Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Developer: Jupiter Multimedia
Release Date: October 7, 2008
Monster training games always reside in the shadow of Nintendo's goliath Pokémon series. Sure, there are some games that escape the ever-present shadow, but very few of them manage to attain the all-ages appeal of Pokémon . Digimon is perhaps the only competitor that comes close, and it has been quite silent in recent years, with only a handful of games that failed to attract even a fraction of the attention that was showered upon Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. It seemed as if Pokémon was destined to rule the monster trainer universe for ages to come. Yet there is one dark horse that seems able to challenge Pokémon for the monster trainer crown: Disney's Spectrobe's franchise. Already on its second game, Spectrobes has pretty strong following and a lot of interesting ideas, but do interesting ideas translate into interesting gameplay?
Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals puts you back in the shoes of Nanario Planetary Patrol officer Rallen, the star of the first game. During the events of the first Spectrobes, Rallen discovered that he had the ability to control ancient fossilized creatures known as spectrobes, the national enemy of the evil invading swarm called the Krawl. Rallen stopped the invasion, but peace was destined to be short-lived. Just as Rallen and his friends were relaxing, the peace was shattered as a mysterious group of portals appeared, releasing a new swarm of Krawl into the galaxy. Even worse, their friend Aldous has vanished, and a mysterious group seems out to use the Krawl for their own purposes, aided by what appear to be spectrobes of their own.
So what, exactly, is a spectrobe? It's basically a cute animal pal, and in this case, the spectrobes became extinct ages ago, and all that was left of them were fossils. Luckily for mankind, scientists have invented a way to recreate spectrobes from fossils. Spectrobes come in three stages: child, adult and evolved. Child stage spectrobes are cute and tiny, but not capable of fighting; their usefulness comes from the fact that they can find fossils buried in the ground, thus giving you access to more child-type spectrobes for more fossil-gathering. Once a child-type has been fed enough minerals or if you're really careful digging them up, they can evolve into an adult. Adults lose their mineral-finding abilities, but gain the ability to fight. These adult spectrobes can further power-up into evolved spectrobes, who are basically just adults but bigger, badder and more appealing to folks who don't like their evil-fighting monsters cute and cuddly. Spectrobes come in one of three elemental types —Aurora, Corona or Flash — that function as a triangle of strength and weaknesses. Corona, for example, is strong against Aurora, but weak against Flash, so if you're going to be fighting some Flash-type enemies, you probably don't want to bring your Zozanero with you.
Unlike the original Spectrobes, Rallen is no longer limited to his spectrobes to battle. The game's 3-D map consists of "Krawl vortexes" and smaller dust clouds. The vortexes are used to initiate the main combat, but the dust clouds are things that Rallen has to fight himself. This is done on the main screen by using Rallen's equipped blade, his long-range pistol or a stunning punch attack. It's also completely pointless. You simply hit a cloud, watch it die and move on. As the game progresses, you may have to dodge attacks, but there's really no reason to bother with the dust clouds. The only thing that they drop are "recovery orbs" to recover your HP, but this isn't really a major concern, and the only reason to fight them seems to be if you enjoy the awkward camera and combat system. I appreciate the fact that the developers wanted to make the main character seem more involved, but the dust clouds don't really do anything and feel like they're there to pad out the game's length.
The larger vortexes, however, are where the game's primary mechanic comes into play. Each vortex has a color, signifying one of the game's three elemental types (Aurora, Corona or Flash) and indicating the elemental type of the Krawl within. Your goal is to pick a spectrobe team that is strong against these elements and send them in to do battle. Spectrobe battles are a bit boring, especially since you know the elements of the creatures you're going to be facing beforehand. They take place, two versus two, on a 3-D map. Players control one of the two spectrobes that they send in, with the other being controlled by the AI, and battle their opponents in real-time combat. The combat is pretty simple. You have one "attack" button that does the spectrobe's attack, one charge attack button that builds up to launch a super move, and one combination attack button that works if both spectrobes have a maxed charge meter. You just hit the enemy repeatedly with your regular attack and occasionally toss out a special attack.
You can switch between spectrobes at will, but that doesn't really change much. Each spectrobe has its own unique attack, but there isn't really much variation between the attacks. They are either a close-range or long-range attack, and they're either weak but hit multiple times or are strong and can only be used one time. A spectrobe with a full charge meter can revive a fallen AI comrade, but if you play smart, this won't be a big concern. Thus, battle comes down to pounding out attacks against the rather brain-dead enemy AI and collecting the shinies that pop out. There is nothing wrong with the combat system, except for the wonky camera that doesn't like to listen to you; the combat is pretty mediocre and could really use some additional features to further flesh it out. Another annoying result is that a spectrobe's usefulness is entirely dependent on one attack, and a lot of spectrobes have pretty bad attacks. Any attack that has a long lag time is pretty worthless, no matter how much damage it does, so there are a set group of spectrobes that are just unusable. The result is that the actual battling aspect of the title tends to be pretty dull.
Perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable part of Beyond the Portals is the fossil-digging mini-game. Once you've defeated the foes on the map, you can begin digging for fossils and other items using your futuristic gadgets. If you played the recent Pokémon titles, this will feel a bit like the digging mini-game in The Underground, although way more advanced. You have to use a variety of in-game tools to dig up fossils, minerals, upgrades and various other shinies on whatever planet you're on.
It takes a steady hand and a cautious stylus to do so, however, especially since each planet in the title has a different environment. Digging in a sandy desert planet involves moving sand and dust away from your digging area, which can be done either with a microphone or a tool in-game. Thankfully, the microphone is completely optional. Likewise, you need to melt through hard ice on the ice planet in order to get to the precious fossils underneath. So why is this so important? The faster and more efficient your digging is, the better the prizes you get. If you blunder through the excavation, you'll destroy the fossil you're trying to dig up. Do it fast and do it perfectly, and not only with you get a new fossil, but it will also be a crown fossil, which can be evolved into a stronger spectrobe without feeding it. It's really basically the same thing on most of the excavation sites, but it's interesting enough to keep you busy, and the variation in the process is enough to prevent it from getting boring.
Beyond the Portals is, unfortunately, just a bit too limited. The gameplay grows repetitive really quickly due to the rather restricted number of options available to your spectrobes, and as mentioned above, certain spectrobes are not even worth your time to deploy. The end result is that you'll probably form a core stable of good spectrobes and use them from beginning to end, and unlike Pokémon, you won't see too many changes to these fossil creatures. The game isn't too long either, and dedicated gamers will probably finish it in a few sittings without rushing through. The collection aspect adds a bit of length to the game, but it really isn't too hard to fill out your spectrobe roster and inventory if you're really pushing. Beyond the Portals falls into that weird area where it has the inadequate plot of a monster training game like Pokémon, but lacks the post-game options and side-quests necessary to keep the title interesting past the lackluster main story.
Beyond the Portals does offer a Wi-Fi mode, although it's really quite odd. You see, battles over Wi-Fi are not anything remotely resembling the battles that take place in the main game. Instead, you and another player send six spectrobes (in three teams of two) to battle each other … in a turn-based fighting system. The combat switches between attack phases and defense phases, with the players having to complete mini-games in order to attack or defend. While the actual combat system for Wi-Fi play is kind of fun, it's really quite strange that the Wi-Fi mode is nothing like the main game, and any skills you've learned playing through the main plot will be pretty worthless here. It isn't bad, but it feels really disconnected from the rest of the title. The Wi-Fi mode also offers a fairly neat little marketplace, where you can obtain rare items or spectrobes by trading with other players or by redeeming weekly points download prizes.
Compared to other "monster trainer" games, Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals is just too limited. The game itself is quite linear and fairly short, even as these things go, and while the collection aspect is fun, it doesn't hold a candle to anything in the Pokémon or Digimon franchises. The basis for a really interesting game is here, but there just isn't enough depth to keep anyone but the youngest of players interested. However, for those young gamers, Beyond the Portal is an all-around solid choice, with very straightforward mechanics and simple, easy-to-learn controls. While it probably won't scratch a hardcore gamer's itch for busywork until Pokémon Platinum hits, Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals should do a fine job of keeping the kids entertained.
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