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Alteil is a web-based CCG whose claim to fame is that many famous mangaka were commissioned to draw the images.  It bills itself as “Japan’s #1 online card game” and is designed for the grown-up gamer who has a life and doesn’t want to spend more than 10 minutes per game on average.

Gameplay – 9/10 Strategy is pretty straightforward in terms of your own choices, but in terms of how you will match up against others, that is a perpetual mystery.  Single color decks are the most common but many viable hybrids exist, a fact that greatly increases the diversity of play.  “Flavor of the month” decks are a perpetual problem, as is winning via godly cards rather than strategy, but those are kept to a minimum. There are no cards that single-handedly prove unbeatable; the correct combinations of cards are required for dominance.

The tutorial is more confusing than helpful, but playing actual games will quickly impart the basics.

Convenience – 8/10 In theory, this is about as convenient as an online multiplayer game can get.  In practice, there are times when you can’t play because no one else is logged in, or won’t want to play because it involves you a repeatedly being matched up against level 99s, to your utter subjugation.  Aside from such human considerations, the games themselves are very convenient.  Each side has about 5 minutes to burn selecting moves, and accounting for lag and computer time that makes a match 15 minutes.  AI would make this more convenient, which is the route other online CCGs such as PoxNora have taken.

Also worth noting is that trading cards is impossible; cards that are useless to you can be “recycled” for a fraction of their value but never bestowed upon others.  This greatly undercuts much of the appeal inherent in the CCG system; CCG players will lament not being able to find good deals for their unwanted cards, while non-CCG players will probably find it neither good nor bad except when they buy a pack only to discover a ton of cards from a faction they don’t care to play.

Card purchases are random. Note how there are 0/5 blue cards; a blue player would despair at this.

Balance – 4/10 Alteil does a pretty good job of balancing the first 10 levels, only pitting you against other newbies (unless you choose otherwise) and giving you a new card every level.  Then it all goes to hell when you hit level 10 and get dumped in with the high level players who have spent over 400 USD on the game and whine about players getting things for free.   To add insult to injury, you stop getting a free card at every level, so not only do you suddenly start losing left and right, you can’t even improve at levelup.  This part of the game really was not designed well, and Alteil staff know it; as of this review, they have just announced that there will be levelup cards from levels 11-19 added. Only time will tell if the fixes are enough to make play feasible after level 10.

Players do gain Gran based on total matches played each week, which can then be spent on cards, but this is an agonizingly slow process and has no guarantee of giving you any useful cards.

Social Interaction – 1/10. You cannot add who you want, only those you have played games with.  I met a bunch of nice people at MAL who play Alteil; can we add each other and thus see when we’re both online so we can play a friendly game?  Nope.

The friend interface is clunky at best, requiring you to approve/deny a request before you can access any other functions of the game – no putting aside requests to decide later.  I understand this is done to thwart spammers, but given that approval is required for each friend addition, and those who you don’t approve of can’t contatct you anyway, why add this runaround?  There is also only a tiny window of opportunity in which you can befriend others; it must be done at the end of a match but before either of you logs out or returns to the arena main screen.

The guild features aren’t any better, allowing a mere six people in a guild and providing little to no support for guild expansion, mergers, elections, or other more sophisticated interations.  Even messages of the day have to be sent out via mass email, rather than going into a small tagline space as they would with most online games.  Attempts to expand guild size are met with repeated failure and no explanation why; possibly it has to do with the “level up requirement,” but asking six people to win 500 games (the amount required to hit level 2) in order to add a seventh is simply not a reasonable feature in a game oriented at casual play.

Music – 5/10 The music is pretty generic.  Rather than try to encourage a laid-back approach, as Gunbound did with its original score, Alteil features battle music designed to keep you moving quickly. Fans of 80s video games will feel right at home.  However, after your 10th time listening to the same battle theme, you will undoubtedly give thanks for the mute button.

Graphics – 10/10 Alteil is not a billion-dollar game, and it doesn’t try to be.  The customizable avatars tend towards the chibi, and while outfits are largely a trap designed to leech away resources that could otherwise be spent on more cards, it is possible to get some very nice avatars for minimal cost.  The staff continually recognize that a major draw is the card images, and they provide players with full access to them so you can drool to your heart’s content about that card that you would have to win 2400 games to get or donate blood to afford.

Overall – 7/10.  Play the first 10-20 levels, if only to ogle the pretty drawings.  Alteil’s flaws do not support extended play, but the initial ride is nice.  If you’re willing to spend over 200 USD, as the high-ranked players do, the experience improves to an 8/10, but the fact that I have to say that is itself a tremendous condemnation of the system.  A more normal sum such as 50 USD will, statistically speaking, probably get you an awesome card of the faction you want, along with enough common cards to build a deck supporting it.  However, just one such card is typically useless; thanks to the deck system, you generally need 2-3 of the same card to use it in actual gameplay.

There is no support specific to the high end game, and the social scene is crippled from the get-go thanks to arbitrary limitations and the elaborate maneuvering required just to add someone to your friends list.  Server lag occasionally makes games unplayable, which is all the more unforgivable when you notice there are only 80 people online.

I’m told the Japanese experience is much smoother, with more sophisticated social networking features, robust servers, and a playerbase in the tens of thousands instead of the hundreds.  If true, that’s what this should have been, and Alteil USA launched before getting its act together.  The fantastic art and convenience remain its two strongest features, but for some users, they won’t make up for Alteil’s inadequacies in other areas.

The author has played Alteil for two months, attaining level 12 and leading a small guild.

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