German developer lbxgames, a newcomer to the Nintendo scene, has thrown their hat into the DSiWare ring with Elemental Masters, a card-based fantasy game set in the mystical land of Elendior. A great demon is rumored to have arisen from the dead in order to continue his initial goal of spreading death and destruction across the land, and somehow, you'll wind up saving the day, right? Elemental Masters is a more mature, mystical diversion tossed into the mix of puzzlers and applications that have flooded the DSi Shop since day one, and if the idea of battles that play somewhat like a game of Lights Out interests you, this might be up your alley.
There are no tutorials, so be sure to read the operations guide carefully. The stylus-controlled battle mechanics are remarkably simple, though initially confusing. Each card in your available deck has four numbers in the left corner corresponding to a different side of the card – this is your card's available strength, offensive during the turn it's laid and defensive afterward. If you've laid a card with a west-facing value of 1 and your opponent lays a card with an east-facing value of 2 right next to it, for example, your card will suddenly turn red, signifying that it now belongs to the enemy. You may capture it back at any time in a similar fashion, depending on how many sides the card has open for further attack. The winner is the player with the most cards of their color on the field when full. Early battles will use the greater-than/less-than damage system, but later on other methods will be introduced, adding a strategic element that may allow players with low-level cards to even the score against high-level enemies.
With "Elemental" in the title, each card does indeed align with a particular element, but the normal rock-scissors-paper cycle of elements does not apply, giving no one card a natural advantage over another. However, the battlefield is littered at random with element tiles, and if a card is laid onto a matching element tile, all its number values will be increased by 1; should a card be laid onto an element tile of a different type, its values will be decreased by 1. The bonus/penalty makes for more interesting play, as there are limited squares available on the battlefield. There are also spells to use, whether character-specific or earned by defeating boss enemies as you make your way through Quest Mode. You may only choose one spell to use during a battle, and you'll only get to use it once, but any more than that would be overkill considering the short-and-sweet nature of the battles themselves. Tutorials would have definitely spared a lot of player frustration, but once you've wrapped your head around the rules you'll be turning them to your own advantage in no time flat.
You'll start the game by choosing your profile's character – Night Elf, Thief, or Warrior – and you'll want to begin the game in Skirmish Mode so you can get the hang of how battle works before beginning your real quest. Skirmish has you going down the list of available enemies to battle against, beginning with first-level enemies like Snotlings, Will-O-Wisps and Sirens and capping off with fourth-level personifications of the elements and Darok, the demon king himself. Each win nets you anywhere from one to five cards from your opponent's battle hand, but beware - should you lose, you'll suffer the same fate. Between battles, your hand will be kept together so that you may quickly continue on with the next enemy, but once you leave Skirmish , you'll have to rebuild your hand when you come back, and the same is true for Quest – there is no option to save your 'best' hand for quick reference. Luckily, the game puts your cards in order for you, so you can just zip down the list to the end and stack all your high-level stuff into your hand. Skirmish Mode has all the base elemental spells available to you and is great for practice against Quest enemies that may have you frustrated without risking your Quest cards.
Quest is the meat of the game, where you'll find yourself thrust into a suitably epic fantasy tale. After the backstory has played out, you'll be brought to the map, where by tapping colored dots you'll go from place to place fighting enemies and revealing parts of the story. Whether you choose to defeat every available creature on a map or just take the direct route to the boss is up to you, but it's better to fight everything you come across as you'll win cards for defeating enemies (note that cards previously won during Skirmish will not be available during Quest, and vice versa). You may backtrack to any of the creatures you've already defeated on the map at any time in order to build up your base of available cards to play with or trade at a Market for better ones.
This game offers a multiplayer mode, though it involves handing one system back and forth. You may customize the gameplay however you prefer, with available cards, spells, random element tiles, and game rules to choose from, and then you and your opponent will be asked to prepare yourselves for battle by choosing your character, cards, and battle spell, after which the game will begin. The only problem with the multiplayer mode is that it takes quite a while to set everything up to play, and if you want to have another go after the battle is over, you'll have to go through the setup process all over again. The game offers a Best of 5 option to help alleviate the issue, but having some kind of quick-multiplayer option where you could save the setup you prefer for one-touch reference at a future time would have helped to streamline the process.
The music is somewhat short and repetitive, but features the wild, barbaric sounds of drums and wooden flutes that fit the overall theme. Your every menu selection is heralded by the beating of gongs, and you'll enter battle to the sshing noise of a sword being drawn. The graphics are a blend of ancient stylization with modern fantasy art. There are no animations during battle, just images that pop up every time you focus on or lay a card onto the battlefield, but they're all reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering and other fantasy card game illustrations, which are par for the course. The menu text is easy to read, if what it has to say is initially confusing, but the overworld portion of Quest is simple to figure out even without having read the help file.
Though Elemental Masters suffers from a lack of available tutorials (if ever a game needed some kind of walkthrough, it's this), careful reading of the help file and some trial-and-error in Skirmish will help to ease the fears of anyone thinking they've just wasted their points. You'll spend your time accepting challenges from monsters and taking their cards as the spoils of war while making your way through the story in Quest, and if you're up for just a few quick rounds of play, Skirmish is also an option. The setup process for multiplayer mode is lengthy, but it's only because there are so many options available, and with sixteen different areas to battle through as well as the promise of a new element spell should you bring your profile to 100% completion, there's a lot of content available here for solo players. If you have patience and a knack for strategy, you'll definitely get your 800 points' worth out of this game.