Version tested: DS
The DS version of Will Wright's galaxy-spanning evolutionary epic was always going to follow in giant footsteps, but there was no reason to think the game couldn't retain some of its creative sprawl when transitioning from PC to DS. After all, it's not like the diminutive handheld hasn't hosted similarly open-ended games in the past. Mix up Animal Crossing with The Sims and sprinkle on a dash of Nintendogs and you've got a winning recipe. Strange, then, that Maxis has instead opted to turn Spore Creatures into a frustratingly linear and repetitive action-adventure.
The game starts with you as a humble sea slug called Oogie. You slither onto dry land with your friend Little Oogie, but no sooner have you set about exploring your new home a mysterious spaceship attacks and beams up your pal. The game then becomes a quest to leapfrog up the evolutionary ladder in order to track down this alien interloper and save Little Oogie.
Spore Creatures quickly establishes the pattern that will dominate the gameplay. Split into a series of planets, each split further into sequences of small islands, your first order of business is to explore your surroundings and find a way to progress to the next area. Unfortunately the camera is a slippery customer, constantly shifting your viewpoint so that what was once up is now left, then right, then down. This means that trying to go in one continuous direction often makes you go in circles unless you constantly reset the camera with the shoulder buttons. Control is via stylus or d-pad, but both leave much to be desired. For a game based on exploration, the fact that exploring makes you feel queasy isn't a good sign.
You're not alone in the world, however, and interaction with the other species is central to the experience. Docile creatures can be befriended by stroking them with smiley face icons, or by triggering a basic rhythm game in which you tap flowers as circular dots pass over them. Once you've earned their trust, creatures may give you additional body parts, or send you on further mini-quests. Inevitably, this means conflict with the less-agreeable denizens of the gameworld, and you have to swap strokes for strikes, slashing with the stylus and - later - deploying bio-attacks that you've added to your virtual frame.
These two basic types of interaction really do form the core of the whole game, and you can expect to spend most of your playing time alternating between the two. It soon becomes problematic since making friends can become a long-winded chore with no variation, while combat feels fiddly and unsatisfying. Your attacks feel disconnected, and fights usually end up as frantic stylus-mashing affairs, reliant on brute strength rather than tactical decisions. Most areas introduce new enemies who routinely kick your ass, sending you back to respawn at the nearest nest, until you find or earn the new body part that will make you strong enough to defeat them. Once this happens, battles that were once impossible become far too easy.