The PSP has had some great games representing just about every genre from platformers to adventure games to RPGs. About the only genre that PSP owners don't have is an adventure game in the same vein as Pokemon, Nintendo's juggernaut franchise that can move consoles on its own. Third-party companies have tried with varying results, but Sony has never really made an attempt. That changed last year with Invizimals, a similar game that had the promise of augmented reality as its hook but also had some technical glitches and shallow gameplay elements that yielded mixed results from both critics and players. Apparently the game did well enough that a sequel was greenlit, and almost exactly one year later, we have Invizimals: Shadow Zone.
The story starts after the final battle of the last game, where the villainous Campbell disappears into the light after a failed attempt to get the necessary information to control the Invizimals. You once again join the trio of Jazmin, Kenichi and Professor Dawson as they travel the world looking for Invizimals. This time around, they've discovered that these creatures may be older than they think, with ancient texts mentioning them as mythical creatures. The texts also tell of a shadow zone, where bad things could happen to the world should someone try and use the Invizimals for his own nefarious gain. With the desire to see whether Campbell is alive and with the team still wanting to discover more Invizimals, they set off on a worldwide adventure.
You quickly discover that the game's story is told through live-action, full-motion video. At almost every opportunity, the story comes through as if you were using your PSP to look at what other people are doing. It isn't that bad, and while some may groan at the actors' lines and the story path, the kids for whom this game is intended will be fine since that's similar to some of their shows nowadays. What will disappoint some people is the sheer amount of cut scenes. It feels like you're spending half of the game doing nothing but watching the scenes play out and seeing save screens fly by.
When you get a chance to interact with the game, it'll be restricted to three different activities. The first is capturing creatures, and this is accomplished by looking at flat, horizontal services and hoping to track down an Invizimal. A gauge at the top lets you know how close you are to finding one, and the objective is to run around looking at your surroundings until you find the assigned creatures. Interestingly enough, it's not location that matters as much as the surface color. Staying in one spot, for example, and using different pieces of colored paper as your focus lets you find more creatures than running around ever will. While this is a necessary mechanic to get the creature-finding feature to work, it destroys the illusion that creatures are all around once you discover this. When you find the creature, you have to use your trap card and a combination of timed button presses to get it out of hiding.
The second activity has to do with creature capture, which proves to be more interesting than one would expect. Instead of using another Invizimal to weaken the creature before capturing it, you often have to participate in different minigames in your trap card location to get a successful capture. Some have you trying to distract the creature while others pass by it undetected. Another game may have you avoiding attacks and blowing on the creature to knock it out. Either way, the capture techniques differ per creature, and with over 100 of them, this is a fun part of the game as you try to anticipate what crazy stunt you'll have to perform to gain a new entry in your army. New to this version is the ability to customize your Invizimal once you capture it. While the customization is limited to simply renaming the creature and giving it a different color scheme, it is better than nothing at all.
The final activity is the fighting itself. Whether it's through tournaments or fight clubs in each location, you'll select one creature from your army to fight, and both you and your opponent are set into the trap card space to duke it out. No matter who you pick, your arsenal of moves always contains two basic strikes, a quick attack, and a heavy attack, all of which have different elemental properties depending on who was chosen. All of the fighting takes place in real time instead of through menu-based combat, but all moves are governed by a stamina system, where stronger moves take a big chunk of stamina while weaker moves take much less. In addition to the basic moves, each player can use items for either defensive purposes or offensive ones. Once a fight is completed, sparks are earned, and you can use them to power up your Invizimal for increased strength and stamina.
The battling is fun, but a few technical gaffes ruin the experience. The game is much better at keeping track of the trap card this time around, but there are still instances where getting too close or too far from the card would cause the fighters to disappear. You'll still hear fight sounds going on, but no actions are really taken, throwing you off of your pattern and causing you to miss blocks in the process. That loss of focus also contributes to some moves not being able to be used to their full capacity. The earthquake move, for example, requires you to shake your system around to generate enough power to unleash massive damage on your opponent. However, the system has no built-in accelerometer, and any shaking done when the game loses focus on the trap card doesn't count toward the energy and, in some cases, will cause the move to not trigger at all. Some special moves that require the use of the mic are still fine, but anything that uses camera movement becomes frustrating because of the game's finicky nature.
As before, the game is one of the few recent releases that uses both ad-hoc and online Wi-Fi for multiplayer. In both cases, you can enter versus fights with your chosen Invizimal as well as put up prizes for any tournaments you hold. In a new feature for the series, ad-hoc players can also participate in some co-op quests to find new Invizimals. One thing to keep in mind is that there doesn't seem to be too many players online in North America. Throughout the entire review period, not one American host showed up, and not one person showed up to an online session that I was hosting. However, there seems to be a small contingent of Asian players and a larger European base playing, and with the lag not being terrible enough to make you quit playing, searching for online fights is still a viable option if you don't mind international competition.
Graphically, the game does pretty well. The design of the Invizimals isn't exactly as memorable as that of the Pokemon, but their multicolored designs mean that they don't look bland. They also move well, and the effects from some of the moves look rather impressive. What really helps is the camera resolution. While it may not be high-definition material, it is good enough for the PSP screen that the visual noise typical of most cameras on game systems isn't present here, so the augmented reality comes off much nicer, especially when some parts of the environment show up alongside the creatures. The only time the game seems to struggle graphically is during the creature intros per fight, where the frame rate takes a dramatic dive. Considering that these are the only elements it has to render, one has to wonder why more work wasn't done to ensure a stable frame rate throughout.
The sound is also pretty good. The effects come out clearly, and even though there are no volume differences when viewing the action up close or far away, the effects produced by each move still sound impressive. The music is decent enough but ultimately forgettable, and with the game's amount of cut scenes, you'll notice that there isn't much music at all. One thing that is puzzling happens at the beginning of each fight. No matter who is chosen for battle, the cries heard at the beginning of each bout all sound the same, as if a menagerie of animals is cheering before the fight begins. It doesn't detract from the game, but it is odd to hear.
Invizimals: Shadow Zone may sport some marginal improvements, but the core game still isn't much to talk about. With a narrative that you rarely interact with, you'll watch most of the game instead of playing it. Even when you get to control something, it feels minimal in comparison to other games of this type. Still, the allure of playing with augmented reality is impressive, and until one discovers the trick behind seeking out new creatures, the intended audience will have fun running around trying to discover new entries for their army and powering them up. While the game can't be recommended over many similar DS titles, if you only have a PSP, then this really is your best bet.
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