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.