If you go back probably ten to fifteen years, I was once upon a time heavily invested in the trading card game and TV show Yu-Gi-Oh. One of the more popular TCGs of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Yu-Gi-Oh sees players summon monsters, activate magic and traps, and try to get their opponent’s “life points” down to zero. it’s a pretty standard formula, and one which I fell off a long time ago.

I was an avid Yu-Gi-Oh player up until fairly deep into the introduction of Synchro Summons, a type of summoning mechanic introduced in 5Ds that mimicked fusion, but didn’t require a fusion facilitating card. In the decade or more since then, the game has introduced three more types of summon, completely revamped the way the board is laid out, and changed the game so much I could no longer follow play effectively.

This is exactly why I have been so interested to try out the upcoming Yu-Gi-Oh Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution, a digital version of the trading card game that aims to cover the main story beats of the show, while also teaching players the core mechanics at play. I got to play around an hour of the game on Switch at Konami’s offices ahead of its release next month, and I already feel far more up to speed on the current state of the card game.

At its core, Link Evolution is a digital version of the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG, with the available list of cards and ban list accurate as of around February 2019. The team behind the game apparently have no plans to add additional cards or update the ban list over time, so this game is already not 100% up to date accurate for those of you playing the physical card game, but it’s more than current enough for anyone like me looking for a way to learn the game’s modern rules without having to get invested in a real world trading card game economy. I’m too much of an addictive person, I can’t let myself start obsessively buying little paper packs of cards, but I really want to get back into playing around with these gameplay mechanics.

The game’s story mode gives a very basic tour of the plot and more important duels of the various series of the Yu-Gi-Oh anime, with a little bit of hand waving and retconing where needed. The story mode’s presentation is disappointingly bare bones, with simple images and text on screen used rather than any voice acting or animation, but the content of the story mode itself is pretty robust. Players are introduced to gameplay mechanics as and when they were introduced to the show, with the player initially having to use the same deck used in the show to try and defeat their opponent.

Once you’ve won a story mode match once, not only do you unlock additional cards to build decks with, but you also gain the ability to play the match again with a custom deck you made yourself, or play as the opposing half of the fight to see some amusing alternate dimension dialogue. If you replay a match with your own deck you are able to use summoning mechanics which did not exist at the time of that arc airing, and will not be penalized for doing so.

The most interesting aspect of these story missions for me were the opening missions of each arc, where new mechanics are taught slowly and using gameplay. Additionally, every in game mechanic has a separate stand alone interactive tutorial which goes into greater depth, and helps contextualize effective ways to use your new tools. It reminded me a lot of the tutorial method employed by Pokémon the Trading Card Game on Gameboy in terms of its interactive tutorial philosophy. As someone who has spent a decade not really knowing how modern Yu-Gi-Oh works, I felt a lot more confident after my time with the game was up.

In terms of earning more in game cards, in addition to cards earned through standard story match wins, there’s also a number of draft format tournament options available to play against the computer. Players can open a number of booster packs, play matches with just the resulting cards, then keep them all after taking part in five matches. As someone very out of the loop on Yu-Gi-Oh, being able to learn 40 or so cards at a time and practice new summon types without being bogged down with cards I don’t understand really helped make the task of catching up to the current meta all the more viable. I didn’t need to know all the up to date strategies to succeed, because my opponent likely has a poor ability to pull those complex strategies off due to their random card draws.

New cards are awarded at random, but handed out with a high enough frequency that it always feels like you are getting something new.

One interesting choice that Link Evolution makes, and one I think was probably smart in spite of the odd effect it has on some sections of story mode, is the choice to retcon the game play area so that you only have one Extra Monster Zone per player right from the start of story mode, long before Link summons are introduced. I get the reasoning, it saves players who are learning the game from scratch with Link Evolution less likely to be confused and thrown when they’re slapped with a zone reduction in the final story mode section. To avoid things being confusing, you can only have one extra deck monster out at a time for most of the story, which should drastically slow down a number of chain swarm deck strategies from non Link eras.

Oh, some great news, the game will apparently feature no paid DLC, and no ability to pay real money for virtual currency with which to purchase more cards. That shouldn’t have to be said as a point of celebration, but that makes me feel safe playing this without risk of addictive spending patterns emerging.

For more high end players, there are a few settings options which can reduce the number of in game prompts you see regarding card activation unless you hold or release a certain button. These go a long way to improving the pace of play if you’re confident in what’s happening, so you’re not asked literally every five seconds during the enemy turn if you want to activate a trap card you’re saving for future turns.

Additionally, and this might be my favourite thing I learned while playing the game today, you can select a card in your deck building menu, and press a button to get a list of every card which is designed to work effectively with your selection. It not only helps speed up deck building, and show players how best to build a deck on a theme, but it also helps lapsed players like myself see what new support or lack of support an old favourite deck archetype might have.

Lastly, let’s talk a little about playing the game on Switch in handheld mode. The game does feature touch screen support, and during gameplay it works intuitively. Single tap to highlight, tap again to open a sub menu and pick your action, it all works how you would imagine. You don’t drag and drop cards physically into place, you just tap where they are and where you want them, but it’s still a fun option.

Some of the menus outside of matches are a bit more confusing to use in touch screen mode. For example, if you’re building a deck, you can’t simply tap a card to check what it does, tapping it sends it to the side deck, forcing you to tap it again to send it back before reading its card text. It’s little things like this that require you to at least occasionally use physical controls in handheld mode or deal with irritating oversights.

Also, the game throws a tantrum if you remove your Joy-Cons when playing in handheld mode, meaning you can’t play in tabletop mode or emulate a dedicated gaming tablet form factor while playing for comfort.

While I obviously need to put a lot more time into playing Link Evolution to get a proper sense of its quality as a finished game, it appears to be exactly what I was personally hoping for. It’s a portable Yu-Gi-Oh game where I can play modern, up to date Yu-Gi-Oh, while learning new rules in a setting where I won’t just instantly get my ass handed to me by people who know how to chain masses of Link summons. The fact I was able to within an hour learn how to XYZ, Pendulum, and Link summon says a lot for the quality of this games story mode and stand alone interactive tutorial, and for me that’s likely going to be enough for me to get invested.