Suikoden is a series very close to our heart, and without a digital re-release of ‘Suikoden Tactics’ or ‘Suikoden V’ we’re rapidly running out of titles we can easily access to review in time to take part in this year’s Summer of Suikoden event. Luckily an English Translation exists for the Game Boy Advance exclusive title, Card Stories.
First and foremost, this title has not been officially released outside of its native land and this does mean that reviews for the game in the English language rely on a fan translation as well as necessitating the use of an emulator. Whilst it’s not the ideal way to experience a game, this translation is aided by the fact that the narrative largely riffs on that of Suikoden 2 and a translation that had been created with obvious care and attention. A big thank you goes out to the team responsible as they have facilitated this review and enabled people to play a previously closed-off corner of the Suikoden franchise. Card Stories is of course a physical card game, which makes this title something strangely akin to the Game Boy Colour release of the ‘Pokemon Trading Card Game’, though this title does take itself a little more seriously for the most part by trying to include a stripped down version of Suikoden II’s story.
Graphically, Card Stories is an example of Suikoden on the least powerful system it’s had to work with to date and it uses a simple 2D approach to all methods of its gameplay and employs a much smaller screen than has previously been used. For these handicaps, it’s a surprisingly visually pleasing game – though not without its faults. The card are can be hard to see in reduced form, making for the zoom feature or learning names and uses by heart to become almost mandatory. Animation of card effects is also quite limited, though characters from Suikoden 1, 2 and a selection of 3 all make appearances in super-deformed form and larger artwork uses a style not unlike the Gaiden games for the PSOne and most if not all physical cards from the game are included digitally. The world of Suikoden manages to shine through this to good effect however, and whilst we wouldn’t advise it be anyone’s introduction to the series, the graphical style is well presented and uniquely of the greater series as a whole.
Sound isn’t a high point for this game, and it does suffer from the very limited scope of the GBA’s speakers in addition to some fairly weak versions of classic Suikoden 2 tunes. Sound effects fair better, being crisper and standing out to make battles more enticing, but they are limited in scope and fail to be unique. Avoid playing the game through the Nintendo Game Cube link, as this can show up the weaker points in the soundtrack.
The narrative of Card Stories is a soft retelling of the events seen in Suikoden 2 with only a little variation and substantial editing/streamlining in places. As such the game does not add a great deal to series canon, but it does allow for a portable retelling of one of the its entries. Narrative events play out in a visual novel style that’s not unlike the Gaiden games, however relying more on portraits than a substantial amount of different background art. This pushes the stories structure to the forefront and it largely holds up well. The effort of the translation and the fact that it had the pre-existing full title to draw from for names and locations makes for a fun read, and the title draws in more characters from past and future entries in card form to build a bigger sense of world.
Gameplay is the core of the title, with Card Stories putting the focus on a Collectable Card Game (CCG) style that overlays well with the Stars of Destiny concept to match a similar ‘collect them all’ theme. Konami already has various adaptions of CCG juggernaut ‘Yu-Gi-Oh’ under its belt at this point and it would have been easy to simply map that games systems onto the world and re-skin cards, but instead we are given a tactical battle that better resembles the priorities of Suikoden as a whole. The battles are all reduced to card combat that sees players placing mission cards onto a map and then playing characters to attempt to control and win them. Hit the target value of victory cards and win the battle. It’s a simple and relatively unique concept that would work well in a physical release and stays interesting as the game develops. Players place characters at missions by playing them into them one at a time, usually starting with a ‘Leader’ class character. This then allows for linked characters (those with relationships to that character) to be played in the same turn. Only one copy of characters flagged as unique can be played on the board at any time, but generally the method of play sees each character bringing with them a score that adds up to the target value of a mission card. It’s in essence a race to win that card before your opponent and some characters have special rules (such as ‘Adult Conversation’ that banishes a male character and can wipe your leader off the board if you’re not careful) that add further wrinkles to this race. Victory snags new cards, potch and forwards the game’s narrative. Outside of battles you can travel to locations, buy or win new cards and do a variety of additional tasks that keep the role-playing element in place but never feel overly substantial, putting the games main focus squarely on its cards. A nice touch is the occasional permanent swapping of cards with NPCs in shops and around the world that feels distinctly like swapping with friends in a playground. Occasionally areas will open up as dungeons and can be played from an overhead view to explore them, open chests, etc and these are a refreshing change of pace when they occur, though controls and collision detection can be a little slippery.
Overall, Card Stories is a great little card game that does its best to work past the limitations of its system but does suffer from its native platform and doesn’t add anything new to the greater fabric of Suikoden. It is however a solid rendition of the physical card game. Given its own tale to tell this could have been an essential addition to the over-arching canon, however as it stands it’s a fun diversion that fans of the series or card games in general will enjoy blasting through.