Spectrobes: Beyond The Portals - Staff Review  

Beyond Average
by Ethan Pipher

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20-40 Hours
+ Many gameplay elements blend together well
+ Good to great Spectrobe design on an impressive graphics engine
- Camera can be extremely frustrating
- Awful dialogue and phoned-in plot
- Some confusing music choices.
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   If the third time's a charm, then the second time is a promising effort. Or at least that must be what Disney believes if Spectrobes: Beyond The Portals is any indication. While the first game was apparently an ambitious bust, this Pokémon semi-clone has a number of positive things going for it while never truly poking its head above the crowd. While mimicking the popular "collect and battle" system popularized by Nintendo's wildly successful franchise, Spectrobes steps into the action-RPG realm, adds a number of new mechanics, and changes the feel enough to make it feel far from a rip-off. But do these mechanics enhance or dilute the experience? Does Disney try to push the relatively underpowered DS too hard? And is the story worth noting? Fortunately, these are not rhetorical questions. Read on.

   Before anything else, Spectrobes: Beyond The Portals is indisputably a technically impressive title. While 3D graphics in games like Final Fantasy III feel mismatched to their old-school gameplay style, Beyond The Portals has the luxury of modern action-RPG controls built from scratch. Therefore the high production values attached to this game were not put to waste. While character models and some environments are a little blocky, the art direction is strong. The Spectrobe and enemy Krawl designs are usually quite good, and occasionally great. But what is particularly impressive is that there can be quite a few enemies on screen, and the engine seems to chug along at a steady framerate.

   The gameplay to compliment the appealing visuals is a step above what was criticized about the original. The hero, Rallen, no longer fights alongside the fossils-turned-friendly-monster Spectrobes. They are now given seperate fighting arenas. Rallen fights on the main map where all the exploring and story-telling takes place. He has the ability to shoot with his gun, hack with his sword, and stun enemies momentarily. His equipment is upgradable and battling with him can actually be a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, the only purpose battling as Rallen ever serves is to destroy Krawl Dust for small healing bonuses. Otherwise, it seems that a lot of attention went into a battle system of little consequence, since the main battles are done with the Spectrobes on a seperate battle field triggered by running into Krawl-infested tornadoes. These battles always take place in a small circular field and, excepting boss battles, they are always two Spectrobes versus two Krawl. One Spectrobe is controlled by the player while the other is controlled by the computer. Although the player can alternate between the two Spectrobes at the easy press of a button, it is almost without fail that the allied partner will fall victim to mostly terrible AI. It is almost guaranteed that the majority of healing items will be used on the Spectrobe the player wasn't controlling. To make matters worse, the lock-on system that works relatively well for Rallen on the main field proves to be somewhat of a disaster for the Spectrobes due to the contained battle space. This is because there is an arbitrary distance the Spectrobe must be away from its opponent and an arbitary angle the camera must be faced for the player to lock onto an enemy Krawl. This is highly unintuitive and trying to whip the camera around to the perfect position can often result in an unnecessary loss in hit points. This issue shouldn't paint a fully negative picture, however, since there is much to be said about the battle system once a Spectrobe has successfully locked onto one of the dreaded Krawl. Every Spectrobe feels distinctly different to control, and the most exciting aspect of bringing a new Spectrobe into battle is to see how it moves, what type of attacks it has, and what its special move is. This is especially impressive since every Spectrobe has two forms it can eventually battle in, an adult form and an evolved form, each playing as differently as two entirely different Spectrobes. The result is a dynamic, fun, if not a little repetitive experience.

   But where do these Spectrobes come from? They are not found in tall grass and caught with strange red and white balls, but are rather dug from the ground in an addicting yet repetitive mini-game. Whenever an area is cleared of Krawl, Rallen's companion child Spectrobe comes out from hiding and is able to scan the ground for minerals, items, and Spectrobe fossils. While efforts are made to keep this mechanic fresh, such as adding sand and water as obstacles, it can still feel like a chore, especially as it tends to break up the action. But the minerals are important for building up the stats of the many Spectrobes and a necessity for evolving them to their final forms, so excavation can't be avoided the whole game.

   Beyond the battling and the digging for fossils, Beyond the Portals throws even more options and gameplay mechanics onto the table. There is a flight mini-game, an underused touch-based puzzle mini-game, an incubator, a process to awaken the fossils, and the list goes on. In fact, there is not enough room in this review to properly explain all the elements thrown into this game. Nonetheless, it is an impressive amount of content and it all controls well, although it can make the player feel more than a little overwhelmed at first.

   The music is a mixed bag and seems to be inspired by the Pokémon series, old 2D Sonic games, and the Kingdom Hearts series all at once. It can also be a little inappropriate on occasion. Imagine a menacing monologue presented by a twisted villain set to passive kinda-upbeat music. It doesn't quite work, does it? Aside from those confusing moments, the music is largely appropriate and occasionally good.

   The dialogue, however, is miserable. Even beyond some surprising translation issues, the characters are one-dimensional and only have mundane things to say. The plot also perpetually relies on coincidental transmissions from various side-characters to progress the story. Also, in an apparent attempt to prolong an already lengthy quest for a handheld action-RPG, the end is riddled with pointless missions that require little more than running around already explored areas of the map. This comes as a surprise since the quest continues even after the credits roll, so there didn't seem to be a need to extend gameplay in the least.

   Still, with so many elements crammed into one package, it all comes together surprisingly well and Spectrobes is a series that continues to show promise. With an improved lock-on system, better script and story, intention for Rallen's battles, and a better place for excavations within the gameplay, there could be potential for a great game. For now, Beyond The Portals is definitely worth checking out for fans of the "gotta collect them all" mantra, and even fans of action-RPGs in general who are looking for a game to slide into their little Nintendo portables.

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