Actual alchemy seems simpler.
Full Metal Alchemist (FMA) is my favorite anime series. I could tell you all the reasons why, but that’s not why you’re reading this review. I have previously been disappointed with the poor video game adaptations of this series—two on the PS2 and one on the DS—but I was intrigued when I learned of an FMA collectable card game (CCG) for the DS. I love the Pokemon Trading Card Game on the Game Boy Color because it allows me to play the game without going broke at the comic shop. I was unaware that FMA had spawned its own CCG (perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised), but after doing some research, I learned that the physical card game was introduced to our shores around the same time the American anime hit Adult Swim. Various expansions were released throughout the anime’s run, with another celebrating the movie's release. The card game has fizzled since its source material tipped its hat goodbye, but since I've played others with a level of dedication some might call obsessive, I was eager to try this one on for size.
The FMA CCG is the most complicated CCG I’ve ever played. The Universal Fighting System (UFS) game has nothing on this. It makes the Pokemon CCG look like Go Fish. The closest thing I can compare it to is the old Star Trek/Aliens. vs. Predator systems of yore, and even those can’t compete in terms of pure complexity. The game includes over 500 individual cards, faithfully translated from their physical forms to electronic duplicates, so I can only assume that the entire FMA CCG is in FMA: The Trading Card Game. And it seems like all 500+ cards have about 20 different attributes. Character cards have so many special abilities and numbers that it’s incredibly hard to keep track of who can do what and when.
Part of the problem is that, like any electronic translation of a physical game, you cannot just look down at your card to see what it does. Rather, in this DS game you have to tap a card, and then tap “Detail." After you go back to the main screen and look at another card, you’ll forget what the first card did. I was constantly checking all my cards before making a move, so the game moved at a snail’s pace. That said, at its core the game is quite good. It’s definitely got an FMA feel, and I like the idea of winning locations by knocking your opponent’s attribute pool down to nothing. That’s how you win, by the way. Rather than fighting one-on-one or taking control of your opponent’s base, you and your opponent fight over specific locations. Locations have specific attributes which control the flow of that turn (think Final Fantasy Tactics Advance), and in each turn, you are battling over a different location. All of the characters you control add up their attributes (Strength, Wits, Alchemy, etc.) into team totals, and the location is won by having more of a certain attribute than the defender. If that sounds complicated, you should not play this game. That’s the basic premise, and all of the cards you pull from your draw pile influence that eventual outcome.
The biggest complication, for me anyway, is that while a location card may require you to score, say, +3 Wits over your opponent at the end of the round in order to win that location, the location may also require that your fights be determined by some additional factor, like strength or alchemy. And then there are situations where your team totals will influence a fight, and other times when a character’s individual stats will be more helpful, depending on how many allies you want to send into battle. There are also four playing fields to manage…just on your side. The complexity goes on and on.
But after going through the tutorial about four times, the rules begin to click for me. Strategies change as you realize that concepts found in other CCG’s just have different names in FMA. Once I got it through my head that trying to knock out all of my opponent’s characters was not necessarily the best way to win locations, I started to enjoy myself. Rather, it’s more important to keep an eye on the team totals, and only fight if you really have to. If you fight and lose, your team total goes down. I found that if I have more of a particular attribute before a fight, I’ll just defend. If I need to knock a few of my opponent’s characters out to lower his team total, then I’ll actively fight.
The game has several modes, all of which have you dueling with either computer or human opponents. You can play against someone locally via multi-card play. Nintendo Wi-Fi is also fully supported—good luck finding opponents. You can fight practice duels that have no bearing on the single-player story mode (which just amounts to winning duels and then getting booster packs), you can construct fantastical decks from the entire series lineup, and you can read about the characters in the game. Deck-building is a bit of a chore, as your default screen is your collection, and you must click-and-drag cards you want into another screen. This card swapping aspect, plus the fact that you can have between 60 and 120 cards in your deck, makes for a tedious deck-building process. Fortunately, the pre-built decks are fine on their own. Even so, hardcore enthusiasts can spend hours building the perfect deck for multiplayer matches.
Like any CCG, your level of enjoyment will depend entirely upon your patience with CCG’s, and how complex you like them to be. If you like CCG’s and strategy, you’ll probably greatly enjoy this one. And if you are one of the proud few who played the physical FMA card game, then this is a no-brainer. But if gin rummy and Texas Hold ‘Em constitute the bulk of your card-game playing, you should shy away from this one.