I'm not sure exactly what it is about Japan, but it seems that everybody there wishes they could solve all the problems in the world with a children's card game. Virtual card battles seem to drive Japanese gamers mental, so it should be no surprise that the PSP is home to a few of them.
So, it's very Japanese. Is it a good game, however? Read on to find out ...
Neverland Card Battles (PSP)
Developed by Idea Factory
Published by Yuke's Media Creations
Released on October 28, 2008
The premise of NCB is as barmy as they come, revolving around a demonic God called Hellgaia who was trapped by some other Gods who sealed his power away into decks of children's cards. Because that is the logical thing to do. You play a guy called Galahad who is a Dominator -- someone with the ability to control the power of these children's cards and summon forth monsters.
But it's totally not Yu-Gi-Oh.
The story is suitably ludicrous, and is given no sense of credibility by the generally poor voice acting and character stereotypes. Unless you want to hear the clichéd little girl screaming her way through nonsensical dialog, you'll probably be skipping a lot of the still-image cutscenes. A shame, really, since an obvious lot of work went into making sure the game was fully-voiced.
Jokes aside, this game really isn't all that similar to Yu-Gi-Oh outside of the card elements and insane writing. In terms of gameplay, I would call Neverland Card Battles a curious mix of Metal Gear Acid and Disgaea with some Culdcept thrown in for good measure. The aim of each battle is simply to deplete the HP of the opposing Dominator to zero, but in order to get into a good position to do this, you'll need to capture territory and use the cards you are dealt.
Each round begins with you drawing a card and adding it to your deck of five. If you have enough action points, you can draw cards, which can take the form of monsters, buildings or magic spells. AP is earned at the beginning of each turn, and determined by the amount of territory you have captured on the gridded map. You capture territory simply by walking over it.
The fundamentals of the game work really well and it is, in truth, very solid stuff. However, since your starting cards are piss-weak and the enemy AI actually quite good, Neverland Card Battles is about as difficult to penetrate as any other hardcore Japanese strategy game. When I said this was for the weeaboos, I meant it, and I'll happily confess that I found it difficult to make many cracks in this game's surface.
If endless micromanagement of cards, aggressive enemy players and fights between soldiers that have 1HP sound like your kind of thing, then this is definitely a game to keep an eye on. This game is playing to a particular market, and on that count it succeeds admirably. I consider myself a Disgaea fan but I found Neverland Card Battles with its feet just a little too firmly planted in the hardcore Japanese territory for my liking. That said, the game is great at what it does and I can't fault it for that.
Graphically, the game goes for that ever-popular sprite style, but unfortunately it lacks the charm and beauty of other games in the genre that use retrocentric visuals. One problem for this is the very poor animation. Even when the game cuts from the map screen to a battle scene between two opposing monsters, the use of about three frames per entire animation sequence fails to impress. The design of the monsters and cards, however, is pretty good with some nice card artwork that bear a few similarities to Magic: The Gathering.
The music is also rather pleasant, but the looping of the tracks is stunningly shoddy. Rather than cut the music into seamless loops, the game instead fades a track out and then starts it again a second later. It's incredibly jarring, especially since gamers are trained to expect something interesting to happen once the music fades to silence. They don't except the music to suddenly spring back to life again like nothing happened. It's a little embarrassing.
You should already know if you want this game or not from its very name. A title like Neverland Card Battles really leaves nothing to one's imagination, if one knows anything about videogames, and NCB does everything you would anticipate -- nothing more, nothing less. This is a solid experience that 90% of people won't appreciate, but 10% of people will love. It lacks the charm and staying power of other titles in the genre, but it will definitely keep Japanese strat-fans satiated for a good deal of time.
Score: 6.0 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)