How soon a game can fade into obscurity? Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution did it pretty darn fast, to the point that one day I woke up and suddenly realized that this game was starting to go out of print and if I didn't grab a copy soon I wouldn't find one anymore. And it was only a year old. If a no name title did that, that wouldn't be a surprise, but how quickly C.A.R.D. Revolution did when it's part of the Phantasy Star series is the real surprise.
But then, Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution is something of the bastard child of the series, even more so than the original Phantasy Star III was. Aside from the incredibly long and awkward title, perhaps there's just something about those third installments that they can't please the fans.
Phantasy Star is known as an RPG series in all of its incarnations, even if it's some varient like a action/RPG. I'm not sure C.A.R.D. Revolution even qualifies as an RPG since has none of the typical trappings. There is no exploration, no money with which to buy items and equipment, no leveling up to become stronger; and it uses cards too (which is generally a bad way to start off introducing a new game concept to just about any hardcore gamer). If anything C.A.R.D. Revolution is simply a mission-based strategy game that uses a combination of turn-based strategy on the usual strategy/RPG grid combined with a dose of CCG gaming and die-rolling. The only way a character can get stronger is by building a deck with better cards, which are earned by completing missions. The better the ranking at the end of a mission, the more cards the player earns. If it wasn't for the Phantasy Star connection I doubt RPG fans would even take notice of it.
I have no idea what possessed Sonic Team to change their real-time online action/RPG into a turn-based card-battling game, and that jump alone really should have made C.A.R.D. Revolution a side-story rather than Episode III in the series, but for what it's worth, it's a pretty good ride. It might have been a great ride though if not for all the missed potential and translation errors plaguing the game. And then there are some things that are just odd.
To start with, Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution jumps twenty years into the future from the original Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II, but the colony ship Pioneer II has still not landed on the planet's surface. With all the hunters and military running around one would think that all this business with Dark Falz would have been done with and everybody would be happy, but not quite. Perhaps the oddest part about it is that the whole mystery about Pioneer 1 and the very existence of Dark Falz seems to have been hushed up, so it's almost as though the first two episodes didn't exist, except that the game does contain numerous references to people mentioned in the various quests (but oddly enough, not at all to the characters who can actually join your party!). As strange as it sounds, those references make Episode III a far more fleshed out world than it would have been otherwise. On the flip side though, most of the references are not explained or only subtly so, making them difficult for the newcomer to get a hold of. I had the unique experience of playing the game simultaneously with my brother (a very novel experience with one player going down the Hunters storyline and the other down the Arkz and both comparing notes at the same time), but the difference was, I'd played all the Episode I & II quests with the exception of a handful of downloads/online material. My brother went through the offline game once and never looked back, so references to Zoke Miyama, Donoph Baz, and Heathcliff Flowen completely flew by him. Red Ring Rico was really the only character he remembered, and only because she was so integral to the original storyline. Everyone else was fluff.
What C.A.R.D. Revolution did well, once one got past the concept of characters battling with cards instead of weapons, is insert storyline where Phantasy Star Online was previously story-lite. In the original episodes, dialogue changed three times each game (with the exception of quest specific text). They changed once after each boss fight except for the last one, since the game would end after Dark Falz was defeated. With C.A.R.D. Revolution, the dialogue changes after every key mission, and each mission is a single battle. With more battles than bosses, the dialogue changes quite a bit; over twenty times. Not every advance in the dialogue unlocks more story, but oftentimes it's a way to get to know the characters (since there are now a number of notable personalities) and gain extra missions. Also, by sending certain characters on specific missions it's possible to view a cut scene that further explains the story or background of the character.
These cut scenes are beautifully drawn manga-styled stills, much in the vein of Phantasy Star IV, though for some odd reason the text margins were not set correctly for the dialogue box, so the text only takes up the lefthand side and makes for some oddly bizarre reading. Aside from the text issue though, it's a real shame the cut scenes aren't mandatory (thus possible to miss) and that there is no way to rewatch them after you're done. In fact, because of the way the game is set up (to be online and avoid cheating), it's not even possible to leave a duplicate saved game behind to rewatch them. Another reason I wish they were mandatory is that they sometimes they contain plot related to the main story and even if they don't they generally explain character behavior and background. Regardless of whether or not a player sees a cut scene or goes on an optional quest, those events are considered to have happened and the characters will refer to those events back at headquarters. Sometimes that's a little odd, especially since both the Hunters and Arkz storylines offer branching paths and it's not possible to get all the cut scenes on a single playthrough of either side.
The possibly of missing a cut scene and the fact the cut scenes themselves are few in number, really limits the storytelling style, because otherwise I think it would have made for a great game. I can understand that the designers might have wanted to allow the player to send any character they want on a given mission, rather than restricting them to someone they hate, but in that case they could always revert to the tried-and-true concept in other RPGs where all the party members are considered present in every cut scene unless someone is otherwise isolated. It might involve a little extra planning work to get some of the one-on-one scenes to make sense, but in the long run it would make more sense and te player wouldn't have to worry about missing something.
Given the premise and the limited storytelling style (card battling in the twenty years since the previous installments), the story is surprisingly rich, giving the feeling that these are really several different characters' lives we are following and we get snippets of how each of them are seeing the same conflict. It's a bit of a stretch to get over the card concept and then a second time in how the same group of Hunters and Arks keep bumping into each other over and over again, but otherwise it's pretty good.
I am disappointed however that the game requires six playthroughs (three on each side) to see all the cut scenes. There are three primary characters on each side and they each have a different intro cutscene to the final battle. Also, the player is restricted in the final battle in that they can only bring in one of the primary characters; whoever they've used most over the course of the game. For me that mean I had to use Kranz on the Hunters side and Endu for the Arkz. Sadly, there is no ending cut scene, even after fighting the special last boss that can only be unlocked by playing both sides to completion.
Some of the other flaws in the game that made it irritating were the poor translations of the card text. In a card game, the text has to be accurate because the game is going to play by those rules whether the player understands them or not. Despite two runs through the game I still don't know the exact specifics of the Assault card, only that it works better the fewer items/monsters I have on the field and that it's generally pretty good. Whoever proofread the translations really needed to have played the game.
Also, because certain key missions clear a tier and move the storyline forward, I would've liked a way of identifying those missions. Eventually I pinned them down, thanks to help from a guide, but I shouldn't have had to do that, and I was terribly annoyed that I lost out on three missions and a cut scene by accidentally clearing the key mission and advancing the plot.
The game also gets a little evil towards the end of the game with fights geared specifically to combat the player's team strengths and weaknesses (since all Hunters fight with items and all Arkz with monsters), and the second to last battle, not counting the special boss, is a potentially brutal two-on-one battle that the game won't even let you practice for. There is a Free Battle mode that lets the player set a lot of battle rules, including opponent, health, time limit, etc, but it's not possible to practice the two-on-one battles in Free Battle, which means the player just has to keep losing in order to figure out what works and what doesn't.
In the beginning losing isn't too bad because it still gives you more cards for deck-building, but that's less important later on when new cards become fewer and fewer in number.
Surprising the card-battle component is not as hardcore as it would seem. Though it's collectible, it's not like most other CCGs. For one thing, there is a board, and there's a lot of strategy involved in moving and setting monsters if Arkz; somewhat less with Hunters except in reaction to the Arkz. Also, players get to refill their hand at the end of their turn and their opponent's turn, so it's never possible to be short of cards, and unlike other card games, where a player can wind up with a bad hand of unplayable cards, they get to discard any unwanted cards at the end of the turn, right before the refill phase. This keeps the battles rolling and negates that "I can't do anything so I end my turn" syndrome. Despite being a made-for-video game strategy/card game it's good enough for the tabletop crowd that I think this would do nicely as a board game, with or without the collectible cards.