One of my recent revie4ws was for Magic: The Gathering for the Xbox Live. I have long been a fan of collectible card games, and though Culdcept Saga has been around for quite some time (it was on older gen systems apparently - did not know that until recently, and it has been out on the 360 for about 3 years) - I only somewhat recently happened upon it. I had played the demo on Xbox Live in the past, but it's one of those titles I just have not come across at Gamestop or other stores.
Well, one of my best friends got it awhile back, and told me I needed to pick it up because he figured I would really like it. I broke down, found it on Amazon for a bit more than I'd have liked, but decided to finally give this title a good going over. Before I get into the scores, I figure I'll touch on what the game is itself.
When my oldest daughter asked me to sum the game up, I said: It's sort of a mix between Magic: The Gathering and Monopoly.
The game takes place on a board of squares. At first, the squares are pretty simple - they come in one of four colors. Each one represents an element, and seems to fit a 'theme'. There are also neutral cards that are colorless. Cards come in a few varieties: creature, spell, enchantment, item and so on. You collect magic through certain spells and by meeting other criteria, and this magic is in turn both a goal and a currency. Your total magic value is what determines if you eventually win, and it serves as a pool of resources to draw on for casting your various cards. This is the Magic: The Gathering side of the coin.
On the flip side, you have the squares themselves. If your creature occupies a square, and someone else lands on it, one of two things happens. You either a) collect a toll or b) the person who landed on it can summon a creature and the two creatures duke it out. If the invader wins, the defending creature is destroyed and the invader takes over the land as theirs. If the land is successfully defended, then the attacking creature is destroyed and the person landing on the square still has to pay the toll. Land also comes in 'levels'. They all start at level 1, but you can invest in them to level them up a handful of times - much like buying houses or hotels in Monopoly increase the value. This can have two effects. The first is that the toll cost goes up. The second effect is that if the defending creature is the same color as the land they are on, they get a hit point boost when defending against attackers. Also, the more of a color you possess, the higher 'chain' you create - which basically increases their toll value (like having Boardwalk and Park Place increases the value of the territories).
That is not where the Monopoly comparison ends. The boards eventually wind up being somewhat circular in the end, as you have to touch 'towers' along the way. This helps you gain more magic to use, and once you have touched every tower (their locations and number vary from one map to the next) you then head back to the beginning castle to complete a 'lap' that helps restore creature health and give you a magic boost. You then proceed to begin another lap. Your progress along the map is propelled by generating a random number between 1 and 10. There are often branching paths and even changing routes in later maps to add some more strategy as you progress.
Sound complicated? It certainly can be. As there are more maps, there are newer kinds of squares introduced as you play through the game: like four color ones that do not count toward chains, neutral squares that have no color, empty squares that adopt to the color of the first creature to land on them, ones that cause the map layouts to change and more. And some of the creatures are very straight forward - like the Bunyip (a water dinosaur creature) that does 50 damage, and has 40 hit points and is blue. By contrast, I had vine like creature (I can't think of his name - maybe Unameable?) that had all sorts of effects: 40 damage, 10 hit points, always attacks last, has a 70% chance of instantly killing its opponent and any opponent creatures it destroys are pulled from the opponent's deck.
Rounds can vary in several ways. As mentioned before, the maps are all set up differently from one another. You can also wind up fighting one other person, two other people, or be part of a two against two team. Also the goal totals sometimes change. When you first start the game the winner only needs like 5,000 total magic/gold, and by the end you needed 15,000 to win the final map. Also, at the end of every match, you win some new cards. You win more for winning a given map, but you still get some even for a losing effort.
Graphics - 2:
Really hard to give it a better score than this. The art on the cards is decent in most instances, but there is no animation to them at all. Combat consists of showing two cards on screen side-by-side. There is then an animated 'attack'. For example if you use a knight, an oversized sword crosses the screen and slashes the opposing card, leaving a cut mark on it. If he was fighting a dragon, it may retaliate with a blast of fire that chars the card. If the charred card loses all of its hit points, the card is destroyed and turns to ash. The animations on the boards themselves are very simple. Colors represent squares and characters and monsters have stiff two step animations. The cut scenes are not completely awful, but they're nowhere near good. Even my son mocked how stiffly they walked, and how while ascending stairs their boots would clip through them. There was sometimes some adequate movement behind the boards themselves, with some sort of graphical backdrop that at least helped from a variety standpoint, but did little else.
Sound and Music - 2:
The voice acting for the cut scenes is pretty bad. My son kept making fun of the lead character's girl-like voice, though clearly a boy. The music was very repetitive and just seems to loop over and over again. There just is not much in the way of variety - and none of the tunes were particularly memorable - it's just that you hear them so often that they sort of burn into your mind. Sound effects are pretty basic, and do the job, but don't really add much to the experience. The voices that talk throughout the actual game play are super repetitive as well, as you'll hear the same things said several dozen times over the course of a single map.
Gameplay - 8:
The game holds up a lot better here. The menus are easy to navigate, and while there are a ton of rules to learn, they do a good job of explaining new elements each map they're introduced. One control quirk I had was that sometimes I would press to go in a direction, and it did not switch before I hit the button, causing me to head down the wrong path. Also, there are a ton of effects and powers that come from spells and are built into certain creatures. Some of them are pretty easy to figure out, others require you to look them up in the help files, which are easy to sort through and pretty helpful. Still, I found it pretty telling that I was on my last map and still having to look some effects up, just because I had not seen it for several maps and had forgotten exactly what they did. Sometimes it was tough to tell exactly what an effect would do, as well. You might be in a fight with a cloak that adds damage and health based on which round it is - but have no idea what the round is and no way of checking at that point. Another was an annoying card that might say: strength = number of green cards in play. It would have been really nice if they could calculate and display those values on the cards so you don't have to guess what you're values will be.
Thankfully they included a suspend game state, because some of these maps can take 2-4 hrs to complete. Also, the one-on-one and two-on-two maps were a lot more fun than the 3 person, every-man-for-himself ones, where it often felt like the computer was ganging up on me unfairly.
Speaking of 'unfairly', probably the biggest complaint I have seen online, including from some of the professional game review sites, is that there is this feeling that the computer cheats. I have to admit that I find a level of truth to that, though how much is hard to say. Obviously in a game like this, random luck is a huge part of the game, like almost any board game. That said, I did some testing and would work off of some of my save states. Some of my findings:
The random number generator does not reset, so if you save, play through a string of sequences, and then reload the match, and do the exact same string of events, the numbers play out the exact same, as do the computer decisions. I tested this several times, often to a depth of at least 6 or 7 turns. Now, varying up just one of your choices in there does change the string of events, but I found it a bit odd.
One of the biggest elements in the game is that you can use item or support cards on your monster. If you were playing against a person, you would not know if an item or spell was going to be used - the idea is you and your opponent are 'blind' to what the other one will do until after you have made your choice. And while that is true of a human player, the computer definitely knows when you are going to do this. I had several save states where I would fight, and use a sword object for example, and the computer would use an item to steal or destroy or counter it. I would reload the save state, and fight sans sword, and the computer would not counter it. I would reload the save state again, and once more use the sword, and the computer would again counter it.
Lastly, I would see the computer 'boost' one of say, four of their areas I might encounter on my next roll, and I would wind up rolling that value. That happened quite a bit and I've read a lot of people complaining about that online and I have to say it did seem to happen a fair amount.
Then again, a lot of the game is in fact luck. I seldom had to replay maps (if I did, it was always one of the 3 person ones where I sometimes felt ganged up on - and to be honest that drove me nuts more than any of the other above observations). Still, the overall combination of land ownership/Monopoly mixed with the addictive elements of card collection and deck editing/Magic: The Gathering way outweighed some of the problems I saw above.
Intangibles - 8:
I loved that I had full on deck editing. It had to be a deck of 50 cards, but otherwise you had all the flexibility you could want, unlike the Xbox Live version of Magic: The Gathering, which really restricted the player on this front. I logged at least 50 hrs of gameplay. There's plenty of maps and they have some good variety to them, offering up surprises as you go. The storyline was completely disposable, and did little to propel me forward, but getting new cards after each match was great motivation to push on. You could also save replay data if you wanted to (unless you used a save state) and you can unlock cosmetic gear for your character by doing certain things in-game, so they add a bit of depth to the proceedings as well. The game is deep and fun, though it takes some work to get all of the rules worked out in your head. There's a fantastic, detail-rich system here that works very well - but there's a lot to take in.
There is also an online mode, but I have now tried at least a dozen times and cannot find anyone to play with. To be honest, I'm not sure if it would work well as an online game - you would probably need 2-4 hrs to finish a map, and I don't know that suspend state would be an option then. For online matches like that, a simplified version of the game would probably have made more sense, but I could not find a single match to try it out with. I enjoyed making several decks, naming my 'books', choosing from various covers, but without anyone to play with or against you can't really show them off. It might have been a more robust community three years ago when the game first came out, but honestly I find it unlikely that this was one of the game's stronger points even upon release.
Overall - 5:
I don't know if the overall score is exactly how I feel about the game myself. I sunk at least 50 hours into it, and enjoyed it quite a bit. My buddy was right to recommend this one to me because he knew I would enjoy the core elements enough to overlook the other flaws. However, I don't know that this game will hold the same appeal for the average gamer who might find 3 hours too much to invest in a single map. And if you lose? You have to do it all over again. Online competition would extend the life of the game a lot, and there are a lot of online achievements for the game that I can't picture ever getting. But if you enjoy card strategy games the way I do, then this might make a good pickup - if you can find it, which can be a bit of a challenge in and of itself. Now that I've beaten it and can't find any online competition though, I suspect this game will make its way into my trade-in pile.