years praising the game's earlier iteration and another year anxiously awaiting this sequel, so how could I not write about it?
And besides, a few glances at the quote-unquote professional reviews is all I need to know there is plenty of room for my words in this timesink of a digital world.
The series of tubes aren't full yet, right?
I digress. The game in question; the game I've been looking forward to playing for over a year; the sequel to the only game I didn't sell from my collection of PS2 games goes by the name Culdcept SAGA and, as you've no doubt heard me say before, it is very much an amalgamation of Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering. Simply put, it's a board game combined with a card collecting game. Players "buy" properties by placing creature cards on them and they try to get out "paying rent" by summoning creatures to battle those occupying the territories. A plethora of cards representing weapons and armor and magic attacks can be used in combat, all of which is geared towards collecting enough "money" to win the game. Of course, there is no money (it's all magic) and the game is far more complicated than Monopoly, but this should give you a general visualization.
[Warning: Gross over-generalization coming]
Oh, if only it were that simple. Well, it sort of is, at first glance at least. The game is actually a multi-layered symphony of strategy and manipulation. It's easy to learn at the elemental level. The tutorial and basic common sense is all it takes to figure out how the fundamentals work (familiarity with either of previously mentioned tabletop games helps tremendously) but to excel at the game requires the use of complex cards and sophisticated combinations. In fact, just understanding not only how each card works, but how it compliments other cards is one of the trickiest parts of the game. And this all comes to light in your deck (i.e. "Book") creation. Although you will eventually amass hundreds of different cards, not to mention duplicates, you can only enter a game with 50 cards at once. So, it's up to you to build a good deck. Do you focus on certain elements? Do you like to use lots of items and tough-as-nails creatures? Do you prefer to cast lots of spells and be more crafty and manipulative? You must ask yourself all of these things and more when building a deck. Personally, I tend to make very subtle changes to my deck as new cards are acquired (you earn new cards whether you win or lose, fortunately) but primarily just keep one deck active at a time. This way I get very familliar with that deck and know exactly what it can do and what it can't. That said, it's possible to customize up to ten different decks and assign different names and book covers to them.
So, the game plays out with your avatar (Cepter) going around the board and collecting properties and battling other enemies with the cards in your respective decks. Those who have played the first game, simply titled Culdcept, will know exactly what to expect. The games are almost identical. But there are differences and while they are subtle, they are powerful.
For starters, Culdcept SAGA contains 498 different cards and a great deal of them are not only new to the series, but are far more complex and powerful than the cards seen in the earlier game. A great number of cards now have their own unique territory abilities and lots of cards are multi-element. Another nice change is that the levels are more complex as well. Many are larger, new special spots have been added (like a Fountain that allows you to draw a new hand and reset your Book), and the background graphics have indeed been spruced up. Lastly, the other big change is the addition of online multiplayer and Achievements. This is really two separate things, but they're both fundamentally Xbox 360 features so I group them together. This is the type of game that I just play for the sake of playing and am almost entirely focusing on the single-player offline mode first and, to that extent, I'm not even focusing on earning any Achievements.
I did play some online matches however and when there weren't any connection issues (which happened in 2 of 4 matches I played) the game was great fun online and I look forward to expanding my card collection and playing online each night once I'm done with the single-player campaign. Aside from the occasional connection issues, the only other thing I can ding the game for is that too many of the single player matches take far too long. Most matches are played to 10,000 total magic and this can take 2 to 3 hours if you don't luck into a good draw and a few fortuitous rolls of the dice early on. I played a game after dinner tonight that took 2:40 to complete... and I ended up losing. I was happy to still get a half-dozen cards (three new ones too!) but win or lose, that's simply too long. But, seriously, these are very minor quibbles. I have no doubt that this game will ultimately slide in next to the original in my top ten list of favorite games of all time.
But that brings me to the main point I wanted to make in writing about this game. This is a game that you either get or you don't. If you allow yourself to look past the admittedly lofty geek-factor involved in playing a game that resembles Magic: The Gathering, and learn how to play the game, it's a work of art. Many of the reviews I've seen for the game either understand and appreciate the game and score it very high or they focus their negativity on the game's graphics and nerdy inspiration and they score it low. But their reasons are unjust; they're simply scoring the game based on their own preconceptions instead of what the game's goals and merits are. The game makes very clear what it's trying to be and it accomplishes those goals superbly. The only criticism that I've seen that I feel has some justification behind it is that the depiction of combat is outdated and rather too simplistic or lame (the game shows the two creature-cards side-by-side and a simple weapon or claw strikes for an attack). I admit that it is kind of laughable, but anything more involved would likely take too long and the same people who find the current battle system too simplistic would be mashing their buttons in hopes of speeding through a lengthier but prettier combat display.
The reason this game works, both for single player and multiplayer, is that the action is fast. Turns are short and to the point, the interface is clean and easy to navigate, and the numerous info-panes are just a button press away. What makes this one of my favorite games of all time is that it is wonderfully balanced and grows with the player. Beginners can get their feet wet with very simple cards and small boards and intermediate and advanced players can progress through the single player campaign to build their card collections and master the nuances of the gameplay. It's a game that rewards dedication and constantly provides a challenge. It's a game I can continue to have numerous "firsts" even after months of steady gameplay.
And all without having to buy a single booster pack.