Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: 03/02/2004
Previous Phantasy Star Online titles were hack ‘n’ slash, much like Gauntlet or Diablo, but in a sci-fi setting. Developer Sonic Team decided to radically alter that formula for Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution and go with a card battle game. Yeah, you read that right; no exploration, no item hunting…just card battles. Like many other PSO fans, I was pretty pissed when I first heard this announcement, but as time went on, the concept grew on me, and Sonic Team’s final execution of the concept proved to be worthy indeed.
As expected, PSO3 continues the story set forth in previous PSO games (originally appearing on the Dreamcast, then later ported to the Gamecube and Xbox platforms). The ship/space station Pioneer 2 is orbiting the planet Ragol, and the government is in the process of terraforming the place. Some folks aren’t pleased with what the government is up to, and they’ve formed a splinter group known as the Arkz. When you start a game, you can choose to play on the Hero side (goverment agents, essentially) or the Arkz side. If you like, you can even switch sides at any time during the game. The character you create doesn’t actually partake in battles; instead, you give orders to other characters within the game.
Card battling fits into the overall story like this: scientists have found a form of Ragol’s native Photon energy that self-replicates. Nicknamed “the Germ,” this energy is sealed into small objects called C.A.R.D.s. Using this technology, soldiers can run into battle fully armed, but their weapons and items only take up the space of a deck of cards. They can activate these cards to recreate weaponry at will. The Arkz have developed their own form of this technology, but they use it to summon monsters.
The story’s much more fleshed out than it was in the previous PSO games, but it still takes a back seat to the battles themselves. Some battles require you to use a specific character to advance the story, and after the battle, there’s beautiful hand-drawn cutscenes that add to character development. They don’t occur nearly as often as they should, however.
When choosing a mission, you also select a deck of cards to use; your decks are freely editable, and it’s very important to make sure each of your characters is using the right set of cards tailored to your characters’ abilities. There’s five types of cards: story, item, creature, action, and assist. Story cards are your characters, and list information about that specific character (HP, movement, etc.). Item cards can only be used by Hero characters, and contain weaponry and similar materials. Creature cards are Arkz-only cards, and are used for summoning monsters. Action cards help you boost your offense or defense, and assist cards have varying effects, depending on when and how you use them. Now, off to battle!
Battles themselves take place on a giant grid, and follow this pattern: dice, set, move, act, draw. Before the battle is joined, you’ll draw five cards, and you’ll have the one-time option to ditch them all and draw five more if you got a shitty hand.
During the dice phase, you roll two dice; the higher number becomes your attack points, while the lower is your defense points. These points are used both during your turn (attack) and your opponent’s turn (defense). This one aspect of the game seems to be the biggest point of contention; people either love the dice phase, or they hate it with the fury of a thousand suns. You could have a great hand of cards, but then end up rolling snake eyes, and not be able to do jack shit for a turn. On the other hand, if you’re facing someone with a killer deck, the randomness of dice can really even things out.
Next up is the set phase. Here, you equip items and weapons (for the Hero side) or summon creatures (for the Arkz side). Each card costs a certain number of points to use; you don’t want to spend them all at once, otherwise you won’t have any left to move or attack! Weapons and items have specific HP, too; to inflict damage on the character you’re attacking, you must break all of their items and weapons first.
The move phase is self-explanatory. Your character can move a certain number of squares in any direction, depending on their maximum movement range (it’s listed on their card) and how many attack points you have. Moving closer to your opponent is generally your best bet, as many attacks are short range.
Time for the act phase. This is when you finally get to bring the ruckus. Aside from regular attacks, you can also use action cards to increase damage, add effects, increase range, and more. During your opponent’s act phase, you’ll be on the defense, so you can use action cards here to guard against enemy attacks. Heroes attack with their weapons, while Arkz can attack with creatures and with their characters. If you set it up right, you can unleash devastating combos by using specific cards one right after another; cards that can be used in this manner have color bars running down the side. Match up the colors, and play the cards. Simple, yes? Trust me, it makes perfect sense when you see it in action.
Last but not least, it’s time to draw. You can get rid of cards you don’t like, and more will be drawn to bring your total back up to five.
To win a battle, you must defeat the opponent’s main character. You can destroy all of the weapons and creatures that you want, but it’s all for naught unless you take out the mastermind. In a team battle, you often only have to defeat one team member, depending on the rules for that particular battle. If you emerge victorious, you’ll be ranked based on time, damage inflicted/received, and a pile of other factors. Getting an “S” ranking is a constant goal, but that’s tough to pull off at first. You’ll receive extra cards if you win or lose, but achieving victory with a high ranking increases the chance that you’ll receive rare and powerful cards.
Never ones to disappoint, Sonic Team’s graphical prowess shines through in PSO3. Environments look lush and detailed, character animation is spot-on, special effects look great, and the hand-drawn art for characters and cards is flawless. The only downside is that the graphics engine doesn’t seem to be much of a step up from its Dreamcast predecessors. The GC is a bit more powerful, so they could’ve taken advantage of that. As a result, the game looks slightly “dated” compared to some of the graphical powerhouse titles that the GC has to offer. Luckily, the allure of the game isn’t in the graphics.
The ambient scifi soundtrack fits the PSO universe perfectly, and there’s even a few hidden tracks from Sonic the Hedgehog and other Sega titles. In any case, the music is never overdone, and even during battles, it doesn’t detract from the visuals. Sound effects are well done, too, though some more variety would have been appreciated; many weapons sound the same, even though they’re noticably different visually. For gamers with a kickass sound system, PSO3 offers full Dolby surround sound, which makes battles sound incredible; as the camera whooshes around the field, the sound direction alters accordingly, adding a great sense of depth.
The game makes use of every single one of the Gamecube controller’s buttons, without being confusing. That’s impressive in its own right. Since PSO3 isn’t a “twitch” game that requires fast reflexes, control is tight, and everything responds as it should.
It wouldn’t be PSO without an online mode. I’m sure the cheaters will ruin that soon, but in the meantime, there’s plenty of people to face off with, either in free-for-alls or team battles. Players from all over the globe can play, too, so if you’re sick of arrogant American players, you can challenge a polite Japanese gamer (who will likely kick your ass anyway).
Like previous PSO entries, once you go online, you’ll choose a “ship” (server) to join. Once there, you can challenge others to battles, team up with friends, or join official tournaments. To simplify things and make the online experience more enjoyable for everyone, you can view any other user’s level and ranking, so you don’t accidentally challenge a level 56 player with your paltry level 2 character. It’s a shame that there’s no more team-based dungeon-crawling, but that comes with the territory.
Nothing comes for free in this day and age, so you’ll need to purchase a Hunter’s License to play online. The bad news? Rates have increased to $8.95 a month (though the first month is free). The good news? The same Hunter’s License can be used with PSO Episodes I & II, so if you’ve already got that game with a valid License, you don’t need to buy another. The same applies retroactively; if you ever decided to buy PSO1&2, your PSO3 License would work with it.
With any collection-based game, there’s always reasons to keep playing. If you love card battle games, PSO3 will take hold of your soul and embed itself there. No card battle game will ever unseat the almighty SNK vs Capcom Cardfighter’s Clash, but PSO3 is a worthy addition to the genre. With over 400 cards available from the get-go, multiple sidequests, downloadable material, online tournaments…need I go on? Card battle fans will likely never get bored with PSO3, and the odds of you accomplishing every little thing the game has to offer are fairly slim.
Online Component: 7/10