Version tested: DS
Videogames: give them an inch and they'll take a reality if you're not careful. The good ones, obviously, but never underestimate a mediocre game's ability to overpower you - crack the door open for a quick look and before you know it you've been broken into, had your time stolen and your mind held to ransom.
So it was with Pokémon and so it is with Spectrobes, a game that clearly had Bulbasaur pin-up posters decorating its bedroom walls through those difficult developmental years. These two simple, averagely constructed games hide quicksand depths that are able to entrap many more minds than merely those of the bubble-gum addled school kids their publishers first intended. The gotta catch 'em all gameplay can ensnare anyone who will give their worlds a little attention. And that is why this game's of interest to you, Euroreader, sitting, as you most likely do, far outside of the Saturday morning children's TV-watching demographic that Spectrobes' TV advertisements have already been courting.
As with the target audience, Spectrobes' similarities to Nintendo's collect 'em up games are immediately obvious: the simple exploration of bland environments, the capturing, training and breeding of fighter pets (the titular Spectrobes), and the RPG-lite framework. But, dig a little deeper and this game quickly reveals itself to be more than just Disney does Pikachu.
You play as Rallen, one half of a space police duo travelling between the game's seven different planets carrying out simple missions for a distant Colonel K-esque boss. Rallen's charged with investigating, and eventually defeating, the recent invasion of violent alien creatures known collectively as the Krawl.
The game starts with Rallen discovering an unconscious pilot in a crashed space pod. Once revived, this character (Aldous) gives Rallen a gadget: the Prizmod - a wrist-mounted holder in which to store and carry friendly but battle-ready pets known as Spectrobes. From there on the game cycles between exploring barren planetary environments in search of new Spectrobes, minerals and game feature enhancing 'cubes', fighting off Krawl with your gathered companions and completing various fetch quests.
You begin the game with just two Spectrobes so much of your time will be focussed around literally uncovering and recruiting more of the creatures. We say literally, because Spectrobes are found, not by searching Pokémon-esque long grass and bushes, but rather by excavating their fossils from the ground. Your character employs the aid of a child Spectrobe who follows you around who, by hitting the R-trigger, can perform a metal-detector style search for any buried items in the near vicinity. If something sparkles you then switch to a simple archaeology mini-game where you use the stylus as controller for a set of various tools to unearth the treasure.
Excavation must be handled carefully as it's easy to accidentally destroy the fossil if you're too vigorous. Risk/ reward is introduced by a timer, which you play against. The faster you successfully uncover the item (you must reveal 95 per cent of it before you can lift it out of the ground) the more exp you earn. Levelling up your soil skills makes you quicker at revealing and better at avoiding breaking items but, quickly enough, the mini-game becomes a tedious but unavoidable chore.
There are three types of item that can be dug up: fossils, minerals and cubes. The former is a fossilised Spectrobe - one of twenty-two different breeds - which, once uncovered, must be taken back to your patrol cruiser spaceship to be brought to life. Spectrobes are awoken from their fossilised state by singing into the DS microphone (potentially red-faced commuters should note that blowing onto the mic has the same effect). This mini-game requires you to maintain a specified pitch for three seconds (it's not as hard as it sounds), and, once reanimated, you can name and personalise your newest team member.
New Spectrobes begin life in their child form - useful only for helping to find other fossils in the ground. To mature a Spectrobe into adult form you must place it into one of your four incubators where you can pet it to speed up evolution (by stroking it with the stylus) and feed it valuable minerals (also excavated from the ground). You can grow up to two Spectrobes in one incubator and, carefully choosing which two you put together can reap rewards as, when they mature into adult form and fight alongside each other, they will enjoy stat bonuses.
Indeed, the fighting system is very different to the card-battling format of its rivals. Battles take place in real time as a kind of very basic beat 'em up with Rallen flanked either side by two of his chosen Spectrobes. As you level up and evolve Spectrobes into their fiercest forms you can bring them in and out of your team as you aim to find the perfect balance (you can even equip special parts to your Spectrobes). In fights an awkward dance ensues as you make crab-like steps from side to side while triggering Spectrobe attacks with the two shoulder buttons as you deplete the enemies' health. Rallen can also join in with a few attacks but he's usually far weaker than the Spectrobes that back him so isn't much use. It's clumsy, awkward and basically not very much fun and, even when stylus moves mix up the fighting later, this portion of the game is never more than relentlessly tiresome.
As well as minerals and fossils, cubes are deposited throughout the world underground. These special items are little packets of information that you must return to the lab to unlock and read. Cubes unlock the game's features one by one - such as by providing new abilities to your characters or unlocking whole game modes such as wi-fi or the card input system (where you can input codes from actual Spectrobe braded collectable cards for special items and fossils). It's a controversial decision to literally bury game features in the ground and, crucially, the lack of any map system makes discovering all the cubes a case of mind-numbing inch-by-inch methodical searching (or internet FAQ searching) which quickly becomes tedious.
Of course, these features are mainly surplus to the real attraction of this style of game: the collecting mechanic. In this area the game, predictably, works very well. There are, according to the library (Spectrobes' version of the Pokédex), twenty-two different species to collect, each with three different forms of evolution and that even discounts all the colour variations which can be achieved using special minerals and items. Filling in all the spaces (on the horrible menu system) becomes a compulsive challenge and, as your pets take on personalities, it's easy to get caught up in completist-mania.
However, it's difficult to shrug the feeling that this is a game arriving long after the bandwagon's departed. Disney has clearly tried to make a vastly more flexible and more varied game to Pokémon but, in doing so, has broken that game's more elegant flow and focus of ideas. Moreover, games such as Viva Pińata provide animal collecting mechanics that work on a size and scale these weak graphics and ill-adjusted mechanics cannot compete with. Spectrobes is ultimately a hotch-potch of disparate gameplay ideas, which fail to hang coherently together - almost as if the publisher's time and budget has been outstripped by its vision.
Spectrobes may well succeed but, if it does so, it will likely be because of the collectable card tie-in and the precision marketing to an impressionable and easily enamoured demographic. For the rest of us there is perhaps a compulsive, if derivative, game under the mish-mash of ideas here - give it an inch and yes, perhaps it might take a reality. But, in truth, the game you're enjoying is probably just that of trying to fill blank spaces in a collection: you gotta catch 'em all gaming. That's arguably a pretty good game but, sadly, it's one that is better clothed elsewhere.
6 / 10