After I finished playing the first Spectrobes, the last thought I had about the game was that it could only go up from where it started. Despite decent sales, the game itself lacked substance. Also, in this reviewer’s opinion, the game wasn’t much fun at all. But after taking a look at early screenshots and reading previews of the sequel, I decided that “Beyond the Portals” showed promise. And though I’m still not a raving fan of the franchise, I have to say that this sequel is a quality game.
The game begins with the assumption that you have, at the very least, some cursory knowledge of the Spectrobes world. Those who managed to play the first game to completion will have a better footing with the exposition, but you don’t need much prep. work to get started. You play as Rallen, a member of the NPP (Nanairo Planetary Patrol). You fly around from planet to planet within the Nanairo solar system and save the day by battling evil, destruction-loving entities called “Krawl” using your friendly, Pokémon-esque helpers known as Spectrobes. With the help of Jeena, your know-it-all friend and partner, as well as Commander Grant, Prof. Wright, Prof. Kate, and the venerable “Aldous” (who hails from a now-destroyed solar system called Giorna), Rallen is able to make great strides in the discovery of Spectrobes and how their powers can be used for good.
The inciting incident for this tale happens early, when a sentient Krawl that claims to be a member of the elite “High Krawl” hijacks an Ancient Spaceship, being studied by Aldous, and sends he and the ship into an unknown region of space. Rallen’s first impulse is to go in search of Aldous, but the powers that be force Rallen to stay behind and begin investigation on these self-proclaimed “High Krawl.” And so the adventure of Beyond the Portals begins.
The plot to Beyond the Portals is basic good versus evil, with one big surprise waiting at the end. Who is the mastermind behind this present evil? The deceptively simple basis for the plot may end up shocking the unsuspecting, because somehow, they were able to write in a decent plot twist at the end. Otherwise, however, the plot is simple, and the writing is even simpler. There were a few truly humorous parts, like when Jeena criticizes ancient writings for claiming that the hero to come must be male: “He will bring salvation to this world…why always HE?!” But Rallen is still a total goof, complete with pretending to be Japanese by yelling “Iku ze!” (translation: “Let’s go!”) as his catch phrase before running head-first into precarious situations.
Here’s where we find the vast majority of improvements. Though the graphics and sound were touched up nicely, the real make-or-break for this sequel would be whether or not the game was any fun. Excavating, awakening, and incubating are all the same fun, time-killing distractions that they were in the first game. But now, you are rewarded for doing a good job with them! A perfect excavation on a fossil allows that fossil to become a higher-level, adult-form Spectrobe with less hassle. Also, leveling Spectrobes in the incubator can be done very rapidly, so excavating minerals becomes an important step in creating powerful Spectrobes.
As for the meat of the game, one major change fixed one of the greatest problems. Now, instead of putting Rallen and two Spectrobes into battle, Rallen has been separated from the action… though not entirely! When exploring the field, Rallen will find himself having to fight “Krawl dust,” which are generated from large Krawl tornadoes on a regular basis. Whether you choose to enter those random encounters or just run past, you will come face-to-face with a variety of enemies that Rallen alone can defeat. And if he doesn’t defeat them, or at least stun them, they are liable to bring Rallen to his knees.
But the important thing here is that Rallen isn’t a part of the main, encounter-based battles. In the last game, he was, but he was also a complete waste of space. Rallen brought nothing to the battlefield other than liability, so it only made sense to pull him out. Now, you go in with two Spectrobes, and you directly control one while the other is AI-controlled. You can switch between these two by pressing X, but at any given moment, your AI counterpart will act independently of what you choose to do while in control of a Spectrobe.
The rock-paper-scissors dynamic of the first game is back. Spectrobes come in three colors: red (Corona), blue (Flash), and green (Aurora). To mix things up a little, Beyond the Portals also introduces “Dark Spectrobes,” which also use these three elements, but are generally more powerful because they have absorbed dark energy as well. Then, add to the mix the child/adult/evolved forms, as well as the endgame “Ultimate” Spectrobes that can be summoned to help in battle, and you have a fairly deep battle system for what is intentionally a child-level RPG.
Battles are still action-based, and yes, they are still clunky. It took me awhile to realize why this was: though there’s no strict turn-based setup to the game, battles are very give-and-take. It’s a simple strategy of getting to the enemy before they get to you that must be applied if you want to achieve victory. Spectrobes and Krawl can have one of four different attack styles: melee, charge, range, and area of effect. As you can imagine, some attack forms are strong or weak against other attack forms. To complicate matters, your Spectrobe only attacks in one of these ways, and as they evolve from adult form to evolved form, the Spectrobes’ attack style may change without you knowing in advance what that new attack style will be. This forces players to compensate by having to raise up a variety of Spectrobes with different attack styles, along with the necessity of raising at least one Spectrobe of each element.
Rallen and the Spectrobes are all able to equip a couple of specialized parts, as is Rallen’s spaceship (used in a couple of simple flying mini-games). Most of your money will be spent on consumable items for healing your Spectrobes, but plenty more needs to be invested in equipment, as well as excavation tools, to successfully complete the game.
Oh yes, excavation. Full touch screen functionality is implemented here, and a variety of tools are used to help excavate in a variety of terrains. Alongside normal rock terrain, there is also underwater, ice, mud, and even lava to deal with as you locate fossils, minerals, and other goodies from the deeper layers of earth. The excavation mini-game is something you have to do often, so fortunately it is enough fun to keep the player interested dig after dig. It almost makes me want to yell “drill baby, drill!” *wink!*
Other novelty/gimmicky items that require DS functionality? You use your microphone to awaken Spectrobe fossils. You can get new Spectrobes from putting a physical trading card up to the touch screen, then pressing certain points on the card as indicated, to put in a sort of cartesian-coordinate password. Also, there is a ton of multiplayer activity that can be had, so the DS’ WiFi capabilities are put to full use. Disney even set up a special account called the “DGamer account” for this sort of thing. They’re taking multiplayer seriously, and I appreciate this.
Being a kid-friendly game, there is no Game Over screen in Beyond the Portals. If you die in a regular battle, you are put back at the beginning of that particular field’s entrance. If you lose in a boss battle, you’ll go all the way back to wherever your ship docked on that planet. That’s about all the punishment they dole out in this game. You never lose money or experience points for dying, just the time you spent getting to that point. In other words, the developers were extremely light on punishment. No wonder the kids love it!
I have a few complaints to level. The game was good, but the controls seemed a little more off than in the previous game. First of all, the touch screen is far too sensitive during excavation. I felt like I was playing the board game “Operation,” but I was using a giant pair of tweezers that simply could not avoid hitting the metal edges. The number of times I thought I was safe to dig, but ended up severely damaging the fossil/mineral, is over 9000!!! Okay, not really that many times, but it was still more often than I would have liked. The super-sensitive nature of the drill allowed for faster digs in general, but it also led to more damaged goods.
Also, what’s the deal with the new movement pattern for Rallen? Left doesn’t mean “move left” anymore. It means “move left-ish while turning left.” Hitting back makes you go 180 degrees, but not before you run a little bit in each direction as you get to where you’re headed. I found this to be particularly annoying.
Finally, the camera in battle was really problematic. You use the R key to lock onto an enemy, and L resets the camera. But sometimes I’m looking right at an enemy, I hit R, and no lock! Locking on apparently requires two things: 1) you, the player, can see the opponent, and 2) your Spectrobe is facing the opponent. If either of these two things is amiss, the lock cannot happen. The camera reset is supposed to put you (the player) into the same line of sight the Spectrobe is currently facing, but in battle this doesn’t always happen. This was a real problem.
Composer Masahiko Kimura is back to score this game. Some of the tunes from the previous game are used, but there are plenty of new songs as well. The soundtrack is decent, and much more varied than the previous game’s score, but I still wasn’t entirely impressed. Kimura has performed far better on older Konami works, such as the Castlevania series.
Sound effects are decent, and there is no voice acting. I’d like to see voice acting in future installments of Spectrobes, especially because they’re pushing such a strong teeny-bopping anime style.
Doing 3D on the DS is a dangerous enterprise. If you don’t put in a lot of detail, you’re left with some ugly, indistinguishable blobs. This was often the case for the 3D sprites in the first game, and though it still happens occasionally (depending on the camera’s zoom and the sprite in question), most of the 3D sprites in Beyond the Portals look great. The environments are all solid as well, and there is a lot of diversity from one planet to the next. The addition of planets from other solar systems allowed the developers to bring more variation to the landscapes in this game. A lot of cool conceptual art and design was put into the game as well, and I applaud the various graphic/art departments who worked on this game for a job well done.
There are a few FMV CG sequences found throughout the game, and they were all decent as well. The codec used allowed for high-quality videos with almost no blocky or grainy frames from too much compression (a fate that’s befallen even the greatest Square Enix DS RPGs).
With the basic layout of the game’s universe out of the way, the developers were able to refine and revise to their heart’s content and make a respectable sequel. And that, my friends, is exactly what this series needed. The last game may have sold well due to marketing, but this one will be remembered for having decent gameplay and a lengthy story mode to complete. With a target audience of 8 to 14 year-olds, Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals is a fun and simple RPG with all the bells and whistles that can be put into a DS game. If you’re an adult, and the premise seems too immature for you, steer clear. For everyone else, it may be a worthwhile addition to your library.