Based off a Japanese trading card game called Cardinal Arc, Neverland Card Battles is a strategy RPG built entirely around the use of cards. With a steep learning curve, terrible balancing issues, and sub par graphics, this PSP title has very limited appeal.
The game’s first level acts as its tutorial. But instead of guiding the player through each specific button press, it simply just points you in a general direction in the hope that you figure everything out on your own. Because of this awkward and unclear first stage, it actually took me about 20 minutes to even figure out how to actually move my character. Needless to say, I died in this first, tutorial stage. Because of this, my first impression of this game was definitely on the negative side.
After reading through the instruction manual and playing this tutorial stage again did I learn the basics of gameplay (and how to actually move the main character). Neverland Card Battles can actually be considered a more advanced version of the classic board game Othello. Taking the role of a “Dominator”, walking over a square on the grid changes it to your color. Each controlled square gives you one Conquest point – currency used to perform actions. The more squares you control, the more actions you can perform.
At the beginning of each turn, a random card from your deck is drawn. The player then has the option, if able, to use card(s) at the expense of Conquest points. Traveling over the map is the most crucial aspect of the game as the player will need to control as many squares on the grid as possible. To help the player, allied creatures can be summoned and controlled to help fight your opponent and to control more of the grid. But keeping these creatures summoned on the battlefield also costs Maintenance points, forcing you again, to control as many spaces on the grid as possible.
Here lies the game’s first major flaw. Even the earlier levels in the game are so massive, it can take forever to actually reach your opponent, especially since most turns allow for only 2-3 squares of movement at a time. There are special cards that you can use to attack any opponent on screen from anywhere on the map, but they too far in-between to be a major deal breaker. Instead, the meat of combat is performed when your character moves directly next to opponent. But this hand to hand combat is rather wonky because unless a character has some type of a “first attack” ability, both characters can attack and kill each other even if one character attacks first. This just doesn’t make sense. If I am attacking my opponent first and deplete all his energy, why should he be given the chance to fight back when he should be dead? The often negates attacking and really serves no point whatsoever. If anything, it only delays seeing the Victory or the Game Over screens.
The only characters on screen that can survive more than one attack are the main characters, rendering other summoned characters almost pointless. Because of this, each level is basically a grudge match with the goal of getting next to your main opponent as quickly as possible and dealing out a series of melee attacks. As another minor inconvenience, the player can only move the cursor over tiles on the grid, not on the background. Because each stage often has dead-ends and one way streets, the player is forced to move the cursor through the longest path between two points. This is just inconvenient.
Some levels are so large and contain multiple passageways that running into your opponent can take forever. A good example of this happened to me on the third level, where I was forced to split up my forces because of branching paths. But because each summoned creature is so weak, they simply negate other enemy units. That is, until my opponent used some crazy attribute enhancing card, that I didn’t have access to, on a typical summoned creature which hunted me down and killed me in two turns. All this happened after playing a level for over 30 minutes. This cheap, and seemingly random death was enough to make me shut off the game in frustration.
Besides the lack of balancing, this game loads more often than not. Simply bringing your cursor over a unit onscreen causes the game to freeze for about 2-3 seconds and can require two taps of the X button to select. This is entirely unacceptable especially when the graphics by no means push the system to its limit. At one time, I thought my game actually froze. After about 30 seconds of looking at a frozen screen, I was ready to restart my PSP. But that was when I realized that it was not frozen… it was just loading.
Back in 1995, Capcom released a game on the SNES called Breath of Fire 2. This game, although it was on a 16-bit system and is now almost two decades old, has better graphics than this PSP title. The cards themselves have some pretty neat drawings, but the map and battle sequences, which are the most looked at parts of the game, are laughable. The lack of detail in the sprites and 3 frames of battle animation are a joke and have no right being on the higher resolution PSP screen. Not only is Breath of Fire 2’s graphics better than this game, most SNES games are. Luckily, the music is decent enough and the voice acting is moderately tolerable although the most characters speak in poorly written/translated text.
After you complete a level, you get more cards to add to your deck. Then the player has the option to modify the deck of 30 cards as the player sees fit. But I found editing my deck to be more trouble than its worth because of the horrendous load times. With just about every move of the d-pad, the game has to load for a second to bring up the highlighted card. There is an Ad-hoc wireless two player option, but trying to convince your buddy to buy this game is going to be more difficult than putting up with the lacking gameplay.
Neverland Card Battles has more problems than solutions and entertainment value. The large maps suck up nothing but time and only add to the frustration of the overall gameplay and attacking other summoned creatures often ends in a stalemate. This makes the gameplay unbalanced and frustrating. And putting up with the constant loading is enough to drive anyone insane. If you are looking for a decent card based game on the PSP, then go with Metal Gear Acid 2. If you are looking for a better strategy game, pick up the enhanced port of Final Fantasy Tactics. Or better yet, just go play Othello instead.