Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Yuke's Company of America
Players: 1 (Ad Hoc: 1 - 2)
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.