Konami’s Yu-Gi-Oh series has a long and successful history in digital form, perhaps never more so than on Nintendo hardware – a relationship that stretches all the way back from the original monochrome Game Boy right up to Zexal World Duel Carnival, which is both the first 3DS Yu-Gi-Oh title as well as the newest entry in the series.
After naming a generic male avatar that will vaguely represent you in the game’s Free Duel mode, the game asks a simple question – “Do you know how to duel?” — with an equally straightforward yes/no response. After choosing the appropriate answer the game then tells you the difficulty setting and hint display options it’s auto-selected for you, as well as informing you that these can be changed later if desired. This is a good first impression for both existing fans as well as newcomers as both sets of players can go into the game facing a challenge that’s fair to their current skill level, without permanently locking anyone into a setting that they’ll either find too tough or mindlessly dull.
The main menu then pops up with its own round of brief-but-useful explanations and players are then left alone to either ease themselves into the Yu-Gi-Oh! experience with the structured decks of Story Mode, or dive straight into the endless possibilities of Free Duel mode, or simply switch between the two as the mood takes them; it's useful flexibility.
Story Mode is the more structured of the two possible play options, and in this mode you take charge of one from a selection of up to twelve unlockable characters (a distinct reduction from the possible forty available in the original Japanese release) that each possess their own unique pool of cards; you then go through a brief and largely generic plot that inevitably involves playing a lot of Yu-Gi-Oh! against a variety of opponents before progressing through to the tournament proper. The storylines here are paper-thin and of little interest to even ardent series fans, so it’s a relief to discover that these sequences are not only infrequent but also easily skipped.
While Story Mode may be lacking in the plot department it more than makes up for it by being an excellent introduction to the card game, as well as a good warm up for lapsed players. The preliminary rounds allow you to battle anyone from a wide range of possible opponents that all have their own unique decks and playstyles, and losing results in nothing worse than the option to try again or pick another person to duel against. This freedom, coupled with the ability to change the difficulty up or down at any point – including mid-battle – gives the confidence to experiment with deck building and tactics, safe in the knowledge that you won’t find yourself endlessly caught in an unwinnable situation against an adversary.
Battling in a well established card game is an intimidating process at the best of times, so it’s good to know that Zexal Word’s duelling interface is well thought out and clear. The 3DS’ dual screens are used to great effect, with the top screen containing character portraits and card details while the lower screen is reserved for the all-important play area; that's where your eyes will be gazing most of the time. Both the regular D-pad and buttons or the touch screen can be used to control the action, with neither offering any real advantages or pitfalls when compared to the other.
Yu-Gi-Oh! uses a system of monster summoning, tributes, traps, spells and all sorts of other weird and wonderful effects to make reducing your foes life points to zero as interesting (and as difficult) as possible, so it’s good to know that by default the game requires your confirmation to proceed when an opponent pulls off a complicated discard/special summon/spell combo. This gives you the chance to read the card text and work out exactly what’s been done instead of helplessly watching a flurry of cards get shuffled about with no real idea of where it all went wrong. You’re also prompted to activate trap and spell cards if you have the opportunity to do so, so there’s never that nagging feeling that you’re missing the chance to turn things around or have the need to tediously re-check every card before proceeding on the off chance you can use it. More confident or skilled duellers can turn off all of the help text, confirmations and prompts if they find them more annoying than useful.
Card games generally don’t have any great visual appeal while playing, and Zexal World is no exception to this rule. Card art is recognisable but low resolution and the character portraits have a very limited pool of expressions that can easily be exhausted in just a few turns of the first match. Thankfully this title comes with an extensive selection of play mat and card protector art already unlocked, meaning players that could use a bit of a visual refresh can customise both the play area and the card reverse to their liking. It’s not a huge step forward but it lends a bit of visual flair and personalisation to the duelling.
Players that wish to break away from Story Mode’s themed deck building can dive right into Free Duel mode any time they wish, and it’s here where the real meat of the game lies, with unrestricted access to well over 5500 cards and eighty opponents with which to do battle. On paper there’s little replayability here as all cards and cosmetic enhancements are unlocked right from the start, so the only reason to keep coming back is if you enjoy playing Yu-Gi-Oh. On the other hand with everything at your fingertips right from the get-go there's the option to hit the ground running and enjoy a customised experience.
There’s one fly in the TCG ointment that we've saved for last – for whatever reason Zexal World has no two player options whatsoever. Neither local multiplayer nor internet matchups are supported in any fashion, which is an utterly baffling decision in a competitive card game. So while your options for duelling against the CPU are numerous and well thought out, with fair AI, there’s always that disappointment that your carefully-crafted deck and cunning strategies can never be tested against a human opponent.
If you like trading card games but struggle to find willing friends to play with, Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal World Duel Carnival boasts a wealth of distinct CPU-controlled opponents and a trunk filled with thousands of cards. However, the lack of any form of multiplayer is as baffling as it is detrimental to the competitive nature of the game, and with both single player modes having almost everything unlocked from the start the only reason to continue the experience is simply playing for playing’s sake. Overall this is a good digital representation of the core card game, but players looking for anything more than that won’t find it here.