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Friday, March 10, 2017

Culdcept (Manga): Naja, You Can Go to the Buffet After You Save the Forest!

If you were to ask a reader of manga what his or her "first manga" was, they'd likely answer something along the lines of Naruto, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, etc.; you know, something that had some relation to an anime that has some sort of "mainstream" popularity. Now, my "first manga" was technically a chapter of a Pokémon manga that Viz released in the old flipped-artwork floppy fashion, but I didn't actually realize that until just a few years ago; I forgot I had even bought it as a kid. No, if you were to ask me what my "first manga" really was, as in reading it because it was manga, I'd answer with a series I doubt many would know of. Much like how I started getting into anime, though, it all has to do with video games...

Created by Omiya Soft (Front Mission: Gun Hazard, Kikou Sohei Armodyne) in 1997, Culdcept has become the franchise that's defined the company. Debuting on the Sega Saturn, followed by updates, sequels, & ports on the PlayStation, Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox 360, DS, & (most recently) 3DS, the game series is best described as a mix between Magic the Gathering & Monopoly. Like the former players utilize decks of cards filled with monsters, spells, items, & more to compete against each other, but like the latter it's all played on a board game-like field & winning requires you to achieve a certain amount of magic & reach a goal, capturing spaces on the board & taxing unlucky visitors in order to do so; you can also fight to take over land, too. It's an intensely addictive & outstanding series that North America has only seen two entries from, Culdcept II/Second Expansion on the PS2 (simply renamed Culdcept) from NEC Interchannel (from the company's hyper-short-lived revival outside of Japan) in 2003 & Culdcept Saga on the 360 from Bandai Namco in 2008; Europe has never seen an entry. Well, with the newest entry, Culdcept Revolt on the 3DS, actually being released abroad by NIS America later this summer (complete with a European release, for those across the pond!), I think now is the best time for me to give my "first manga" a re-read, plus finally check out that final volume we never got.

That's right, Culdcept was adapted into manga, debuting in the second ever issue of Kodansha's Monthly Magazine Z in 1999. With editorial supervision by Omiya Soft, illustrator Shinya Kaneko was hired to create his own take on the world of the game, and it first ran until about early 2004 or so, being canceled after four volumes. It would be brought back, however, within a year & last another two volumes before either going on hiatus or being canceled a second time; regardless, Magazine Z went defunct in 2009, so it would have been canceled eventually. The ever ambitious & reckless TokyoPop, obviously wanting any sort of tie-in it could get a hold of, licensed the manga & got the first volume out roughly half a year after NEC brought the PS2 game over, and would eventually release all but the sixth & final volume. Why that last book never came out is a mystery, since it came out long enough before Kodansha took back all of the licenses it had with TokyoPop in 2009, but I recently decided to finally import that last volume for completion's sake. Therefore, let's see if Shinya Kaneko's Culdcept manga holds up now, nearly 13 years after I first started reading manga seriously.

During the War of Gods in the world of Rakan, the Goddess Culdra came down & personally dealt the finishing blow to the God Baltheus, leader of the Black Cepters who had gotten a hold of the Culdcept, the book Culdra made that housed the past, present, & future of the world. Her involvement resulted in the Culdcept being destroyed & the various cards within it being strewn about the world. Now, there are people called Cepters, who can unleash the creatures, items, & spells housed within the cards that were once in the Culdcept. One of these Cepters is Najaran, a young woman who has been trained by Horowitz, one of the "Three Wise Ones", on Gilman Island. After sensing the threat of a new group of Black Cepters, though, Najaran is sent out to the continent of Bablashca in order to find out what exactly the Black Cepters' plan is, & if she might have any chance at helping stop them.

Considering the length of the manga, Culdcept actually has a few story arcs to it. Volume 1 is all about Naja's journey to the kingdom of Soron, which holds an annual Cepter Tournament that Naja winds up becoming a part of. Volumes 2-4 see Naja journey to Bisteam, "The Forest of No Return", in her search for Horowitz's old ally, the fortune teller Grubel. While searching, though, Naja winds up teaming with a group of treasure seekers as they hunt for the ancient city of the Nymphs, which is guarded by a series of gates & Kigi, one of the last remaining Nymphs. Finally, Volumes 5 & 6 focus more on world & character building as Naja first visits the Cepters' Guild to report on what she's found out regarding the Black Cepters, before quickly getting tossed into a giant 15-on-1 battle royal to prove her worth, and then heads to Shantenion, where her self-proclaimed rival Zeneth the Dragon Eye grew up, as the power he holds becomes imperative to both sides. One of this manga's strongest points is having a great pace to it, which allows so much story to be told in such a (relatively) short amount of time.

The Culdcept manga is interesting in that it's both traditional in many ways, yet also either different in some ways or even simply poking fun at the genre it's operating within. For example, Kaneko's adapting of Omiya Soft's games is both similar yet completely different. While Cepters do have decks with limited amounts of cards, the manga puts the focus primarily on the combat aspect of the game series. Admittedly, it would be both ridiculous & rather boring to directly adapt the board game & Monopoly-esque aspects of Culdcept, though the idea of Cepters "claiming" territory to increase their mana pool is brought up at least once. Instead, the manga has Cepters draw cards from their decks & utilize the various monsters, spells, & items to combat each other in battle. To be honest, the end result is that it feels kind of like how Yu-Gi-Oh!'s Duel Monsters would play if it wasn't a literal card game in that series. By not being a literal card game, but rather having the cards simply be the way Cepters do battle, combat in this manga is, like the story itself, fast paced & always moving, especially since the Cepters themselves are also liable to get involved in the fight personally, alongside their monsters.

Another great aspect of Culdcept in how quickly Kaneko is able to establish characters & make them memorable. Najaran may be a bit of a traditional lead in how she's kind, energetic, & even seemingly outfitted with a gigantic stomach, she's just so immediately lovable in how honest & earnest she lives life. She normally comes off a bit like the comic relief main character, but when push comes to shove she's more than able to hold her own, take things seriously, & even showcase strategic thinking that you wouldn't even assume she's capable of in the first place. At the same time, though, she's also very impetuous, using her monsters to do her chores at Gilman Island, boisterously defending Zeneth's name while getting downright drunk (which almost makes her puke on Zeneth), & sometimes letting her insatiable hunger drive her actions. One of the funniest moments comes in Volume 2, where Naja & her Searcher friends take on the first gate of Bisteam, where they have to stave off mushrooms that rapidly multiply when attacked. Naturally, Naja's first idea is to simply eat all of the mushrooms, made all the more viable in her mind when everyone finds out that, well, they're shrooms... So she gets a crazy high from them. When things are at their most dangerous Najaran becomes a great lead (& leader, even), but she still is reliably the most entertaining character overall.

As for the supporting cast, they showcase Kaneko's knack for quick & concise development, if admittedly a little simple; that's not a bad thing, though. Goligan is a "human-headed cane" who is Naja's constant ally, & occasionally is utilized as an extra monster, item, etc. whenever needed (to his own dismay, usually). Zeneth is rash & brash, but his own backstory explains why very well (though Volume 6 is where he's given the most focus), and he makes an ideal rival for Naja, as she is able to see through his rough & tough demeanor to discover that he has a heart deep within. Horowitz also gets focus, especially in Volumes 5 & 6, where he's shown to be an intensely powerful & smart Cepter. The rest of the major cast is dedicated to the respective arcs that they are seen in, with the most developed being the Searchers in Bisteam, since they are featured for three volumes straight. Alta is the de facto leader, with her own past tying into just how willing she is to be a true team player. Ganz is the muscle of the group, with his alcoholic tendencies (& intense withdrawal when not boozed) relating to his past as a soldier who lost his comrades to the Black Cepters in a downright bloodbath. Finally, Joaquin is an alchemist who acts as the brains, with his development being in how he humanizes himself, instead of simply trying to stay rational & logical about everything. Along with them comes Kigi, the guardian Nymph of Bisteam who's actions are as conflicted as her reason for doing them, and she makes for a great foil to Naja during this arc. Without a doubt, the Bisteam Arc is the best part of Culdcept from a simple storytelling perspective, since it's the only multi-volume arc in the manga, and when Alta, Ganz, & Joaquin get an entire chapter to themselves to act as an epilogue, you can tell that they are all better people than when they first met Naja.

The first volume, the tournament in Soron, is mainly there to establish Naja & Zeneth, alongside setting up the world of the manga, and is completely self-contained in that book, likely on the off chance had the manga only lasted as a one-off; it's fine, but not the manga at its finest. Volume 5 is essentially an improved version of Volume 1, with the battle royale taking up most of the book & then some needed story development to cap it off, including a neat bit where it's revealed that all of the games, manga, novels, etc. are part of a multiverse (or at least are different planets in the same Culdcept universe), but it's Volume 6 where the manga hits another giant peak. Zeneth's back story is given more detail, Horowitz shows what he's capable of when he battles Zeneth, Goligan's own unknown past is revealed, and then there's a major assault by the Black Cepters that feels like everything is heading towards an understandable endgame. In fact, the way the volume ends, with the Black Cepters looking to have succeeded in every way they intended, kind of feels like a strong downer for the manga in general, since there hasn't been another volume in a decade. Still, if Bisteam is the strongest overall story arc in Culdcept, Volume 6 itself is easily the strongest individual volume, and it honestly pisses me off that TokyoPop never put it out, because I'm sure that they theoretically could have done so at the time.

This is the closest thing you'll see in terms
of fanservice when it comes to Najaran.

This is all wrapped up within Shinya Kaneko's artwork, which is simply stellar. There's just a dynamic & kinetic style to Kaneko's artwork, giving all of the characters tons of emotion, style, & feeling that helps establish & develop them from a simple visual standpoint, sometimes adding to the narrative development. This is extremely fitting, as the Culdcept games are famous for bringing in a wide variety of illustrators to draw all of the various cards, giving the series a strong visual style, so Kaneko follows through on this well. Another great aspect of the artwork is how, much like the storytelling, it can go from zany & comical to stark & serious at the drop of a hat, but here it really works. The comedic moments help keep the manga from being too intense, because Kaneko has a strong knack for delivering on epic & intense moments, while the serious moments keep you interested from a storytelling perspective, because the story itself is really damn solid & entertaining. If one wants to nitpick, I guess Kaneko is sometimes a little inconsistent when it comes to just how tan Naja's skintone is, as she's usually fairly dark but occasionally looks more "white", but in some cases it's justified (like bright lights & explosions), while other moments I'd simply guess that Kaneko was running low on ink. It's a little saddening that Shinya Kaneko actually isn't a comic artist by trade, he's more of a general illustrator, because this manga shows that he really has chops in terms of sequential art storytelling.

Adapting a game like Culdcept into manga is admittedly an odd concept, since Omiya Soft's games are more Monopoly-style board games, and that alone would be tough to really make into an engaging story. Luckily, Shinya Kaneko (& Omiya Soft) knew that the focus should be on the card game aspect, i.e. the monsters, spells, & items, and in turn decided to make it a bit of a swords & sorcery tale, which is always a plus in my book. While Kaneko's Culdcept manga won't go down as something trailblazing, because it is a bit "by the book" in general style, it's still just a great fantasy manga that not only works as a fun bit of promotion for the games (it ran long enough to promote all the way up to Culdcept Saga) but also just works on its own as a fun manga to read. Najaran is an immediate & intensely likable lead character, the pacing is tight & never wastes its time, and the way the card game aspect is done is just different enough from the extremely well known Yu-Gi-Oh! to not be simply dismissed as a "clone". Since the manga debuted, Najaran has been added to a few games (like Culdcept II & the DS port of the original) as an AI opponent & Kaneko has also drawn some cards for entries like Saga. Will Shinya Kaneko ever be able to return to the manga & give it the ending it never really received? I would hope so, since the manga is apparently being given a digital re-release in Japan, Kaneko himself still helps promote the games, & there's always the chance for him to continue it digitally, since Magazine Z went defunct.

Man, now I really want to play the games that we did get over here, before Culdcept Revolt comes out...

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