When you hear the word "videogame" these days, it usually brings to mind fantastic scenes starring elfin warriors, gritty urban vigilantes, or souped-up supercars rendered with staggeringly impressive realism and sophistication that would have been considered impossible on a home console ten years ago. There's no doubt that the video part of videogames is better than it's ever been, but it's interesting to note that game part has taken on entirely new connotations in the context of polygons and lighting effects. There's nothing wrong with larger-than-life adventures saving the world, but there was a time when the word "game" was more often associated with small plastic pieces, dice, and brightly colored sheets of stiff cardboard. I love the escapism and adventure that comes with today's videogames, yet there's still much appeal in the original definition's approach to chance, skill, and competition. Eschewing practically all pretense and current trends, Omiyasoft's Culdcept is a new member of a rare species—an offering that combines both types by acknowledging the video but emphasizing the game.
There is a story mode in Culdcept, something silly about defeating an evil megalomaniac from the future, but it's really just a thinly disguised way of acclimating players to the mechanics. Forget about that "quest," or any ideas of drama and characterization. The disc's real draw is the sheer joy of playing a well-balanced, intricate, and hopelessly addictive game for its own sake, no lofty goal or deep philosophy required. In the same way people will gather time and again for a smoke-filled evening of poker or a sunny afternoon of chess, Culdcept brings that same kind of gamesmanship to the PlayStation 2.
Best described as the perfect fusion of board and collectible card games, Culdcept draws heavy influence from a variety of sources, Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering in particular. Play takes place on boards divided into squares with a variety of different paths and features, each space belonging to one of five categories: air, earth, fire, water, and "other" (my term, not Omiya's).
The goal of is to accumulate a set amount of magic power (i.e., money). This is done by capturing spaces on the board, deploying monsters you control to manage them, and then upgrading the value of the land. Every time you pass a castle (equivalent to Monopoly's "Go" square) the computer calculates the total value of your holdings and rewards you accordingly. Be the biggest land baron, reach the target goal before the competition, and the game is yours.
However, it's not quite as easy as it sounds, and this is where the "card" aspect of Culdcept comes in. In Monopoly, once a player controls a property, it's theirs unless they choose to sell, and there's nothing other players can do to change that. Culdcept takes a more pro-active approach with its monster system.
There are 500 different cards in the game, made up of creatures, weapons, armor and spells. Players create a deck of 50, and if they have a creature card in hand after landing on an unoccupied land, they can "cast" it to assert instant property rights. However, your opponents can try to steal the land from you by casting their own monsters and doing battle. The variety of non-creature cards comes into play during skirmishes, adding strength and damage modifiers. If you mount a successful defense, the opponent pays your land's toll, increasing your "bank" and depleting theirs. If they win, you're booted out and you lose the property, along with any improvements you've made to it.
Effectively using Culdcept's cards requires multiple levels of strategy, and more than a little bluffing if you're playing with other people. The choices made for your deck will play a large factor in determining your style, and knowing when to use modifiers is crucial since you never know when an opponent may have something to counter it. Matching the right kind of monster to the correct territory is also important, since each creature has their own favorite terrain. If they're on it, they receive damage bonuses to increase their potency, a huge advantage when fending off squatters. Finally, learning the ins and outs of each board plays a large part of planning where to stake your claims. Some squares will naturally be landed on more often, and knowing where your enemy is likely to land can make all the difference.
Factoring in all these variables is a complex and delicate trick, but one that Culdcept pulls off flawlessly, managing to avoid any design flaws or imbalances. I instantly fell in love with it, and lost several nights' sleep chanting the mantra of "just one more game." I suppose it's a good thing I'm not a gambling man, because if I had the same level of obsession at a blackjack table as I did with Culdcept, I'd most likely be broke right now.
However, as much as I adore it, I would definitely say that it's a very difficult game to master. There's a lot to learn about how the cards interact with each other, and overlooking a rule or forgetting about a certain creature's effect can be devastating when every single point matters. Making things even more interesting, the cards you receive are awarded on a semi-random basis, the artificial intelligence's ability to pull off questionable rolls of the dice might make you go prematurely gray, and the games tend to last around two hours apiece, so a cup of coffee is recommended to keep up mental focus for extended seesaw matches. If you can complete the "story" mode, consider yourself a Culdcept pro.
On the plus side, the inevitable defeats that come your way aren't nearly as painful as they could be. At the end of every game, both the winner and the loser receive new cards to add to their arsenal, a move which I consider to be sheer genius. I can't stress enough how much I appreciated this feature, since the guarantee of getting new cards gives a significant incentive to keep on playing, win or lose. By substituting a few cards in your deck and remembering the quirks of each board, each match tangibly strengthens you towards future victories.
With the outstanding game part out of the way, the only thing left to discuss is the video. Some might be put off by the graphics, but if you've read this far, chances are you're interested enough to avoid discounting the game for its clean 16-bit look. Personally, I loved it, and had no problem. Hand-drawn animated sprites will always be welcome at my house, and my hat is off to Omiya's art team for keeping everything clear and easy to see, no small feat with the number of creatures that rapidly fill up the game's large boards. That said, Omiya still has something to crow about—each of Culdcept's cards features large, hand-painted works by some of Japan's top fantasy artists. Those who can appreciate portraits of moody, zaftig succubi and steaming hellhounds won't be disappointed.
For an excellent break from the standards on shelves today, Culdcept is an incredible breath of fresh air. By using the electronic medium, Omiya creates an enhanced experience that would be impossible to replicate on a tabletop, but with its emphasis of tabletop sensibilities, it succeeds in creating something totally unique and captivating. It's without a doubt one of the most under-hyped and unknown efforts I've ever seen, but with the peerless game design, excellent multiplayer options and practically infinite replay value, it wins my vote for most addicting game of last year.