"Naturally, placing cards isnít as simple as sorting through all of your options and proving yourself clever. You are instead the victim of chance. Later matches even mostly come down to who draws the best hand from the start. Each round, a new card presents itself. You might find it useless or be stunned by its value."
You can tell a lot from a name. SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters DS is a mouthful, but it also describes the latest handheld offering from SNK Playmore just about perfectly. Pick it up and youíll find a card battling game for the DS that melts the SNK and Capcom characters you love into one giant roster and lets you poke and prod them with the DS stylus. How can that be anything but a fanís dream come true? Well, thatís complicated.
As the game opens, you meet a boy named Taiki. He wants to become a champion card battler, but thereís a problem: heís not very good at it. That bothers him, especially since his friends Kaito and Riko are so adept. As events transpire, it looks like Taiki will miss out on the chance to participate on an impending tournament. Then at the last moment, his name is revealed as an alternate and he heads to the tower. When he and his pals arrive, it becomes clear that something has gone awry. The machine that controls the tower somehow managed to brainwash the other humans, so that they attack without the slightest provocation and demand a card battle. Taiki is determined to get to the bottom of things, no matter how many matches he must win!
Itís a cheesy story, admittedly, but what did you expect? As a narrative device, it provides an excuse to play cards against opponents on one floor after another.
So, how about those battles? Well, theyíre simple enough in theory. Basically, you win by exhausting your opponentís supply of either cards or health before he does the same to you. Every card you can put into play has a virtual life meter and is a buffer against the damage your opponent might inflict. If your cards are all locked, thatís when health points come out of your hide. Meanwhile, the same dynamic afflicts your computer-controlled opponent.
Early matches give you a chance to easily adapt to the system. The first time I played, I read the on-screen prompts and somehow missed the concept of striking down my adversary rather than his cards. That led to a rather extended conflict, since a deck contains 50 cards and you can only bring one new one into play at a time after the first turn (unless youíve activated special powers). What I soon realized is that matches end most quickly if you focus almost exclusively on your human rival. Bosses require more finesse, but even they leave themselves open on occasion.
Naturally, placing cards isnít as simple as sorting through all of your options and proving yourself clever. You are instead the victim of chance. Later matches even mostly come down to who draws the best hand from the start. Each round, a new card presents itself. You might find it useless or be stunned by its value. Really, it all depends how well youíve customized your deck (more on that in a moment). Another important factor is the cost to deploy. Each card has an associated cost. You need sufficient force points of various hues if you wish to put it into play. Since your most powerful allies require the most effort to unleash, youíll regularly make decisions about whose assistance you can do without in exchange for some added firepower and defense.
There are all sorts of strategic possibilities. For example, some players might find that they prefer sacrificing weak cards that are easily deployed so that they can block their opponentsí most powerful attacks with a character that was never intended to do any damage. Thatís like sacrificing a pawn in a game of chess to save your queen. Others might save most of their force for a chance to deploy a card that can inflict massive damage in one strike, then activate it just when a rival least expects it. Still others will toss a bunch of weak characters into play because of the force points that accrue for each active participant at the end of a round. Even without modifying my deck, I found that I had plenty of options that enabled me to breeze through the first few floors with little difficulty. Trouble didnít come until I decided I wanted to beef up my stash with some more useful cards.
Deck customization, a crucial part of the game, is actually less intuitive than the battles themselves. I blame the interface. Basically, you have a folder where all your cards rest, and from there you must create decks that suit your playing style. That wasnít really explained as fully as I would have liked in either the gameís tutorial--which skipped over the most important details while elaborating on the obvious--or the instruction manual, which devoted two pages to everything I already knew. Some of that comes from being new to the genre, but I canít be alone. Clearer documentation would have been appreciated.
Of course, itís apparent from other portions of the game that there was only a certain budget for such concerns. There are quite a few simple typos throughout that another proof session might have caught, such as ďyouíreĒ when ďyourĒ was meant. Grammar is spotty in general. Without detracting significantly from the overall experience, they suggest that the product owes its continued existence to invisible duct tape.
Thankfully, cards donít suffer from that same flaw. If youíre an SNK or Capcom nerd, youíll find a lot to like. There are 400 available cards to collect and trade, each decorated by an awesome character portrait. The classic libraries both of the game developers have amassed over the years are represented strikingly in the available sketches. Itís hard not to shiver when the powerful Rugal card comes into play, both because it may own you severely and because Rugal is a badass. Likewise, Zangief commands a certain respect, and tanned Sakura makes Ďnubileí sexy all over again (did it ever go out of style?). You probably already know who you like, and odds are good that theyíre included.
Perhaps the gameís biggest flaw--and one SNK Playmore will likely have completely addressed by the time many read this review--is one of the most unexpected: a glitch. Somehow, the original copies of the game were published with a flaw in place that causes the game to freeze if you attempt to collect all of the cards. Early copies are plagued by this issue, and thereís no way around it until you receive a replacement. For early adopters, that was an unpleasant and exasperating surprise. Fortunately, plans are underway to set right that particular wrong. Even after that fix the game wonít be perfect (or even close), but hereís hoping itís remembered for the addictive fan service and card battling it provides, not the quality assurance mishap.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 24, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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