When playing a portable video game, you want something simple, fast and easy to get out of, because you never know when you're going to be interrupted.
The games I always travel with fit into that "casual" niche — things like "Picross DS" or "Clubhouse Games" that I can play for just a few minutes while I'm taking a cab or waiting for a plane.
So it's puzzling that both the Nintendo DS and the Sony PlayStation Portable have so many strategy titles, where a single battle can take more than an hour.
I love the chess-like maneuvering of Nintendo's "Advance Wars: Dual Strike" or Sony's "Field Commander," but I'm not really comfortable playing them on the road.
Nonetheless, here are three more portable strategy games. I tested them from the comfort of my living room, and I wish that at least one of them had been made for a home console so I could play it on a bigger screen.
— "Jeanne d'Arc" (Sony, for the PlayStation Portable, $29.99): I'd love a widescreen version of this, which looks fantastic on the PSP's 4-inch display. It's the latest from Level 5, the studio behind the excellent "Dragon Quest VIII," and it brings some of that game's whimsy to the strategy genre.
You know the story: French teenager (aka Joan of Arc) hears the word of God and decides to kick the English out of her country.
Level 5 takes some liberties with the legend, letting Jeanne and her comrades wield magic while the English get help from monsters.
You deploy your troops (Jeanne and whatever knights, archers and magic-users she can scare up) on a 3D grid, then go after your foes.
Usually, the goal is simply to beat them all within a limited number of turns, although there are enough variations to keep you on your toes.
The battles are fast-paced and challenging, but the crisp graphics and sensible interface make it easy to control your team. And the story and characters are so intriguing that you'll want to keep fighting until the bloody English have gone home.
— "Heroes of Mana" (Square Enix, for the Nintendo DS, $39.99): Square has published some excellent strategy games over the years — "Front Mission," "Final Fantasy Tactics" — but "Heroes" will disappoint fans of the genre as well as admirers of the classic "Secret of Mana."
It's a real-time strategy game, a la "Warcraft," in which the action keeps going on whether you're doing anything or not.
You have to first gather resources — Gaia stones to build facilities, Treant berries to summon troops — before you can do battle. To attack, you use the DS stylus to tap a soldier and then tap an enemy.
It's a clever, intuitive use of the DS technology; unfortunately, your troops don't always take the easiest path to their destination and often get lost or jammed. They're also painfully slow, and the screen can get awfully crowded with aimlessly roaming characters.
"Heroes of Mana" has some promising ideas (if Square can fix the artificial intelligence), but it's more frustrating than exciting.
— "Luminous Arc" (Atlus, for the Nintendo DS, $34.99): "Luminous Arc" (no relation to Jeanne d') is another turn-based strategy game with pretty much the same design as "Final Fantasy Tactics": a 3D chess game with swords and spells.
It's nicely executed, with sharp graphics and easy-to-use controls, and the fights zip right along.
The story, alas, is as generic as they come. A bunch of kids, trained by their church to fight evil, are sent on a mission to hunt down witches. But soon they learn ... oh, why bother?
If you can get past the annoying characters and tedious cut scenes, "Luminous Arc" rewards you with some fairly engrossing battles. It's solid, but nothing special.