Version tested: PSP
Small as they are, the shadows of the little Pokemon loom large over Sony's new camera-based creature-capture game. As in the evergreen adventures of Pikachu and pals, you discover and catch critters, level them up through combat and then battle your friends to see who has amassed the toughest collection. The twist here is that you're not seeking the creatures out in some whimsical top-down fantasy land, but in real life, using the PSP camera to coax invisible monsters out of hiding.
This is all established through the stodgy single-player Story Mode, which explains how Kenichi, an enthusiastic worker in Sony's R&D department, has discovered that the PSP camera can detect lifeforms invisible to the human eye - Invizimals. Luckily, you have the sort of aura that attracts these mini beasts, and so you're roped in to help his studies. This involves hopping around a world map, undertaking various missions to capture specific Invizimals, and learning the intricacies of combat from Professor Dawson, played with surprising restraint by Brian Bloody Blessed.
The Invizimals themselves are a well-designed and varied bunch, with some groan-inducing pun names such as Porcupain or Bearserker [those are awesome! - Ed]. Combat is built around a familiar rock-paper-scissors set up, with each creature falling into a distinct elemental category - Ice, Fire, Ocean, Desert and so on. You have three types of attack - strong, medium and fast - and combat is real time, rather than turn-based, and mastering the timing required for blocking is essential.
Everything you do uses stamina, and managing this resource is a vital skill to develop. Stronger attacks use it up quickly, leaving you to wait while it recharges, potentially with no way of blocking or attacking. Success in a fight earns watts, the game's XP, which trigger a level-up once predefined totals are reached. Every five levels, your Invizimal evolves into a larger, more powerful form.
This basic framework is embellished with more complex functions, such as Sparks. These are knocked out of Invizimals with each successful attack and can be hoovered up by pointing the PSP camera at them. Sparks are the game's currency, and can be used to purchase health and stamina packs, as well as special attacks called vectors. These require charging up - shake the PSP to build up an earthquake, shoot the targets to build up a wall of fire, etc. - but the damage doesn't always justify the effort.
As combat systems go, it's busy - even cluttered - but it doesn't offer a lot of choice until much later in the game, when the difference between Invizimals is more pronounced. To begin with it's a question of opening with a strong attack and then chipping away with smaller strikes while blocking. Or you end up with two Invizimals with no stamina left, each waiting to recharge for another attack, but using it up blocking instead.
Gobbling up sparks is distracting, often leaving your Invizimal off-screen and vulnerable while you try to grab them, and managing inventory items is fiddly. There is depth here but it takes too long to become apparent, and the fussy nature of the core mechanic makes early progress something of an uphill struggle, particularly for the intended younger audience.
What you really want to do is get on with the capturing, and while the game never quite lets you off the leash to wander freely and discover at will, it does offer up capture missions with various targets that showcase the potential in its "augmented reality" concept.
You stroll around, and the PSP displays your view in reasonably high-quality video. The proximity detector at the top of the screen acts as a "warm... warmer... hot" guideline, enabling you to home in on an Invizimal. Once the target is locked, you place the supplied physical capture card on the hotspot and - with a little computer magic - you see a weird little creature emerge into the real world. Complete a short mini-game, different for each Invizimal, and it's added to your collection.
It works well enough in theory, and proves rather charming and addictive for the first few hours of play. It doesn't take long for the natural limitations in the technology to impinge on the fun though. You quickly realise that the camera is looking for fairly specific cues to trigger the Invizimals.
If you're wandering around fruitlessly, the game even tells you what to look for. The answer is generally colour, and you can speed through the early capture missions simply by investing in a pack of coloured paper. Things get trickier as you work your way through the 123 Invizimals in the game, and the illusion that you're unearthing these creatures from your home environment doesn't last long when faced with the game's sometimes quirky implementation.
As an example, here's what happened when I had to find and capture a Moonhowler Pup. The game prompted me to find something purple. I'm not Prince, so this wasn't as easy as it sounds. Part of the game's appeal is, of course, that it will send you scampering around the house, seeking out the triggers you need, but when the game is so fussy, it can't help feel limiting - especially since the single-player mode essentially hits a dead end until you unlock the Invizimal in question.
I ransacked my three-year-old daughter's wardrobe for a variety of purple-pink t-shirts, but none of these could raise the proximity detector all the way. In the end, I cracked the problem using a soft toy of a Ribena Berry. This, it transpired, was the perfect hue - but it wasn't a flat surface. I ended up holding the cuddly fruit up to the light, so the camera would lock the target, then simply pointed the camera at the capture card, lying on a plain wooden table. It worked, but in doing so bent the rules so much that the idea of tracking down hidden creatures was rendered completely abstract.
The mini-game to capture this diminutive vulpine critter also required me to sneak up on it and shout. CGI grass sprouts up around the image of the capture card, and you have to bring your PSP in low and get behind the Invizimal before bellowing to scare it into submission. Quite apart from the indignity of screaming at a tiny wolf-thing that wasn't really there - this being the latest in a long series of gaming moments that have made my wife look at me with pity and sadness - the camera struggles to cope when the capture card isn't perfectly framed.
Much like EyePet, it relies on the black and white card design to tell it how to orientate the graphics in the real world, but go too low and it can no longer register the image. With the creature flicking in and out of existence, and the small microphone struggling to acknowledge that I'm shouting in the correct way, a simple task is suddenly really irritating, and I'm fighting technology rather than the game.
This is a problem throughout single-player, as it tries to keep the gameplay varied while necessity forces you to do the same thing over and over. Some mini-games are engaging - catching Sting Wing by swatting her with your hand is a great example of how the fun and immersive the technology is when it works - but others stretch the small, fragile camera and its software beyond its comfort zone. Using the camera as a surrogate motion sensor to steer Bearserker through a timed slalom is just annoying, while guiding Skysaur through a barrage of fireballs seems to rely as much on luck as your movements.
Still, if the single-player side of things feels stodgy and prescriptive, this is balanced out somewhat by an admirable brace of multiplayer options. Available across both ad hoc and infrastructure connections, there's freedom here that the corridor-style story can't offer. You can challenge another player to a one-off duel, or set up your own Invizimals club for more long-term combat options with like-minded friends.
There's also a smart approach to trading, with a freeform barter system that allows players to dictate what they feel is a fair swap. In other words, you can put up whatever combination of creatures, vectors and sparks you feel is required to secure a desirable trade, and your partner can tweak the offering accordingly. While solo play quickly grows repetitive, it's here that the game's longevity lies for those who put in the hours.
It's cute and clever, then, but still more than a little clunky. Attempting to provide gameplay that the camera can't always handle, it risks frustrating its young, genre-savvy audience before they've even collected or evolved a decent collection of creatures. Invizimals is certainly packed with bold ideas and rewards for those motivated enough, but frequently suffers for its ambition, and it's hard not to feel that it's restricted as much as liberated by the camera.
7 / 10