Discontinued. It's been the fate of many collectible card games in recent years, as interest wanes and players move on. As the games' tie-in franchises run out of fresh material, or new cartoon episodes to base new cards on. That's the case for Fullmetal Alchemist: Trading Card Game. As a tangible, physical card game to collect and play, the Fullmetal TCG enjoyed success for several years and saw the release of six different expansion sets, building itself a dedicated fanbase and a solid, competitive tournament scene. But as the animated series came to a close on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and its one-shot, follow-up film came and went quickly from American theaters just over a year ago, the steam ran out of the engine that had been pushing the card game forward. It was discontinued earlier this year.
But now the game's been reborn, in a way, preserved and presented in a new digital form as Fullmetal Alchemist: Trading Card Game for the DS. This portable dual-screened title recreates the tangible card game that many players came to know and enjoy over the past few years, offering up virtual versions of the over 500 different cards that were previously released through the TCG's various starter decks and booster packs. It's a package that established fans will certainly flock to, especially since it may well be the last commercial release for the TCG in any form. But players who don't already have a prior knowledge of the game's rules or a familiarity with the Fullmetal Alchemist world may find this game to be too difficult to use as a point of introduction.
It's complicated. A complex, crowded card battling design that feels more than a little overloaded with different numbers, and icons, and types of cards. The way play progresses through different rounds is sometimes hard to follow, and the overall goal is an odd one to grasp – you win not by defeating your opponent in battle, or running them out of cards to draw, or anything more traditional like that. Victory is achieved, instead, by finding nine "clues" to the location of the Philosopher's Stone – a powerful artifact known in the Fullmetal series as the source of incredible alchemical power.
To find the clues, you first recruit characters to your cause to help you look for them. Starting out each game with one leader character's card in play, you're allowed to summon sidekicks and supportive partners to help boost your many different ratings – those are numbers in play that represent your strength, your wits, and your skill at alchemy. Item and equipment cards help to give you even more of an edge in any of those three areas, after which you field your team to go searching for clues.
The opposing player also chooses characters to stop you in your search, and that's when the battles begin. Another type of card – locations – serves as the setting to each confrontation, and designates the rules and reward for each round. A location may specify that a Battle of Wits should take place, in which case the player whose characters' total amount of wits is the highest would win the day. But a battle can also be determined by Strength, or Alchemy, or any of several other more complicated factors.
It's all very dense to get into, and the included tutorial mode only does an average job at making it all make more sense for newcoming players. It walks you through one full round of play, explaining elements along the way, and then it's up to you to jump into the fire of the game's story mode or multiplayer battles. Effort was clearly made to try to do a good job in setting up an introductory knowledge of the different cards, and effects, and turn structure – but the natural obtuseness of the original game design is still unavoidably odd.
It's also often difficult to get a grasp on the game's half-touch, half-buttons interface that assigns some functions of managing your cards to the stylus, while others default to the system's L and R triggers and face buttons. Choosing to activate certain cards, or draw, or shuffle, is often tough to properly discern – you may find yourself accidentally playing a card you didn't mean to play, with no option to undo your last most recent action.
Potentially, Fullmetal Alchemist: Trading Card Game could be forgiven of any faults by the wise inclusion of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support, which allows for worldwide play with other TCG gamers across the planet. But that feature's only a bonus if other players actually exist out there to play against – in testing the mode, I could find no one else online to challenge. Groups of players from the tangible TCG's competitive tournament scene could keep their pastime alive using this DS game card, trading friend information and meeting up through Wi-Fi to do battle. And, hopefully, they'll do just that. But any players, old or new, looking to face off against random opponents from around the globe will likely be out of luck here. Even Nintendo's official Wi-Fi Connection website has no mention of the Fullmetal title.