Twenty years ago a bizarre amalgamation of card game, board game, and video game first released on the Sega Saturn, and made waves with its strategic depth, addictive gameplay and unique concept. Subsequent titles have shuffled the formula since, but that core blend of number-crunching, dice-rolling and card collecting remained, carving a niche in the market that drew in a dedicated fanbase. Its been nearly ten years since we've seen the release of any Culdcept game here in the West, but for anyone who recently dusted off their 3DS to go Metroid hunting, that is about to change.
Depending on your experience with gamepieces, dice and cards, either in digital or tabletop form, Culdcept Revolt can be an extremely daunting experience; downright intimidating at first glance. Competitive card games are increasingly popular nowadays, with many major franchises even offering spin-off titles based around this, but Culdcept is a totally self-contained entity and bears years of history. Despite its intricacies, which are absolutely intact in this latest release, Revolt now brings the series back to the West with confidence, eager to both introduce new players and challenge those more familiar with its addictive gameplay.
Though it's drawn fairly accurate comparisons with Monopoly in the past, some may find that Culdcept has more in common with Fortune Street, emphasising multiple pathways and a greater sense of control over the board. Up to four players roll dice each turn to determine how many spaces they move around a variety of different maps, claiming squares as their own by placing guardian monsters on them, which then demand a toll off any other player who subsequently lands on the space. These territories can be upgraded, monsters can be equipped with special items, and magic spells can be employed to help seal victory, all based on your customised selection of cards. Battling comes into play when trying to seize control of more territory or defending your own against invaders. If you've ever landed on a pricey hotel in Monopoly and wished you could attempt to tear it down instead of paying, then this is exactly the kind of capitalist catharsis you've been looking for.
Each board features between two and four gates, each corresponding to a cardinal direction. Passing through every one of these gates is considered a 'lap' of the board, and grants you a magic bonus for your trouble. Magic essentially acts as your currency in game, and is spent on summoning monsters as well as paying any tolls for landing on owned spaces. To win, you simply gather up enough until you reach the predetermined limit, and then race towards the nearest gate to claim victory. Expanding and upgrading your territory adds a steady income of magic, and of course you charge a toll for any player unlucky enough to land on your turf. Gates also heal your battle-weary monsters and activate them again after they become fatigued through use. They're vital checkpoints that make sure you keep moving around the board, forcing players to put themselves at risk.
While we could go beyond this simplified abbreviation and detail just how each facet of gameplay works, or share our top secret strategies (fat chance), it would be a disservice to Revolt itself, which does a wonderful job of easing the player in slowly but surely. New mechanics are introduced with enough restraint that it never feels overwhelming, and even with such a huge amount of information to dive into there's a limit on how much is heaped into your lap until you're more comfortable with the basics. Right from the start there's an extremely useful explanation of the game's setting and what the general concept is. Despite how genuinely helpful this can be, it does rely on the tired cliché of amnesia as an extra crutch.
Your self-titled character has no recollection of their past, but is told that they are a cepter: one who can control the cards of culdcept and perceive hidden pocket dimensions called battle spaces. Lost and confused in a strange city you're found by a rebel group known as the Free Bats, who operate in secret to fight back against the tyrannical rule of Count Krannis. Under his command cepters are being hunted down and eliminated, while the city gates remain closed, trapping every citizen inside. With a ragtag bunch of heroes and a fiendish villain to fight back against it's certainly well-worn material, but acts as a solid platform to support plenty of opportunities to engage in battles. We were initially detached from the events of the story but things did pick up, and with rebellion at the heart of the adventure the drive to escape makes it easy to sympathise with many of the characters.
The single-player campaign is broken up into chapters, each containing the main plotline missions with optional side stories to complete as well. Inevitably, every single little disagreement or challenge throughout the story will result in a card-based confrontation - even among allies - but the gameplay is interesting enough to warrant the repetition. Don't expect much in the way of variety however, as there's no opportunity to actually explore environments or interact with NPCs outside of set cutscenes. Your input into the story is confined solely to the board, which is a bit disappointing. There are still some weird quirks of course, with the sudden arrival of a cowboy character early on being a jarring example, and the fact that your evil-doing opponents frequently give you kindly advice about the current map, without any ulterior motive or smarmy attitude whatsoever. The game does an effective job of making you dislike your rivals, so it's strange to receive helpful tidbits of information from them before charging into battle.
We have to admit though, it's usually pretty good advice, and there's plenty to wrap your head around. Creatures have specific abilities and elemental traits for example, and these can define their purpose as either aggressive invaders or staunch defenders. When forming your deck of fifty cards, which are here named 'books', you need to keep in mind the more attack-oriented fire and earth elements, while balancing trickier water and air elements that boast special abilities. Items to help attack and defend - as well as magic spells - are also vital, with powers ranging from something as simple as an extra dice roll, to some game-changing abilities that effect the entire board. There are over 400 different cards to collect in total and it's important to spend time rearranging and updating your book of cards regularly. This is especially important as certain cards are objectively better than others, making earlier items and creatures obsolete as you progress. There are plenty of slots for different books, encouraging experimentation and adaptive strategy to fit the map, your opponent, and your own preferences.
Returning players will find that there are some key changes to the formula this time around, which may seem subtle at first but go a long way in streamlining the experience and mixing things up a bit. One of the most obvious changes is the way in which you earn cards, which ties into the gradual introduction of mechanics rather than being overwhelmed all at once. They aren't immediately unlocked upon completing maps like in previous titles, instead you earn money by playing matches, which can then be spent on randomised packs of cards each with a set theme, such as a specific elemental type for example. More of these themes unlock as you progress, granting the chance to find rarer, more powerful cards that in turn allow for very different types of books.
Smaller tweaks such as the fatigue that afflicts monsters, the fact that you now discard at the end of your turn, and the introduction of new buildings also change things up, but another major addition are the slightly bizarre Evo cards. These are special dragon creatures that 'age' through use, allowing you to level them up and partially customise each card to suit your needs. Up to two of them can be in your book at any one time, and keeping them there will add evolution points with each battle you complete. These points are then spent on increasing the card's strength and HP, adding new abilities or changing its elemental type. It's an interesting idea that's pretty well executed, though it's entirely possible to continue your game with just the standard cards in tow. They're fun and unique, but not crucial.
The more you play, the more you'll begin to develop your own style and gain confidence in your book of cards. The AI opponents can put up a stiff challenge, but as is the downfall with many board games luck plays just as much of a part in victory or defeat as raw skill does. There are ways to manipulate the dice roll, and to negate certain traps, but sometimes you'll just suffer a run of misfortune and fall victim to one bout of bad luck too many. It's frustrating to see games turn around so quickly on a total whim, but it does admittedly add to the excitement sometimes. You're always kept on your toes, challenged by new opponents with new books, and being able to see what's in their hand at all times makes it a tense affair as you try to predict their next move. If anything, the game can move too slowly at times, especially as you wait on multiple AI characters to finish their turns. It's also a bit of a hassle to restart games if they aren't going your way, as you need to wait your turn, manually resign, and then load that mission again from scratch.
The simple 2D sprites set against a 3D background are pleasant if not amazing, while more elaborate character art features the impressive work of Kinu Nishimura, known for Code of Princess and the Street Fighter series. The cards themselves are also well illustrated by various artists, while battle animations are restricted to some limited effects that do the job, but pass on more elaborate visuals as creatures clash. We enjoyed being able to zoom in on card art however, as some of the detail is lost on the small-screened handheld. There's some English voice acting mixed in alongside a forgettable soundtrack, announcing card names and offering encouragement during games, but we ended up turning the sound down and sticking on a podcast when settling into longer play sessions.
Outside of the campaign you can set up customisable single matches for fun or practice against AI opponents, who can display surprising tactical intelligence, as well as comment on specific events within that particular game. If one character trails just behind you in magic then they sure won't stay quiet about it, goading you with taunts of their encroaching comeback. We'd estimate that a standard game with a limit of 8000 magic takes around thirty minutes to complete on average, but there are plenty of options to mess around with to affect game length, alter card allowances (it's possible to ban Evo cards entirely, for example), as well as customise the look of your cepter and even the style of dice you roll.
Of course there are plenty of options when it comes to multiplayer as well, both online and local. For local play you have total control over the game, and can choose from a number of customisation options. Anyone who wants to join in will need to have their own copy of Revolt, however. The online mode itself will actually reward players with a daily bonus just by logging in, ranging from in-game currency to a random card. While online you can enter into a match with friends, or battle other cepters around the world. The Free Match will link you with active players, and sets up three different difficulty levels to choose from. There's far less customisation here as the game sets its own rules in these arena-style lobbies, but it means that beginners can jump in without much fear of being swarmed by expert players.
Separate from the in-game shop, there's also an online store which currently offers up a variety of both free and paid DLC in the form of extra quests and cosmetic items such as outfits or book covers. Some of these items are fairly pricey, but thankfully they don't have an effect on the game itself, as you can't buy exclusive cards or pay your way to victory. It's possible we'll see additional free DLC in the future, though the main game itself is still a fully-realised experience.
Despite its intimidating outer layer, Culdcept Revolt is something of a hidden gem that deserves the attention of anyone with an interest in card collecting, strategy, or even just board games in general. It's wildly addictive, and boasts a robust single player component as well as both local and online multiplayer to satisfy any craving for its unique, genre-blending mechanics. While Revolt's unflinching dedication to these core mechanics does hurt its story somewhat through repetition, new players will be welcomed by a wonderfully-implemented tutorial, while returning cepters have plenty of new tweaks and features to check out. It demands patience, and a lot of luck, but if you like the sound of a monster-fighting twist on Monopoly then you should take the hand you're dealt and check this one out.