(I welcome all to my second review here, please enjoy!)
The card game of Yu-Gi-Oh! has proved to be a sensation among many, many people in Japan, Europe, and the United States. To give just a bit of backstory here to the uninitiated, Yu-Gi-Oh! originally sprang from a Japanese manga created by Kazuki Takahashi. The manga was originally about a boy possessed an ancient spirit, and the dark situations they got mixed up in. After many readers loved a couple specific chapters with a card game of Takahashi's creation in them, the man decided to basically throw his arguably better concept out the window for a basic card game manga with a heavily advertised theme of friendship and unity. This new series with the same name was a loose continuation of the previous one and was met with meteoric popularity. Eventually, an anime/cartoon was made and Konami licensed the card game within the comic for a worldwide release after the aforementioned anime was released worldwide to spread the word.
I watched this anime in its English form as a wide-eyed young child. The cool fights between monsters and the awesome hair of the main character entranced me, and I fell in love with the series and also got into the card game (though due to how young and naive I was, I sucked at it). I've fallen out of love with the overdramatic, contrived manga/anime over the years for the most part, but I still feel a pull to the card game. I got this game around the time it was originally released, and I've recently pulled it out again due to suddenly renewed interest in the card game.
Okay, after that lengthy, likely-unneeded opening, let's get to the real thing. Yu-Gi-Oh! GX: Spirit Caller was a quick favorite of mine when I first got it due to my dedication to the card game at the time and general lack of people around me to play against, but after playing it again, I've found that every now and then, beloved memories are best left remembered.
Actual playing in this game is the card game and... well, that's basically it. It's just playing the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game. It's at least good that it has a focus, and all other Yu-Gi-Oh! games do this. And there's also a quiz about card effects and such that you take every Monday in game time, so it's technically not ALL playing card games. But still, the game is under some strain in this area.
The actual playing of the card game is handled pretty well. I own two other Yu-Gi-Oh! games; World Tournament 2005: 7 Trials to Glory and Nightmare Troubadour; and dueling in this game is just the right mix between those two. It's fast, fluid, and effective like in WT2005, but shows you the action using 3D images of monsters on the top screen and shows the images of the cards on the field at all times so you don't get mixed up, like in Nightmare Troubadour. The system for dueling passes with flying colors. The system you utilize to construct and adjust your deck is also solidly built and clearly communicated.
Problem is, the other things presented were mostly all irritating. Primarily, the progression throughout the game. Every time you beat somebody, you gain Duel Points, which you use to buy new card packs at the game's store, and experience, which you use to level up. You start at Level 1, and constantly rise in level as you gain new experience. Though occasionally you have to duel a certain couple people or talk to someone to progress, the game's progression almost entirely revolves around you leveling up. The game's story goes through a series of story events; you always have to be at a high-enough level to unlock these story events and enact them, moving the game and the plot forward. Thing is, it takes a long time to level up later on, as each time you level up the amount of experience you have to gain to get to the next level rises, and you only get so much experience from every duel you win. Plus, while some walkthroughs tell you that you have to be a certain level so x will come into your room and duel you or x will tell you about x, oftentimes you actually have to be at a higher level to do so; sometimes 2 or 3 levels higher than the guide says. Thus, you will have to spend hours dueling the same people over and over and leveling up until the story finally moves forward. Trust me, this is even more painful and frustrating when you have to do it yourself.
Another thing that bugs me is the way the game has you move about and find people to duel. The game uses a radar system, where you have a little circle over a basically drawn map on the bottom screen, while the top screen shows a detailed illustration of the exact location on the map you're currently in. You move your circle about either with the d-pad or the stylus, and it will turn yellow and a low, infrequent beeping noise will sound out. Keep going in the direction a small arrow on the rim of the circle points you towards, and the circle will turn red and the beeping sound will become much more frequent and louder. Move just a little more in the correct direction, and the red circle will stop on a suddenly-appearing upside-down pyramid with a sphere swirling above it. (This has been Cosmic's overly-contrived explanation of something simple.) Click the correct buttons to go to the person. Occasionally it's someone who will just say something to you, but normally it's an opponent to duel you.
The actual way you do this doesn't really bug me, what does is that sometimes you need to duel a specific person. Well, since it's just a pyramid with a sphere above it, it could be anybody. So you go towards a person in the general location the one you're looking for should be, but it turns out to be someone totally different, sucking you into a duel with somebody you never wanted to battle. After you duel someone a lot, you will register them, enabling you to see a small picture of them over the sphere of a person you find on the map, and duel them instantly anytime you want as long as they're alight somewhere. Well, IMHO, they should have included the "duel them instantly" thing as the only part of the registering process, and done the picture thing with everybody from the start; or at least given you the option to turn down a duel with someone once you encounter them. It's just frustrating to be looking for a certain person and run into somebody you don't care about.
Finally, the controls. I'll speak briefly on these. Honestly, they're basic and they do their job, so it's fine. Though a note; at least when dueling, only use the buttons. I briefly used the stylus to do this once, and it's too clunky and slow for my tastes. I much prefer the buttons to keep things going smoothly.
Overall, the actual dueling is great, but progression and finding opponents, both fairly important things to the experience, are too frustrating and repetitive for me to overall give this a very high score.
Arguably the best part of the game. As a general rule, things on the bottom screen are purely functional, while everything tends to look prettier on the top screen.
On the regular map, there are some surprisingly well-done drawings of various locations (well, on the top screen). When engaging in conversation with other characters, simple flat images of them in the anime are shown, and those work fine. Finally, while dueling, the 3D renders of monsters showcased on the top screen are somewhat ugly and grainy, but considering this is a 2007 DS game, they're quite well-done.
In all, solid graphics.
Honestly, the sound is... uninspired. There aren't many tunes in the game, and the few that do show up are bland and forgettable, though a couple were catchy enough to have me humming them for one or two minutes after putting down the game after a session. For sound effects, there are one or two stock ones for when monsters attack. They're... okay, I guess? I could do without them.
The sound is forgettable, so I don't really regret making this section so short.
In all honesty, the storyline is subpar. The game begins with you becoming a new student at Duel Academy. This is literally a boarding school where high-school teenagers full-time learn to play a card game better. Well, anyways, even though in your entrance exam you beat the headmaster of the school's top-dog dorm, Obelisk Blue, you get stuck in the lowest rung of the three dorms, Slifer Red, where slackers and dropouts who barely passed hang around. (In case you're curious, the one in the middle is Ra Yellow.)
You meet several characters throughout your stay, including Jaden and Syrus, fellow Slifer Red students, Chazz, an arrogant rival of yours who is at the top of the social circle in Obelisk Blue, Zane, a dueling master who can basically curbstomp anybody in the school, including the instructors and faculty, and Alexis, a love interest towards you and Jaden who is depressed over losing her older brother a couple years back. None of the characters interested me or I found to have intriguing development (except maybe (big maybe) Chazz, who throughout the course of the game goes from sworn nemesis to uneasy ally), and I didn't make a connection or get attached to any of them. The overall plot and course of events I also believed to be nearly as bland and forgettable as the sound; though a somewhat interesting tale of corruption weaves the final events of the game, the big event prior to that is a generic "evuhl gaiz destroo the werld ZOMG!!!2135fbacone32" fling.
None of the plot is all that memorable, and the characters, while occasionally charming, are never intriguing or necessarily lovable. The story simply isn't very good.
Spirit Caller has a great dueling system in place that will please fans and enthusiasts of the game. Additionally, while the card selection is basically outdated by this point in time, at the point of the game's release the card selection was great and reached about quite far, and so is another good addition for card game wackadoos. Thing is, I don't think this title has near enough to appeal to non-fans just looking for a good game in general. Additionally, the game has an entirely forgettable plot and musical score (though I suppose it can't be blamed for the plot; this is basically just what's presented in the normal Yu-Gi-Oh! GX anime, so it's not like you could expect much).
TL;DR: Yu-Gi-Oh! fans will like this game fine, as it suits their dueling needs. Non-fans who just want a good time, I can't recommend this to.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Thanks for reading! ~Stay awesome