Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Neverland Card Battles

Platform: PSP

Developer: Idea Factory

Publisher: Yuke's Company of America

Players: 1 (Ad Hoc: 1 - 2)


Score: B

While Idea Factory may not yet be a household name among RPG fans in the US, the Japanese developer has been cranking out assorted games since1995's Dark Chaser, a Photo CD adventure game for the 3DO, CD-I and other PCD player types. Chances are you probably missed out on Generation Chaos (PSP), Chaos Wars (PS2) or Spectral Force (Xbox 360), a few of IF's Strategy/RPGs that came and went almost without notice at retail. Neverland Card Battles (based on the 2003 Japanese PS2 game Cardinal Arc: Konton no Fuusatsu), actually fares a bit better on the PSP thanks to the game's unique mix of board game and card battle play. Mostly generic plot and characters aside, there's a very challenging game here whether you tackle the campaign or take on a friend.

Granted, what's here may not change your mind if you're not a fan of spiky-haired characters in your turn-based strategy, board games or card battle games. However, don't be surprised if the game doesn't grab you within a few minutes should you try it out. Although the game is turn-based, the fact that you need to capture (and hold) territory in order to use your decks keeps each map exciting. Finishing off your opponent before he or she claims too much space on a board while you fight to keep and gain your own will have you up 'til the wee hours once you're hooked.

The plot has the usual “evil demon out to destroy your world” deal and yes, you play as the cocky lad, Galahad, summoned to boot that devil butt back to the bowels of wherever. The not so surprising twist (given the game's name) here is tough guy Galahad uses a deck of Spectral Cards to do battle against pretty much anyone that steps up to the plate. Initially, you'll be sent through a few tutorial maps where a few different opponent types (called Dominators) show you the ropes as they try to school you in the process. Victory doesn't come easy as from the very first map, you'll have your head handed to you if you're not paying attention.

You're automatically dealt one card per round and while you don't have to use a card each round, you can only use/move cards before you actually move Galahad around the board. Additionally, you can only have up to six cards displayed at any one time in your hand, forcing you to use or drop a card if you're trying to play stingy. Using “Costs” gained from movement, you can call up a creature to grab land for you, attack an enemy card or even its Dominator. Most summoned creatures have only a handful of hit points, which keeps battles fairly brief. You can also use healing spells, put up a few types of magic walls or use spell cards to zap an enemy Dominator or creature with elemental, or some pretty mean status effects.

For the most part, the AI is pretty sharp, calling up tough monsters or using annoying spells whenever they get enough Costs. However, in some cases if you grab enough land, you can summon up a couple of walls and trap your opponent, which can have them waste costs by summoning creatures that attack the walls you've built. Some maps use elemental tiles which can be a pain when enemies are summoned close to your territory or worse, behind you on a spot you haven't claimed. If all your good cards have been used or you end up with a bad hand, the game is as good as over once a summoned monster or two starts crawling all over your territory.

Visually, the lovely card art is the best thing about the game, although the characters look quite nice in cutscenes. If you happen to have played Chaos Wars or Spectral Force, you'll notice the game uses elements from IF's Neverworld universe such as some familiar (and cute) monsters. In-game animation is limited, but given that you're just moving around a board, summoning cards and attacking, the game doesn't need Street Fighter IV-quality movement to be successful. Sounds are minimalist and the music is pretty good overall, if not a tad repetitive.

Speaking of, repetition is the key to successful gameplay here, so expect to hit maps you've cleared again and again in order to gain new cards and test out strategies. Unfortunately, the game's real limitations show up here. You can only have three different decks with up to thirty cards each and there are only 200 cards in the entire game. Worse, if you decide to battle it out with a buddy, you're only doing so for glory, as you can't win cards in versus play. Nevertheless, if you're a fan of the great board/card battle game Culdcept or are looking to move up a few notches from Pokemon, Digimon or Yu-Gi-Oh!, Neverland should certainly be your next stop.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Currently Playing:

Oops! I forgot to add this to the first post, but it's a good way to get a second one in quick, right?

MadWorld (Wii)
Killzone 2 (PlayStation 3)
Afro Samurai (Playstation 3)
Fallout 3 (Playstation 3)*
Valkyria Chronicles (Playstation 3)
Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden (PlayStation 2)
Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad (Xbox 360)
Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360)
Mazes of Fate (Nintendo DS)
MOON (Nintendo DS)
Silverfall (PSP)
Lost Legends (PC)
Sacred Gold
Arx Fatalis (PC)
The Chosen: Well of Souls (PC)
Rifts: Promise of Power (N-Gage)

and a few more games...

*Yes, I know the 360 version has all that lovely DLC, but thanks to my current lack of broadband service, I flipped a coin and picked the PS3 version... which means I have to wait for that Game of the Year Edition (whenever that comes out, *sigh*).

Once More, Into the Breach (Onward and Upward)...

Yes, I'm back. Not quite where I'd like to be, but it's a (re)start. The primary goal of DAF is to shake things up (gently, most of the time) in the way video games are reviewed while nudging you, dear reader, into appreciating more of what's out there. The title of this blog is more an elbow to the ribs than a call to arms; a sort of a "Now that I have your attention" just to get you reading (and hopefully, responding).

For the past few years, I've felt that many major game review sites seem to have lost a good deal of their critical eye, focusing too heavily on bigger-budget, highly anticipated titles while ignoring or completely disrespecting smaller developers or games they feel don't warrant as much attention. The problem with this is too many great games (that don't have multimillion dollar advertising budgets) never get the praise they desire until they end up as bargain bin specials and small groups of gamers embrace them, too late for anything resembling decent sales.

Changing this trend won't be easy, but that's the plan. I'll be taking a look at lots of lesser known releases while also commenting on some of the major games for all platforms. Yes, we're platform agnostic here at DAF since system bias only keeps you from enjoying more good games. In 37 years of gaming from pinball to current gen consoles, I can safely state that I absolutely do not have a favorite console - it's always been about the games for me, period.

Some of you may be familiar with my work from my fanzine, Continue?, or websites such as VGBlogger, Ace Gamez, the late, lamented BonusStage and Gametour sites as well as a few magazines here and there. Heck, if you own a copy of La Pucelle Tactics for the PlayStation 2, you may have even seen my name in the manual under 'Special Thanks' (that's a cool story for another time, however). Anyway, a few hundred reviews, previews and a couple of in-depth interviews later, I found myself having to drop out of the scene for health reasons (mine and my father's). During all this, I never stopped playing games and can in fact, state that thanks to a relatively steady diet of assorted console, PC and handheld games, I'm feeling a lot more energized and thankful for the support I've gotten from more than a few industry contacts I've made over the past ten-plus years.

But enough of the "world's smallest violin" music playing in the background - I'll be back later today with a review or two. Stay tuned...