I admit to never getting into the Pokemon craze. I was a little old to be caught up in the fad when it really hit, and at that point I didn’t have a Game Boy anyway, so for me it’s always been a passing, inexplicably popular phenomenon. Disney, of all companies, has given me a taste of that craze with their own flavor of Pokemon: the Spectrobes series. The series debuted on the DS about a year ago, published by Disney but developed by Kyoto-based Jupiter studio. Jupiter previously worked on Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories (another series that absolutely mystifies me), so they have some pedigree when it comes to RPGs. The original Spectrobes did pretty well, so Disney gave Jupiter the go-ahead for a sequel, Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals.
I never played the first game, but the sequel surprised me with its quality and depth. The first shock came with the production values—this game is beautiful. Crisp textures, subtle transparencies and high polygon geometry make up the vivid, colorful environments, and while the game’s ten worlds are the typical locales of desert, ice, ocean, jungle and so on, the graphics keep them from feeling tired or clichéd. The game is played from a third person, behind the shoulders perspective so it’s easy to take in the scenery.
One look at the visuals and I knew that I shouldn’t simply write off Beyond the Portals as Pokemon IN SPAAACE. The music wasn’t bad either; kind of synthesized with an old-school Game Boy flavor, but infectiously catchy all the same. The retro sound of the game seemed appropriate, with all the comparisons to Pokemon. The upbeat, enthusiastic attitude present in Spectrobes’ production values had me interested from the first few minutes of play time.
With a newly opened mind, I dug into the story. The plot follows on that of the previous game, but eases new players into it with a quick recap. The story follows Rallen and Jeena, two planetary police officers who defended their solar system from the evil Krawl swarm in the first game. After a few months the Krawl are back to cause trouble, led by a group of High Krawl who serve as the game’s bosses. Rallen and Jeena hop in their new star cruiser and fly off to battle the Krawl, all the while hunting down Spectrobes and training the little beasties into fighting machines.
The recap is told during the game’s extended tutorial, which lasts almost an hour. Thankfully, it isn’t condescending, but combines the new plot with the game’s mechanics, so while Jeena is explaining what’s going on, you’ll be playing as Rallen, exploring the planet and getting the hang of the controls. It all works seamlessly; I was several levels of gameplay deep before I realized that Spectrobes was a very involved game.
The basic setup is pretty simple. Rallen explores the various planets to battle the local High Krawl. He does this by attacking floating orbs of Krawl dust, which swarm around Krawl vortexes that hold the real enemies. Rallen can kill several dust clouds and net XP from them, but the vortexes keep spawning more. Once Rallen has broken through the defenses and entered the vortex, his Spectrobes take over.
You control two Spectrobes at a time, with the ability to switch between them at will. The Spectrobes have base melee attacks, but as they inflict damage on the resident Krawl they fill up a power meter that lets them unleash a limit breaker or a combo attack. Once the Krawl are dead, control switches back to Rallen. You do this often, as the Krawl are infesting every planet you visit, but the variety of different Spectrobes keeps it from getting repetitive. The only real issue with these battles is the camera, which tends to be too sensitive and get misaligned.
Finding, acquiring and raising Spectrobes is where the gameplay gets more involved and also more interesting. Instead of hunting for wild Spectrobes to tame like in Pokemon, you’ll have to dig for them. Literally.
The baby Spectrobes you start the game with can scan Rallen’s immediate surroundings, highlighting buried treasures. There are a number of handy items to find but the important ones are fossils and minerals. Once an item is located Rallen can walk to the glowing spot where it is buried and start a digging minigame. This is where most of the game’s stylus use comes into play, and Jupiter was creative in how they utilized the DS’s oddball features. To get at a hidden item you must dig several levels down and then clear away enough surrounding material so that the item can be retrieved. The trick is that this process is delicate; it is hard to unearth an item without damaging it in the process, and each planet presents different digging challenges. Rallen must use the proper tools for the circumstances—a drill might work against rock, but he needs a blow torch to cut ice, and a compressor to clear away sand in a desert locale (you can blow on the mic to clear sand or alternatively use a blowing tool for when you’re playing in public).When you finally have a Spectrobe unearthed, it’s time to take it back to the cruiser lab and awaken it. You do this by sliding it into the incubator and calling to it through the mic. Per usual I simply shouted obscenities at my DS until my new Spectrobe reconstituted from its fossilized state, but supposedly the tone of your voice affects the appearance of the Spectrobe you awaken. Regardless this was a cool use of the DS hardware and just another facet of the game’s complexity.
Your Spectrobes have two stats that need maxing out in order for them to evolve into a more powerful form: mineral and battle levels. The battle level is taken care of when you send them into combat, but for the other one you need to dig up minerals and feed them to the Spectrobes you have stored in the incubator. This gives incentive to dig up minerals and swap your Spectrobes in and out, leveling them in different areas at different times.
The game also has an elemental rock-paper-scissors system, with three colors of Spectrobes that are weak and strong against each other. The color of a Krawl vortex indicates the color of the enemies inside, letting you pick the Spectrobe that is most powerful against current enemy. The actual combat may be simple, but the strategy for winning the battles and getting the most out of them is deep.
It’s a good thing that the core gameplay is fun and involving, because you’ll be doing a lot of it. There are occasional puzzles that let you play as Jeena but for the most part you’ll be exploring the planets as Rallen, talking to NPCs, killing Krawl and digging up Spectrobes. The beautiful planets and variety of Spectrobes is really what keeps Beyond the Portals from getting tedious. Unfortunately, once the main story is over there isn’t much to do. The worlds are nice to look at but are rather static and linear, and the game has little in the way of side quests aside from collecting the 185 individual Spectrobes. There are tools and items to buy but once you beat Krux, the final boss, the game is pretty much over.
Jupiter extended the replay value with a healthy online component, including multiplayer. This comes with the unfortunate necessity of friend codes, but also changes up the gameplay as well—online battles are turn-based, while local wireless multiplayer is real time like the main game. In the online mode you are give actions to perform—button combos, use the stylus, even shout into the mic—and your performance influences how well your Spectrobe fights. I was puzzled by this dramatic shift in play style, but the online fights turned out to be pretty fun in a quirky kind of way.
Online mode also lets you buy Spectrobes from other players and upload your own for sale, while members of Disney’s DGamer service can get special goodies linked to their account. There’s even some DLC on the way, a relative non-entity on the DS.
After an interesting but generic debut title, Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals proves that the series is full of surprises. Jupiter has adorned the core gameplay with numerous creative companion elements that create a consistent, complimentary package. Spectrobes might not be as long or exhaustive as Nintendo’s latest Pokemon games, but it stays fun and involving while the main story lasts, and even has a few extras to encourage further play. Pokemon has been mined and retread half to death; Spectrobes may be an imitation, but with Beyond the Portals, the series is just beginning to explore its potential.