Say Disney and Nintendo DS in any video game message board and cries of "Shovelware!" will quickly follow. But what happens when Disney teams up with the guys over at Jupiter (makers of the surprisingly fun Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories)? They create a completely new RPG franchise jam packed with unique elements and a plethora of fighting monsters. Don't call it a Pok¿mon clone though, because Spectrobes is clearly trying to be its own game. It just happens to be a game that isn't quite as fun.
The plot is simple enough. Players control Rallen, an officer for the Planetary Patrol. An evil, solar system destroying, nigh unstoppable, alien race known as the Krawl invades the Nanairo system and it's up to Rallen to defeat them. To do so he has to call on the power of the Spectrobes, a prehistoric race of creatures that only he can awaken and control. The game is self-proclaimed "anime-inspired" so it's full of vaguely Japanese sounding words and phrases. Honestly, with the Disney name slapped on this, fake anime is pretty lame. There's a missed opportunity here to create an original, distinguishable franchise, and not something that looks generic. But aside from that, the presentation is really top notch. The story is interesting and the dialogue is engaging. The cut scenes are presented in the ever popular, if not overused, character-cutout-with-text-box format. Each person has multiple poses and expressions though so it feels more like a comic than simply a scrolling text cut scene.
Aside from the basic cut scenes, the rest of the game looks pretty nice. There are fairly large 3D maps to explore, and each planet has a very distinct look to it. Rallen and the other characters move fluidly, and they manage to be well detailed even though they're somewhat small.
There is a ridiculous amount of things to do in Spectrobes. Few games can boast the amount of gameplay elements this title has. Jupiter has managed to cram in so much that players will rarely be doing one thing for very long.
Much of the game revolves around excavating fossils and minerals. Players have to search all over every planet they come to, looking for objects in the ground to dig up. When they find something, players enter into the digging portion of the game. The touch screen is used exclusively for these parts, as players have to carefully clear away rocks and dirt to get to the precious fossils. The idea of using the touch screen to dig up fossils is already a cool idea, but the developers managed to make it even more awesome with all the detail. Players can choose from a variety of tools (and buy even more later in the game) that will help them become pro archaeologists. There's a degree of realism in the whole process which makes it really neat, especially things like blowing in the microphone to clear away dust from the fossils.
While the fossil digging is fun and probably one of the more interesting aspects of Spectrobes, it's mostly used as a way to progress into the more active parts of the game. The fossils that players dig up can be taken to the lab. There players "awaken" the dormant Spectrobe and voila! Rallen has his very own fighting force of prehistoric super powered beasties. There are over 60 different Spectrobes, and they're broken up into three types. Each type is weaker or stronger against the other, creating that rock-paper-scissors effect, though it doesn't really come into effect much.
The minerals that players dig up are used to feed the Spectrobes and raise their stats while they're in the Incubator. Unused Spectrobes can be placed in the Incubator to grow and get stronger. This is also where the newly awoken baby Spectrobes evolve into their adult form. There's a small amount of interaction with the critters while they're in there, but not much. Players can pet the Spectrobes, and feed them minerals, and that's it. It would have been nice if this feature was fleshed out more. It really becomes a nuisance since after finding all these minerals players have to go back to their ship, load their Spectrobes into the Incubator, feed them, wait for them to evolve, and then continue. It's far too roundabout to be much fun.
There is a third object found through digging that's both a blessing and a curse. Data Cubes are scattered across the planets, and players have to find them if they want to unlock all the game has to offer. It's a great way to space out the gameplay elements so players don't become overwhelmed, but it becomes a chore to find them. Searching all over the maps for a couple random objects gets old quick. Luckily most cubes have multiple versions lying around, so it's not impossible. Most of the cubes are essentially worthless, offering information about battling or feeding, but some open up new things like the Wifi access, multiplayer, and the somewhat intriguing card system.
Each Spectrobes case comes with a few clear plastic cards. The cards have seven little holes in them that players push the stylus through to enter in codes on the touch screen. It's a cool concept and the cash cow implications of it are rather apparent. The cards can unlock special Spectrobes, or custom parts to enhance player's current monsters and make them better suited for battling. It's completely optional and not necessary for the game at all, but it's kind of a cool way to allow players to customize their game, and gives Disney something cool to offer at their numerous Spectrobes events already planned for this year.
What good are fossils, incubators and card systems unless the monsters get to fight? So of course there is plenty of battling to be found in Spectrobes. The 3D battlefield and characters look pretty nice, and there are some rather neat effects and cut scenes for the bigger attacks. Each monster moves and acts differently, though their moves are fairly limited. The battles are more action RPG style, with the attacks being on a timer, similar to Final Fantasy XII. Rallen issues commands to his Spectrobes, who have a basic attack, a special attack, and a combo attack. The Krawl move around the map in black vortexes, and when players touch them they immediately enter a battle.
Rallen can have up to six Spectrobes in his party, though only two can battle. The other four monsters offer support by way of stat boosting. Each Spectrobe can help (or hinder) in certain categories, like attack power, defense and speed. By having the right monsters in the support boxes, players can make their fighting Spectrobes just a little bit stronger. It's useful for tough battles, or at least it would be if there were any tough battles. The battles in Spectrobes are extremely simple, mostly due to pretty stupid enemy AI. It's rather easy for players to simply outmaneuver the bad guys while building up their special meter and then taking out the bad guys with the powerful combo moves. The few fights it takes to figure this trick out can get pretty tough though, since the Spectrobes are almost as dumb as the enemies. Watching Rallen's allies attack in the wrong direction can get pretty frustrating, and it's not uncommon for the enemies to gang up and kill a Spectrobe pretty quick if players aren't moving around. However once players get a handle on it, the fights become too easy to be fun. Even the bosses or the Battle Sequence mode - 30 matches in a row - can be beaten without getting a single hit.
It's not just the battles though; the entire game is pretty easy. There are very few puzzles to be found in the game, and most of the missions simply involve talking to some NPC, and then killing a boss. Players are often told exactly where to go, and the maps are large, but mostly linear so it's not easy to get lost. The only challenge comes in finding the necessary cubes and minerals, but that's more a matter of patience than skill. Sure, this is a kid's title, but Spectrobes is easier than any Pok¿mon title out there, and that's what the fan base is going to be used to.
All the leveling up, and custom parts are useful when it comes to fighting other people in the multiplayer. Assuming players unlock it, they can battle and trade with their friends. Unfortunately, the Wifi access is limited to uploading the battle records to the website, and downloading special items and webisodes. The item downloading is neat, and if the items are regularly updated it could keep the game fresh for a while. The webisodes are a welcome idea as well, giving much higher quality cutscenes for the game's story. Players are better off finding them on their PC, though, since the compression for the DS makes the video look like a really bad YouTube clip.
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