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Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals Package Art
GENRE
Action RPG
DEVELOPER
Jupiter
PUBLISHER
Disney Interactive Studios
LOCAL WIRELESS
MULTI-PLAY
Yes
Wi-Fi/GLOBAL ONLINE
MULTI-PLAY
Yes
MICROPHONE
Yes
BUY NOW AT

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

The Spectrobes franchise is one of Disney Interactive Studios' first all-original properties, and the first entry in the series received solid sales despite middling reviews following its launch in March 2007. Part of the game's success inevitably had to do with the ingenious marketing tool of free, plastic cards packed in with each copy of the game, which, when overlaid on the touchscreen, would unlock free in-game items and creatures by tapping the stylus through numbered holes in the cards. Certainly the Pokémon-esque series has more going for it than that, and while the cards return in Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals (four in every case!), developer Jupiter put a lot of effort into addressing critiques the first game received.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals improves upon its predecessor by providing hours of activity in its excavation and battling systems, both of which have seen refinement or additions. The story's also stronger, with a clearer villain for series heroes Rallen and Jeena to fight against. Last, nearly every function (and button) the DS supports is harnessed, from mic and touch screen interaction to multiple online battle modes and profile services. That all means series fans have a lot to be excited about here, but the repetitive nature of the gameplay, regardless of the upgrades, may still turn off newcomers.

visuals

Spectrobes was a bright, colorful game and its sequel follows suit, with slightly enhanced, full 3D graphics. In-game character models are creatively designed, if stiffly animated, though the 185 Spectrobes (112 of which are all-new) are the stars of the show, with ornate, creative designs that are reminiscent of the best of Pokemon creatures and Wind Waker's bosses. While the evolutionary shape of a Spectrobe from child to adult to evolved form doesn't always make visual sense, the monsters are uniquely animated (some better than others) and all have a special attack in adult and higher forms. The game's environments, ranging from futuristic, multi-level cities and bases to rolling landscapes, are cleanly designed and large, though many planets do fall victim to the sci-fi cliche of jungle planet, ice planet, lava planet, and so on. Last, key story sequences are brought to life with animé-styled, computer animated videos with little distortion, whilst static freeze-frames from the same presentation illustrate other, less significant story moments.

The only hang up in the visuals department is the bane of so many 3D games: the camera. Beyond the Portals begs for an independent camera stick, but instead leaves gamers with a floaty AI camera that's often slow to pivot and focus on what you want, and snapping it to behind the character isn't a suitable band-aid either. This flaw is a significant issue in the tight battle arenas Spectrobes fight within, since enemies often run off the edge of the screen, and trying to get things re-centered just-so in your Spectrobe's sites for lock-on attacks is frequently an exercise in frustration.

audio

For a game with such solid visual design, the soundtrack comes up short and is filled with forgettable and formulaic anime-synth-sci-fi tunes. Voice acting is nearly absent as well, and the Spectrobes don't feature memorable or interesting vocalizations, either.

gameplay

The crux of Beyond the Portals' gameplay is simple: travel from planet to planet; excavate Spectrobe fossils from various geological terrain; awaken, evolve and train the Spectrobes into living, fighting pets; and then unleash those pets against the franchise's enemy: a collective of planet-devouring aliens known as Krawl. While there is much continuity between the first and second Spectrobes titles, things are shaken up by new, intelligent and evolved forms of Krawl, known as "High Krawl," who destroy the main Spectrobes database within the Nanairo planetary system at the start of the game. This puts the returning heroes, interplanetary police Rallen and Jeena, back at square one (that is to say, with three Spectrobes total) and requiring another game's worth of excavation, evolving and battling while eliminating the galaxy-spanning Krawl threat.

Adding Krawl leaders to the main storyline provides much better motivation and direction for the endlessly enthusiastic Rallen, but the story isn't the only beefed up aspect of Beyond the Portals. The various planets in the Nanairo galaxy, as well as planets beyond the eponymous, wormhole-like portals, have unique geographies that require an array of tools for excavation beyond the simple drill. Layers of ice must be repeatedly melted with a blow torch, sand must continuously be blown clear of excavation sites, and shallow water vacuumed clear of silt and debris that clouds it, just for starters. Blowing into the mic or sweeping the touchscreen with the stylus handles most of these environmental obstacles until they gradually creep back on screen, but the actual chiseling of rock away from minerals, data cubes and fossils is an exercise in delicacy and patience.

Chipping away at least 90% of rock will allow a specimen to be pulled from the ground, but higher excavation experience points, and potentially more advanced Spectrobes, requires 100% perfection. A 100% rating is achieved by clearing nearly every speck of stone from a fossil or mineral without damaging the specimen via overzealous drilling. Unfortunately, the touch screen is highly sensitive-- gameplay's a lot like Operation mixed with Hot Potato-- so frenetic yet gentle tap-tap-tapping is the best way to excavate quickly and damage free. Even then, the game will randomly decide one tap or another was just too hard and knock a bubble off a specimen's damage scale, ruining a perfect rating. There are finitely limited tools that address this-- a 9-use "healing spray" repairs one bubble of damage at a time and, on the other side, a detonator device will completely excavate a fossil (in damaged state) 50% of the time with a single click, though specimens are completely destroyed the other 50% of the time the detonator's used. Yet regardless the cornucopia of tools and clever environmental/timer mechanics, the gamer is excavating the same exact mineral shapes over and over, with the only surprises being a new fossil shape or environmental obstacle, which then joins the library of repeated experiences. Further, given that excavation is usually a one- to three-minute experience for 100% excavation ratings-- and most excavated specimens are later discarded or used within a split-second decision-- a growing sense of "what's the point" begins to hang in the air.

Child Spectrobes, what every voice-awakened fossil starts off as, are evolved into combat-ready adult forms by being fed excavated (or battle-earned) minerals. The creatures then level up and become stronger through additional mineral feeding or, more commonly, combat. The original Spectrobes threw Rallen into Spectrobe combat by having him pivot and aim two Spectrobes at once, and firing their attacks via the L or R shoulder buttons. Beyond the Portals has yanked Rallen out of Spectrobe combat, resulting in a fresher, more focused and engaging experience. Rallen can still fight outside of Spectrobes battles by stunning, shooting at or sword-slicing floating particles of Krawl, but this is more a nuisance than relevant to the game. The real battles, housed within color-coded tornadoes, are for the Spectrobes.

Before engaging in battle, Rallen must have appropriately colored Spectrobes equipped. In the spirit of Rock Paper Scissors, Krawl and Spectrobes come in one of three varieties-- Aurora, Corona or Flash, better understood, for sake of this review, as grass, fire and water. Fire beats grass, grass beats water and water beats fire. Running into a red (fire) tornado with green (grass) Spectrobes will often result in a quick loss, though penalties are light-- Rallen is just returned to the doorway of whatever area he most recently walked into, without losing any previously gained experience. Yet elementally-opposed Spectrobes and Krawl result in a decent, arcade-styled combat experience within the aforementioned circular arena that every tornado contains.

With Rallen out of the combat, gamers directly control the movement and attacks of their primary equipped Spectrobe, and toggle between directly controlling the secondary Spectrobe (which often operates very well on its own) with a single button click. Krawl are frequently simplistic in combat-- they have a single attack that may be projectile, lunge or area-of-effect based-- and the worst they can often do is have too many hit points or run off the screen before they're locked on to, taking advantage of the weak camera. Aiming, or just getting close, to a Krawl monster is all that's necessary to attack, resulting in button mashing that's relatively fruitless since every attack (including the enemies') requires an invisible timer, sometimes short and sometimes long, to expire before attacking again. Landing enough attacks on the foes, however, builds up a "CH meter" that empowers a Spectrobe to execute a special attack, launch a two-Spectrobe, arena-engulfing environmental attack, or, if necessary, revive a fallen Spectrobe at the cost of some of the living Spectrobe's HP. Once again, because of the slow camera and near turn-based timers on attack moves, victory is sometimes a bit more luck than it should be, though it's still superior to the original Spectrobes' combat offering. Fortunately, the trick of figuring out which Spectrobes have the fastest and most devastating attacks is a deeper strategic decision than expected.

Overall, nearly every function the DS can support is engaged in Beyond the Portals, thought it's often a confusing mish-mash for mundane menu or training tasks, some of which are stylus-exclusive while others support either stylus or D-pad based interaction. This requires a continuous juggling of the stylus in and out of hand, adding undesired and inconsistent complexities in usability. Furthermore, simply navigating Rallen around the worlds is cumbersome because he refuses to pivot or make sharp turns. Instead, every turn he and the Spectrobes make, whether in a town, on a planet or in battle, is a wide, sweeping arc, giving them a turning radius more akin to an SUV than a living being.

multiplayer

Beyond the Portals puts many of its DS peers to shame with the number of Wi-Fi enabled offerings it provides. Aside from local, multi-card multiplayer battle royales between up to four people, gamers can also engage in Spectrobe battles around the world via the Wi-Fi Connection. Spectrobes can also be bought and sold in an online marketplace funded by the in-game currency of Gura. On top of this, gamers can auto-create a Spectrobes profile of achievements on the main Spectrobes website, in addition to uploading game data to Disney's DGamer service. Last but not least, Disney's even been releasing free Spectrobes and items for download via a Wi-Fi Connection, providing even more value to gamers. The only hitch to all this terrific Wi-Fi functionality is it must be unlocked first via about 3 or 4 hours of play, which isn't too much and really helps the gamer become acquainted with the game's controls and structure.

overall

Developer Jupiter has a proven track record of excellent handheld RPGs, be they GBA's Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories or the fantastic, recent DS sleeper The World Ends With You. The Spectrobes series has potential to reach the upper echelons those aforementioned titles obtained, but Beyond the Portals isn't quite there yet. There's no shortage of different types of gameplay, but they're each missing sufficient rewards or tweaks to make their repetitive engagements genuinely compelling. Further, the main characters aren't endearing; the evil High Krawl seemed more interesting and effective, which is a serious story issue when you want to root for the bad guys.

Nevertheless, the sequel is a superior experience to its predecessor and the amount of content that can be found in-game across the decently-sized single player campaign is impressive-- hours upon hours can be poured into just excavating or just battling. Plus, the amount of Wi-Fi enhanced content and activity Beyond the Portals provides dominates many other DS titles, and we can't forget those addictive cards that evoke childhood memories of the best toys Cracker Jack boxes held. In sum, fans of the first game, or even critics of the first game, will be impressed and engaged by this offering, but RPG or monster-battling fans may want to try this one before buying.

final score 7.2/10





WRITER INFORMATION
Staff Avatar M. Noah Ward
Staff Profile | Email
"Death narrowly avoided, thanks to another friendly NPC."


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