The obvious reaction to Spore Creatures is that it can't hope to rival its big brother - daddy, perhaps - for depth and scope, and that EA's decision to launch it alongside the PC version on 5th September suggests it's a spin-off for a different market. So it's a bit of a surprise to discover Spore on the DS is secretly an action-adventure. We like those.
In a manner that will be familiar to oodles of gamers old and new, you start off with a tiny, rubbish little hero with no idea which way to turn, give it a name (unless you like the default "Oogie"), and then stroll off on a mission dictated to you by on-screen prompts. This tutorial phase quickly establishes the basics: you're hunting down an evil spaceship that's kidnapped your friend.
You'll do this by making friends with other animals, duffing up bullies and accumulating body parts to customise your rapidly evolving creature character. Evolution, in this case, comes down to experience points, which upgrade your hit-points and magic (bio-power) energy, and allow you to graft more and more parts onto your body.
The creature customisation tool is obviously more limited than its PC uncle, Spore Creature Creator, but developer Foundation 9 still crams a lot into the interface: you can pick from a range of options for each body part, drag them around with the stylus and use slider bars to adjust size and orientation. The choices you make here also have an impact on things like your creature's metabolism and combat proficiency. Give it a couple of mouths, for instances, and its attack stats will go up.
Out in the world, you're exploring simple, slightly stylised 3D islands with plain textures and geometry, but your little creature, his friends and some of the foliage are 2D sprites that rotate sweetly depending on the position of the third-person camera. Getting around is easy thanks to stylus controls, although if you prefer buttons you can fall back on those for a mixture. A map on the top-screen points out items of interest and mission objectives, while the ever-ready Sporepedia tops up your knowledge and alerts you to incomplete objectives.
It's not long before you start getting into scraps, and combat turns out to be a mixture of basic attacks - performed by making slashing motions with the stylus - and special abilities linked to your choice of body parts. An early example replenishes your health. Once dispatched, enemies often drop extra body parts for you to sew onto your warped but merry-looking charge.
It's not all violence, body harvests and surgery, though - there's also cuddling and dancing when you make friends. Waltz up to a new species and providing it doesn't bite your head off you can hit a "call" icon to issue a friendly greeting, and a little icon with float above its head. If it's a smiley face you can grab it and rub the creature to cuddle, and if it's a flower you can tap it to initiate an actual waltz.
The dancing is a rhythm-action game with flowers located around the screen and icons flooding towards them, which you have to tap when they get there. Good timing makes your prospective friend happier. Even during the first hour it's challenging, although you can always have another go if you fail the first time. By meeting, dancing and hugging, you can also get to know local creature groups, who will let you borrow their nest to gain access to the creature creator screen. You can also tap a burrow icon to return to the nest if you want to try out new body parts.
Other creatures you encounter on your travels are there to offer quests. A group of chicken-like Meepers need you to gather their scattered friends, which involves fighting off a few local bullies and giving chase to particularly frightened animals. Elsewhere, a Bushley wants you to demonstrate your throwing skills by picking up rocks and tossing them at trees to dislodge fruit. This you do by tapping a rock, then a hand icon, and then dragging a line from the rock to your target.
There's a lot to do once the game moves out of its tutorial phase, and there are various slots to save your favourite creature designs, with parts resized and recoloured to your specifications. There's also an Achievement-style system of badges, which provide points you can then invest to unlock cheats and more powerful body parts. You also get to mate with other creatures after a spell on your own (you don't get to specify that particular body part, though, obviously).
If you have Wi-Fi Connection, you can even let your creatures loose to roam other copies of the game elsewhere in the world - a nod to the PC version's "massively single-player" ethos. In the absence of other Spore Creatures players, we weren't able to test this out, but our islands were still happily populated by a range of developer-made alternatives.
Spin-off wasn't the right term, then, to return to where we came in, and a few hours in Spore Creatures' company reveals that it's not quite a companion either; it's a discrete adventure with its own ideas and the spine of a decent game firmly at its core.
Whether it evolves to rival some of the DS' best in the genre will depend on things like the breadth and variety of its quests and whether the customisation tools are able to thrive and diversify within the limitations of the handheld's small screens and wristwatch graphics chip. One problem is definition - it's already hard to get a clear handle on individual parts when they're mashed together on a big creature - but hopefully a bit more time with the interface will overcome the quirks.
It may not be as exotic and epic as its daddy, then, but Spore Creatures looks like an interesting prospect. Look out for our full reviews of Spore and Spore Creatures closer to their shared release date.
Spore Creatures is due out for DS on 5th September.