I'll say right away that partaking in the nerdy delights of OmiyaSoft's Culdcept Saga is a real pleasure for those that are used to the complex rules of trading card games, though it's definitely not for everyone. Its gameplay, a funky blend of card games like Magic: The Gathering and board games like Monopoly, requires plenty of reading, learning, and and considerable patience. While there's plenty here for those that want to use their brains, Culdcept Saga will do absolutely nothing for your trigger finger.
If you're still with me, I'd dare say that you've dabbled in some kind of gaming that doesn't require a television and a controller. I'd bet that terms like "deck building" and "land types" and "summoned creatures" won't scare you off, and you may have even thrown some dice back in your day. Don't be ashamed!
Putting together all of these game elements is good in theory, but does the combination really work? Is Culdcept Saga really good enough to warrant the time newcomers need to invest to learn to play it?
Hit the jump to find out.
Culdcept Saga (Xbox 360)
Developed by OmiyaSoft
Published by Namco Bandai
While Culdcept isn't anywhere close to a household name, the series titles have appeared on various consoles all the way back to the Sega Saturn and PlayStation. The NEC-published PlayStation 2 version, Culdcept, is a hard-to-find treasure that collectors and strategy fans have sought out since its 2003 release. The combination of board game and collectible card game, along with high-end custom card art by various Japanese artists, provided instant geek game appeal, and Culdcept Saga was expected to build upon that.
Culdcept Saga's gameplay is much too deep to get into for a game review, but the basics need to be covered. Players take up the role of magical card-controlling Cepters. Cepters use a book of these cards to summon creatures, cast spells, and do various other things to piss off opposing players. Each cepter takes turns rolling dice to move about a game board. In a very Monopoly-ish fashion, cepters can summon beasts onto the "lands" they've come across. When other cepters land on your creature-occupied land, they can either pay a toll or battle you with their own beasts for the property. All actions, from battles to land ownership, are gauged and assigned a numerical magic value. Players continue to move about the game board until one player reaches a magic number goal (think: Monopoly's money). Overall, the mechanics are pretty simple, but things become gradually more complex, and this is what weeds out those who don't have the patience or dedication to learn.
Pop quiz: who is going to win here?
The real appeal for old fans and newcomers is its online multiplayer modes. Saga is the first game in the series to support online gameplay and matchmaking. Before, players could collect and build custom decks to their heart's content, but they were forced to save these to memory cards and visit opponents in person. For the first time, players can set up matches with any variety of rules, maps, and conditions, and up to four players can now battle it out through Xbox Live.
The single-player Story Mode serves as an introduction to the Culdcept world. You can start this title knowing absolutely nothing about card games and eventually come away from the Story Mode with the ability to battle it out online with confidence. It gradually teaches you everything you'd need to know to play the game. For this, the Story Mode is sucessful. For all else, it's rotten.
Simply put, the game's story sucks. If you take out the learning experience, you're left with an incredibly dry and boring tale of a simple slave boy who ends up being one that can save the kingdom. The voice acting ranges from fair to flat, though the writing for the lines they read are painfully bad. Cut scenes, while super high-resolution and colorful, are formed with goofy character models that utilize texture switching to show facial expressions. The switch from happy to sad on some of these characters is so awkward that I often found myself wanting to look away. The rest of the time I laughed nervously. Luckily, the start button skips all, and you'll love that function when you start losing battles.
And yes, you'll lose often. Culdcept Saga's learning curve is a bitch for newcomers, but it even provides some challenge for veterans of the series. I made the mistake of going into it with complete confidence, working off the skill I garnered from the PS2 game. And making quick work of the first few training battles was easy. Things changed as multiple cepters were pitted against me in later battles. Imagine my frusturation after having to repeat one particular battle nine times. Each round took approximately two hours. If a seasoned Culdcept player had to give up almost twenty hours of his life to proceed, I can't imagine the time it would take a new player. Believe it or not, some of the subsequent battles can last twice as long.
An informal poll with other early players of Culdcept Saga has uncovered an almost unanimous feeling: most of the time, the AI characters have the amazing ability to land on what they need to land on and roll what they need to roll. While dice rolls and card draws are supposed to be random, you'll be hard-pressed to find another Culdcept Saga player that doesn't question the AI for its "special abilities." Get ready: you'll feel that familiar controller-throwing frusturation several times in single-player mode.
If it sounds like I'm saying that the single-player mode is horrible, that wasn't my intent. Once you skip the story parts and get into the real gameplay, Saga is really a lot of fun, not to mention incredibly addictive. Battles between opposing creatures is where you'll spend most of your time, and as you devise your own strategies and decks, you'll want to try them out on the AI characters that have punished you so much. Once you get the hang of modifying your creatures with items and abilities, things become fun, and you'll find yourself thinking about new ways to do things throughout your day.
In the end, all of the game's problems go away in the insanely entertaining online multiplayer mode. You'll not need to worry about crappy story arcs and flat dialogue, as you and your friends will be providing that. Up to four players can sign on and go head-to-head with custom decks, allowing you to show off your deck building skills and strategies. It seems that more players like to level the playing field with preset "blind" decks. Either way, what was once tedious becomes titillating, and you'll find that hours of your life have disappeared with you knowing. You'll also find that it feels much better to yell at a flesh-and-blood opponent for that bad dice roll. The only real downside is what seems to be some game-specific connectivity problems. Saga sometimes drops opponents from matches, and you're left in this strange limbo where you can hear your former opponents, but you'll be playing against AI "robo-versions" of them. To be safe, you'll want to avoid setting up longer matches. The best part? Win or lose, you'll earn some new cards to add to your deck. It's always enough to keep you coming back, next time with your new ammo and some new ideas.
So, the bird has first strike, but so does the tornado. But the bird was the attacker, so...
Culdcept Saga doesn't do its best to be accessible and easy to appreciate, and that's probably its biggest downfall. But, when you get past the incredibly steep learning curve, insane match times, and sometimes cheap AI, you'll find a deep, rewarding strategy gaming experience. In the end, it's a lot of work to play and enjoy Culdcept Saga, but you'll find that those who have put in the work can't put it down.
As far as purchasing Culdcept Saga goes, I'd propose a rent or demo download for first timers. If you find yourself frustrated at the demo's only battle, I'd recommend passing on this game. For the rest of you, including Culdcept series fans, $39.99 is an easy choice.
reviewed by Dale North