Reviews  |  Xbox 360


Culdcept Saga
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By Alex Kierkegaard / February 15, 2007


I got totally hooked on Culdcept Saga at first, putting a dozen hours in it over the space of a weekend. Part of the reason was that I needed a change from the all the subpar action titles already flooding the 360, and part of it was that I'd come to miss this strangest of strategy franchises in the five or six years since the previous installment.


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Culdcept, which first appeared on the Saturn back in '97, is a combination of a simple card-battle system with the classic board game Monopoly. Players roll dice to move their characters round a board, occupying empty squares and exacting a toll from opponents unlucky enough to land on them. Instead of Monopoly's hotels players use creatures to occupy squares, and also to attack their opponents' creatures when they happen to land in enemy-held territory. This is the major difference from Monopoly: if a player's attack is successful he avoids having to pay "rent", and the square passes over to his possession.


The players summon creatures using customized decks of cards. The decks also contain item cards, which can enhance the abilities of creatures during battle, and spell cards, which are used during the movement phase of a turn and can confer benefits to a player or hinder his opponents. One complication is that terrain and creatures come in different varieties (Fire, Water, Air, etc.), and using a creature on the corresponding terrain will enhance its ability in battle. Some creatures also receive special bonuses in specific types of terrain, while others can never be placed on some terrain. There are also more powerful creatures that require the player to own a certain number of squares of a given terrain type in an area before they can be placed (the boards in Culdcept are usually much more elaborate than the simple one used in Monopoly, and many of them are divided into several areas). And then there are special squares such as the Shop, where you may draw an extra card, and the Shrine, where you get a random effect, which can be either beneficial or harmful.


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The first player who returns to the starting point having amassed a certain amount of gold is declared the winner. Though gold is gained (and lost) in various ways, the main way to acquire it is by levelling up the squares in your possession, so that opponents who land on them, and fail to defeat your creature, are forced pay you a higher toll (this is the equivalent of expanding your hotels in Monopoly). The rules include a few other complexities and each installment in the series introduces minor rule changes, but this is roughly how it works.


Culdcept inherits the simple and laid back play style of Monopoly, which makes it ideal for playing together with friends, and the addictive card-collecting/deck-customization aspect that all card games share. The end result is a wonderfully unique board game which, due to the number of things players need to keep track of, is really only practical in electronic form.


All is not roses, however, as Culdcept has always had a single but often quite upsetting flaw.


The problem with Culdcept is that luck plays far too great a part in determining the outcome of a game. All card-based games contain elements of luck, but here you also have Monopoly's random dice rolls, and the special squares which produce random effects, and special creature-specific abilities which there is no way for you to plan for or prepare to guard against. And though many of these effects are of minor importance and even out in the long run (most Shrine effects fall in this category, for example), others are extremely powerful. Landing in a high-rent enemy square early on can effectively put you out of the race. Getting the right card at the right moment can give you a huge boost, whereas getting the wrong one can set you so far back that you'll have little hope of recovering -- except if luck favors you again in the future.


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By acquiring powerful cards and customizing your deck you can try to stack the odds in your favor before a game begins, but in the end that's the extent to which your efforts can give you an edge over your opponents. Because, as long as you have a good understanding of the rules, decisions during a game usually don't require much thinking: if you have a Fire creature in your hand and land on a Fire square you should probably use it; if you can afford to level-up one of your better-defended squares you should probably do it, etc. etc. Sometimes when playing a long game I feel as if I could put it on autopilot and just sit back and watch, stepping in to make decisions only at a few crucial moments. And then it almost always turns out that those moments were not as crucial as I had imagined, because some random effect will come in later on and completely reshape my fortunes and those of my opponents. Games can be very time-consuming, and it just sucks when you've been winning for an hour or more only to find that you are suddenly losing because of a factor completely out of your control -- or anyone else's, for that matter.


There were two ways in which this problem could have been solved. The indirect one would have been to somehow speed up the flow of games so that they don't last so long, which would have made losing because of bad luck a lot more tolerable. The direct way would have been to completely remove a large part of the luck from the equation, and replace it with skill. And the only way to do that would be to make the card-battle system more complex, so that the more strategically-inclined players will always have an edge in battles, and not simply the guy who happens to draw the right card at the right time.


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Of course OmiyaSoft didn't make any such drastic changes. I guess their angle is that Culdcept is Culdcept and if they messed with it too much it wouldn't be Culdcept any more, and all those devoted fans of the game would perhaps not like this new thing it would become. And though I am not perfectly happy with this logic, I have learned to accept it and enjoy the game for what it is. The trick is to always try your best to win: much like Monopoly, Culdcept is great fun as long as you are winning. When you lose it almost never feels as if it was your fault (because your bad decisions become obscured by all those random factors) and if you've just lost a two- or three-hour game you'll most likely not feel like playing again for a while. So when that happens I put the game on my shelf and leave it there for a few days; eventually, I always get the urge for another go. Remember: this is not a JRPG, which you are not supposed to stop playing until you've reached the end, and it's not a deep strategy game which you can lose yourself in for weeks. Treat it the same way you'd treat any other board game and you'll be playing for years.


This last bit is especially true of Saga. Though its lengthy story mode will take you a while to get through, it's only once you've finished it (and acquired enough powerful cards to put together a decent deck) that the really interesting part begins: online, against thousands of experienced players, all vying for the top spots in the ranking tables. This is what the game has been screaming for ever since it was invented, and though the Dreamcast version was the first to introduce online play, it had nothing like the seamless matchmaking enviroment offered here, and besides you couldn't go online with it at this point even if you wanted to. So this feature alone makes Saga the definitive version of Culdcept, but it's not the only one.


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You've got brand-new cards bringing the total up to 500; revised cards with new powers and abilities; rule changes ranging from the obvious to the quite subtle. The most significant change is the addition of unlockable items (weapons, armor and articles of clothing) which you equip on your character and which confer specific bonuses. These are particularly useful when you start going up against human opponents: Much like this aspect works in MMORPGs, being able to differentiate your character is always a plus, and sometimes the stuff other guys are wearing can give you hints as to how skilled they are.


I also love how the game looks, for the most part. The switch to 3D graphics won't please everyone, but if you can look past some low-detail backgrounds during battle sequences and cutscenes everything else looks great. The cards are absolutely stunning, the 3D models of characters and monsters are nicely detailed, and boards have never looked better. I would have preferred high-res 2D art throughout, but at a resolution of 720p I guess that just costs too much for such a niche game.


The voicework (which is all in English by the way, no doubt with an eye towards the eventual Western localizations) is about as horrible as it gets, but you are only subjected to it during the short cutscenes in story mode, so I can live with it (and luckily the in-game announcer's voice is cool). The soundtrack on the other hand, which is important because you get to listen to it for hours on end, is masterfully done by series composer Kenji Ito (Seiken Densetsu 2, SaGa Frontier). Few strategy games I can think of have better music than Culdcept, and certainly no electronic board games.



Culdcept Saga was originally scheduled to be released in the US last March, but the asshats in charge of localization have been pushing the date back ever since. Now they are saying first quarter of 2008. Don't hold your breath.