Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals (DS)
Developed by Jupiter
Published by Disney Interactive Studios
Released on October 7, 2008
Beyond the Portals continues the sci-fi/RPG adventure of Rallen and Jeena, Nanairo Planetary Patrol officers. After defeating the Krawl in the original game, the Nanairo solar system settles into a comfortable peace, until it is again attacked by the Krawl, this time directed by the mysterious Krux and the High Krawl. The story, naturally, evolves into a sprawling space epic shrouded in mystery, danger, and questionable dialogue. To aid him in his quest, Rallen excavates Spectrobe fossils from the ground, awakens them, and then uses them in battle.
The characters are relatively flat, and the dialogue never really fits the action. "What did you do that for?" isn't a particularly pertinent question to be asking, ever so politely, to a pan-dimensional being bent on annhiliating your civilization. That isn't to say that the story isn't a relatively engaging framework in which the game's mechanics operate, but it's certainly nothing to write home about. Furthermore, the story quickly devolves into a pretty predictable pattern -- land on a new planet, fight three screens worth of Krawl, find a boss, sit through some narrative exposition, rinse, repeat. There are a few nice set pieces and puzzles to solve, but the basic outline stays the same.
Beyond the Portals' art direction is typical anime fare, rendered in full 3D. The different planets are nicely varied and the Spectrobe character models are superb. The cutscenes that pepper the story also feature some of the most beautiful animation I've ever seen on a DS.
Beyond the Portals is, ostensibly, an action-RPG, but it only really excels at the later portion of its label. The combat is split into two separate parts: in the field, Rallen fights Krawl Dust; after he encounters a swirling Krawl Vortex, his Spectrobes enter into the fray. The story never really explains what Krawl Dust are, and their only purpose seems to be to drop healing items and to knock you into bigger Vortexes. It's not like Rallen even gains any experience by killing them -- that happens through excavation.
In the field, the controls are relatively straightforward -- you can attack with a sword, stun your enemies with a punch, or shoot at them with a blaster. The L shoulder button resets the rather finicky camera and the R shoulder button activates an equally finicky lock-on system. In short, the switch from the original's isometric perspective to the sequel's full 3D was neither graceful nor necessary and only makes an unresponsive and clumsy field combat system even more cumbersome.
It's worth noting that Rallen is controlled by the directional pad, which is nice. It isn't nice, however, that all the menus are controlled by the stylus. This is an RPG. You use the menus -- a lot. Constantly switching between the stylus and the d-pad is, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass. Do I put the stylus back in it's slot on the DS, only to pull it out again? Do I hold it uncomfortably in my hands while I try to play? In my mouth? Since the menu navigation is unnecessarily cluttered and some of the most unfriendly UI I've ever seen in an RPG (barring Mass Effect), the constant switching back and forth quickly becomes a problem.
After Rallen encounters a Vortex, two of his Spectrobes will engage in a fight with some Krawl. The player controls one Spectrobe, while the mostly competent AI controls the other. Each Spectrobe and Vortex is associated with one of three properties, and preparing for battle boils down to a game of rock-paper-scissors. If the Vortex is, say, red, then you simply have to bring two blue Spectrobes into the battle. Then you just beat on each other (with the A button) until it's over.
Unfortunately, Beyond the Portals
has a nasty habit of periodically forcing you into fights. It's a slap in the cock to descend a staircase and be forced into a boss battle that you weren't expecting and aren't prepared for -- it's artifically difficult and annoying. The battles do get more interesting when the Vortexes start carrying different types of Krawl (a red and a blue, for example), forcing you to make some strategic decisions in your preparations; however, even these fights boil down to keeping the elementally disadvantaged Spectrobe alive while your AI does all the heavy lifting.
I should mention that there's no way to heal your Spectrobes in the middle of the battle. When the combat is simplified to the point that having the wrong color Spectrobe results in certain death, Jupiter really should have included some sort of recourse -- being able to heal or switch Spectrobes would make those unanticipated fights interesting and surprising, instead of a pain in the ass.
While boss battles are long enough for you to make full use of each Spectrobe's special attacks (activated once your energy bar is full), more often than not, Spectrobe battles consist of exchanging attacks until someone dies. Considering a suprisingly steep difficulty arc, that someone will most likely be you unless you take some time to either a.) grind your Spectrobes or b.) excavate often enough to find the goodies and powerful Spectrobes you need. Thankfully, Spectrobes' excavation mechanic offers some of the best uses of the DS hardware I've ever encountered.
Excavation is, or should have been, the meat of Beyond the Portals. After clearing out all of the Krawl in a certain area, Rallen can use his Spectrobes to search for buried fossils and items. Using the stylus, you gently scrape away the dirt and rocks encasing the valuable minerals. Throughout the course of the game, you'll acquire different tools to make your life easier -- a blowtorch for melting ice, a vaccuum for clearing away murky water and mud, a blower to clear away sand, etc. A timer in the top right corner creates a sense of urgency -- if you excavate a fossil in under a minute, the Spectrobe inside will be stronger than usual.
Not only is the idea of excavation a neat replacement for kicking open treasure chests or raiding townspeople's closets as a way to gather items, but it also works exceedingly well on the DS. If you push too hard during excavation, your fossils will break. You can blow into the microphone to clear away debris. Simply put, Spectrobes could not have worked on another handheld, and Jupiter seems to really understand how to use the DS-specific features subtly and to great effect.
Since you have to clear an area of Krawl before you can dig up fossils, excavation, in addition to being a really cool mechanic in itself, functions as a nice foil to the unengaging and frustrating combat. I really can't overstate how satisfying it is to search for items and fossils and to chip away at them, ever so slightly, until they're yours. Sure, the excavation mechanic is a really elaborate Easter Egg hunt, but it pushes all the right buttons to create a highly addictive sub-game in its own right. Coupled with the inherently addictive nature of catching and raising assorted monsters, the excavation of fossils almost compensates for both of the lackluster combat systems.
After excavating a fossil, Rallen takes it back to his spaceship-cum-laboratory and goes through the awakening process, which consists of yelling "wake up!" into the microphone. For all of you above the age of eigth years old, blowing softly into the microphone will suffice. Congratulations, you've just acquired a child Spectrobe.
Child Spectrobes can't fight, but they help you search for fossils and minerals. To get them to grow, you stick them in the Incubator and feed them minerals. Once they become adults, they can fight the Krawl, and once they've reached a certain level, they evolve once more and become even more powerful. Unfortunately, the Incubator system is a little more complex than it really needs to be. Again, an unfriendly and inefficient UI rears its head, making sorting through your incubated Spectrobes more difficult than it really has any right to be.
While different Spectrobes have slightly different stats and attack patterns (some Spectrobes can fire projectiles, or attack more than once), there's no real reason to pick one over the other. The battle system isn't deep enough for the differences in strength or speed to really matter. That's really a shame, since each Spectrobe is pretty unique, and there's an extensive customization mechanic that allows you to create an infinite number of specific and varied creatures.
Nevertheless, there is a very distinct sense of nuturing that comes with raising your little Spectrobe from child to death incarnate, and the system goes a long way in compensating for some of the game's more frustrating aspects. Given that there are several different planets to explore, myriad sidequests and optional bosses, and a ton of Spectrobes to collect, the micro-managing collectioneer will find plenty of game in Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals. It's just too bad that not one, but two clumsy combat systems and a cluttered UI detract from an excavation mechanic which provides some of the most fun that can be had with a touch screen and stylus.
Score: 6* (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)
* Yes, buy it. When it gets a price cut.