Idea Factory’s Cardinal Arc: Neverland Card War was a best-selling hit in Japan on the PS2, but it never caught interest in the West, so no publisher has found it worth their while to release it. In 2008, Yukes picked up the rights to port it over to the PSP. It’s good for older games to be given exposure in new regions, but while Neverland Card Battles is fun, it’s not the kind of game North American gamers would have missed much if it had never been released here.
Ages ago in the game’s continent of Neverland, a dark god named Hellgaia emerged, bent on taking down all of humanity. His ambition was cut short when five gods sealed him away to stop his evil reign. After doing so, they split Hellgaia’s power into cards, and those who wield the cards are known as Dominators. Eons passed, and Hellgaia’s seal weakened over time, creating the need for new Dominators, so the gate guardian summons forth new Dominators, including the protagonist, Galahad. Galahad is a wandering gambler who wants to spice things up in his life. He is told of Neverland’s situation, and yearning for something new to do, he accepts the role of a Dominator and sets out on a journey to put a stop to the new coming of Hellgaia.
The basic concept has been done dozens of times before, and it’s not executed in a brilliant fashion here. The characters are somewhat entertaining, despite the fact that they are fairly one-dimensional. I like Galahad, and I found him to be an enjoyable lead. True, he likes to be blunt, teases others, and can be a little arrogant, but that beats the archtype of having an emo guy, a teenager with amnesia, or a little kid who tries to act grown up, as we see in so many RPGs these days. There is a decent amount of character interaction between Galahad and the other Dominators before and after the battles, but as I mentioned, it is shallow. The plot isn’t deep either, but the good news is that it doesn’t feel tacked onto the game just for the sake of having a plot in a game that is meant to be primarily about card battling.
The graphics in the game are really mixed. The main graphics are tiny and a little dated. You can tell the sprites apart easily enough, but there isn’t much to them, and the stages are plain, with a weird, blurry look. The card illustrations, though, save the day for the graphics. They are nicely done, and different cards are plentiful. There are hundreds of cards in the game, and each has their own unique, pleasing illustration. The character portraits are also nicely illustrated, and each of them looks unique and distinctive.
The game’s audio is also a mixed bag. The voice acting is passable, though nothing special. The voices fit each of the characters well, and none of them grated on my ears as I played. Still, some of the female vocals are pretty weak in delivery, and could have been done better. It’s also neat that the game is fully voiced, but the lack of a Japanese voice option is a shame. That option is slowly becoming standard in RPGs, and it would be nice for more games to incorporate it. With the exception of the catchy J-Pop opening, on the other hand, the music is bland and never memorable. Each stage’s music is fitting, but the problem is the length: the songs loop every thirty seconds or so during the battle. Some songs like the ruins theme have some potential, but that potential is never utilized.
The game is a hybrid of a card battle game and a strategy game. You have a deck of cards to utilize, and your objective is to defeat the opposing Dominator. You must spend points in order to utilize these cards to defeat your opponent, and you must have territory in order to get points. Territory is gained by moving onto empty spaces or onto your opponent’s space to mark them with your color. Naturally, the more territory you have, the more points you earn. The mechanic is similar to the way you set land cards to gain mana in Magic the Gathering, but without the stealing. It’s interesting because it encourages the player to build up territory and create stronger, more efficient forces rather than just rushing in to claim victory in a flash.
The creatures you summon can also create territory, and other Dominators and their creatures can walk to your territory to claim it for themselves. Creatures have a maintenance cost that you must pay at the beginning of your turn, and if you are unable to pay a creature’s maintenance cost, it gets destroyed.
The objective in these fights is to simply defeat the opposing Dominator. If Galahad is defeated, you lose. Each Dominator you face has their own unique traits and abilities, along with having a unique type of deck. The game is easy in the beginning, because Galahad is stronger than the other Dominators and can just rush in for the kill. Gradually, however, the game gets tougher as you begin to meet tougher foes and get rematches with Dominators you’ve beaten before. Those Dominators have upgraded themselves between matches, and their decks are deadlier the second time around. The AI in the game can be quite aggressive, and will put up a fight all the way. While you will upgrade your deck throughout the game, Galahad himself remains the same, and you will need to utilize some strategy in order to survive later on. It’s nice when a strategy game makes you actually strategize, and the difficulty curve is on a fair level.
There are several different kinds of maps in the game. Some battles take place in the same setting, but with variations in the map. As you progress, the maps get larger and more complex. For example, beginning with the 2nd map, there are elemental fields present. On an elemental field, you can summon a monster of the corresponding element directly to that spot rather than summon them next to your Dominator or another monster. Creatures with the corresponding element also get stat bonuses for remaining in such spots. While it is nifty to be able to spread out your summons, the advantage isn’t utilized very well, both because the good monsters are non-elemental and because these fields are put in inconvenient locations.
As mentioned earlier, there are over two hundred cards in the game, and they are divided into three categories. Blue cards are creatures – they have their own stats, which consist of attack power (AP) and defense power (DP). AP indicates the strength of the monster’s attacks, and DP negates enemy attack power up to its defense. Some creates are also able to use special abilities – purple cards are magic, and they can be used to harm your opponent or boost yourself up. Yellow cards are base cards, and they create obstacles that are meant to simply stop or slow down your opponent. In addition, some yellow cards can give you special bonuses, such as extra points or defense bonuses.
The gameplay and fights are easy to follow, but there are some balance issues. Some cards are too strong given the fact that they have little to no cost; particularly those with the first strike ability. A card that has first strike can enable the monster or Dominator to strike first, even during their opponent’s turn. What makes this so deadly is that if the card with first strike manages to beat the opponent, the defeated opponent can’t counter the attack, and some first attackers have high enough AP as to make them nearly untouchable. There are counter-measures to beat them, such as magic or attacking with another first striker, which nullifies the effect. For the player, first strikers and cards that can beat them rare and tough to obtain, while your opponents have lots of goodies that allow them to exploit that power. Challenge is perfectly fine for a game, but some abilities are too strong compared to others, and the method for obtaining cards makes it tough for you to efficiently build a strong counter against these overpowered abilities.
You obtain new cards through battles. If you win, you gain a bunch of cards. The swifter the victory, the more you get. Even if you lose or get a draw, you earn some cards for trying. The cards you get are determined by the opponent you face, but it tends to feel random. The problem is that as your opponents get stronger, it gets both increasingly difficult to obtain better cards and tremendously tedious. The battles are slow in nature, and the grinding can take quite a while. It certainly extends the length of the game, but for all the wrong reasons.
The game also has some multiplayer, though it has no online feature. You and a friend can battle each other with your respective decks, and you can play as other Dominators in multiplayer. The Dominators are unlocked while you progress through story mode. Since each Dominator has unique aspects, it makes for an interesting fight with friends.
Since the in-game graphics are weak, and the music is bland, the only chance this game has to win fans is its gameplay. Fortunately, it succeeds in the gameplay department, although it’s by no means amazing. Even with the weak graphics and music, the game can be fun, and it provides a solid challenge to boot. There are many cards to get and many different ways you can play, which provides some replay value. It’s a game that is meant for a niche audience, but if you like card battles and strategy gaming, you should give it a shot.