Spectrobes: Origins


Review by · September 28, 2009

We’d known this game was coming for quite some time. The third game in a series of kid-friendly Action RPGs has the marketing muscle of Disney and the saccharine-sweet trappings that would immediately turn off the average adult gamer. With that knowledge in mind, what comes as a complete surprise is that this twentysomething reviewer loved playing Spectrobes: Origins.

When it comes to reviewing RPGs, I have no problem acting as the resident glutton for punishment. That’s how I got my introduction to this series. The first Spectrobes game, for the Nintendo DS, is a tragedy in a box. I don’t know why kids ate it up, because it was simply a poorly-made, broken game. The sequel, also for DS, made vast improvements, but it still felt too much like a “kid’s game” to be really enjoyable. All of that changed with the series debut to the Wii. With this jump, the development house has also switched from Jupiter to Genki. Let’s jump right into this review by talking about why I enjoy this game.

Wii Waggle: Use Sparingly

Spectrobes: Origins is an Action RPG in the same vein as Kingdom Hearts – third-person camera, enemies that spawn out of thin air, base mechanics of “lock-on and combo attack,” and teammates that join you in battle. The difference between the Kingdom Hearts titles and Spectrobes: Origins is that, while you had only a small semblance of indirect control of Goofy, Donald, and other guest characters in Kingdom Hearts, your battle partner in Spectrobes: Origins (a Spectrobe) acts based on direct commands. And though there are only two active members on screen at any time (one human, one Spectrobe), you can switch on-the-fly between up to six Spectrobes equipped in your Cosmolink (some magical device stuck to your arm). With a strong emphasis on elemental affinity and basic combat affinities (melee vs. distance, slow single-strike vs. fast multi-strike), the combat system is without question the game’s greatest strength.

The control scheme also works surprisingly well. In RPGs for the Wii, we’ve generally found that making use of the motion controls is either done in a way that is entirely gimmicky and unnecessary, or else the motion controls simply aren’t used. Spectrobes: Origins strikes a balance by keeping the “Wii Waggle” at a base level of simplicity, and makes it such that you don’t have to spend your entire time in battle “waggling” (though I’m sure some of the younger children playing the game will be fooled into thinking that is exactly what they ought to be doing). But a sharp, intelligent waggler can cut down on all the motion-based controls thanks to this surprisingly intuitive control scheme. Let me lay it out for you.

In one hand, you hold the “nunchuck.” Here you have the analog stick, which is used to control the character (either Rallen or Jeena: the difference between playing as one or the other is purely cosmetic). The “C” button can be used to turn on the “pointing” aspect of the Wiimote for manual targeting (which only needs to be used on a few occasions), and the Z button is used in conjunction with the D-pad (on the Wiimote) to do that nifty on-the-fly Spectrobe-switching. Note that despite primary control of your human character being found on the nunchuck, the “action” button (talking while in towns, attacking while in combat) is still the “A” button on the Wiimote. It feels natural, despite the explanation.

Now, to control a Spectrobe, it’s as simple as saying “yes” or “no.” A simple vertical stroke is like nodding your head “yes.” In combat, that sends your Spectrobe out to attack a targeted enemy. The Spectrobe will continue to attack that enemy until it is dead; the Spectrobe will then auto-target other enemies on the field, unless you tell it specifically which one to attack next. A horizontal stroke, or “no,” will have Rallen or Jeena shout “come back!,” and the Spectrobe will immediately return to you. The combat-based Spectrobes are able to teleport instantly, and using this simple “yes/no” function is key to not only efficiently taking down enemies, but also evading enemy attacks. Boss battles require some basic usage of yes/no to get Spectrobes out of harm’s way. Also, you can finish up a combo attack if using the sword (one of five types of weaponry, and certainly the most useful) by throwing a “yes” command on the targeted enemy after a string of sword attacks. The resulting finishing move from the Spectrobe will be stronger, and animated differently, than normal attacks.

The only other combat-based motion control is for special attacks. Of course, alongside the health bars of you and your Spectrobe, there is an orange bar that is used for special attacks. It is based entirely upon the Spectrobe’s actions. If the Spectrobe deals damage, takes damage, or if a defeated enemy drops some little orbs, the orange gauge fills slightly. Once full, you can hit the “B” button to freeze the on-screen action and perform a cute little motion with the Wiimote and Nunchuck. Cross arms to “charge,” and then once the charge is finished (denoted by a circular gauge), uncross your arms and put them out into the air for the release! The Spectrobe proceeds to deal massive damage, and again, the enemies do not move during this attack. I found that you don’t have to go all-out, the way the on-screen images and tutorials show, to make the special attack happen, but it’s a nice touch!

The work of having to balance control of the human character and the support actions of the Spectrobes is only a small challenge for an adult, but it should prove sufficiently challenging (and interesting) for children. Regardless of age and exposure to technology, however, the game holds potential for anyone to be a great experience. Or, at least, the combat is a lot of fun. The game took me about 15 hours to complete, and this aspect of the game was so much fun that, upon unlocking a post-endgame scenario where one can take on high-level versions of the game’s bosses, I immediately gave this new challenge my level best efforts because I was having fun. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but I have to be true to myself here.

On Excavation And Spectrobe Growth: Improvement All Around

Outside of combat, there is one truly “gimmicky” aspect of the game, though it is one that will forever be a part of this series. You see, the Spectrobes are awakened from fossils found by excavating the earth. If there’s one thing that quickly irritated me in the DS Spectrobes titles, it was the forced repetition of entering the excavation mode and having to excavate every single item, be it fossil or mineral (items used to help level the Spectrobes). In Origins, only fossils are excavated; minerals (and other items) come out of the ground via ground searches which are done using “yes/no” to send a child-form Spectrobe to inspect the ground.

The excavation system itself has been entirely overhauled. Instead of digging, on-site, into the ground, you take a cube of dirt with you that you can excavate at any time. You have six tools with which to break the dirt off this cube without harming the fossil inside. This entire mini-game involves usage of the motion controls. The Wiimote points at the screen and is used in the same way one might use the DS stylus. However, one new tool, the “hammer,” has been added. It’s the most useful tool of the bunch, and it works like this: point Wiimote at screen, hit “A” to lock on, then Wii Waggle in the motion of a hammer striking an object. Harder strikes take off more dirt (and run a greater risk of hitting the Spectrobe). You can rotate the cube while keeping the same lock-on point fixed to the screen, as though one hand were holding the cube and the other hand were holding a hammer in place. Though I still did more excavating than I would like, because I found it much less interesting than the game’s combat, it’s still a huge improvement over the DS excavation systems.

After excavating Spectrobes, you can put them in incubators, feed them minerals and do a few other activities to increase their levels outside of combat. All Spectrobes have three forms: child, adult, and evolved. Child Spectrobes are used for searching and the elemental differences (fire, plant, earth, sky, water) determine what special doors can be opened. Furthermore, a child Spectrobe’s mode of movement (flying vs. walking) determines what special crevices it can reach. It’s difficult to decide which Spectrobes to keep in child form, but you do need a fair arsenal of them for searching, while the rest are free to be evolved into battle-ready forms. That part of the game is certainly standard fare, equivalent to Pokémon, Digimon, and other pet-collecting titles.

I had a lot of fun managing my Spectrobes and determining which six adult/evolved Spectrobes I should take with me for quests on each of the game’s seven planets. However, because newly-excavated Spectrobes’ base levels are based on how well you excavate them and the base level of your human character, it was typical for the human character to be of a much higher level than the current high-level Spectrobe in your party. Thus, there was little use for attaching yourself to one favorite Spectrobe from early in the game, unless you’re willing to do the extra level-grinding work. I did this for one fantastic combo-attack fire-element Spectrobe (Zaza), but chose to re-excavate and awaken higher-level forms of other Spectrobes to save time.

And Now For The Bad News

Much as I loved playing this game, it does have its fair share of problems. First of all, there’s the entire story. It’s not awful, but it’s definitely a flashy/showy affair that’s aimed to please ‘tweens. Rallen says “Iku ze!” all the time, because it’s cool to mimic Japanese culture in small doses. The plot itself is a cookie-cutter story, and even though the title says “origins,” this isn’t a prequel. it is sequentially the third title in the series, but it also tells an “origins” story. You’ll learn about the NPP’s commander, Grant, and what he did as a young man. You also learn the origins of the series’ primary villain, “Krux” (human and Krawl?), and you’ll also discover some more about the nature of the Spectrobes, all in a new solar system called “Kaio” (the first game takes place on “Nanairo,” the home system for Rallen and Jeena). When you arrive on Kaio, you learn that all your old gear simply doesn’t work there, so you’re given new stuff and you start from square one; you know, kind of like a Metroid game where you lose all your powers.

If you can look past the light and predictable plot and enjoy the redeeming elements (namely, humorous character interaction), you’ll be set to go on that front. However, there are some things that I found simply unacceptable. I understand why Genki would choose to limit camera control. The camera is controlled with the D-pad, and it works like this: left for left, right for right, down to reset camera to the character’s view. Up doesn’t do anything. You may be wondering, “how do I look up and down?” Too bad, kids! There’s no vertical camera movement here. It’s all fixed in the air, angled slightly downward. For the most part, this doesn’t pose a problem, but I remember one specific scene in a tower where you’re told that a mural on the wall tells the story of an older civilization. However, you cannot possibly see the entire mural, because you can’t look up. If they make a sequel to this game on the Wii, I expect this to be fixed.

There are five weapon types Rallen and Jeena can use: Sword, Spear, Axe, Glove, and Blaster. Of these five, only one is worth using on a regular basis: sword. The axe is a specialty use for breaking through an armored Krawl’s defenses and the long-range Blasters can be useful for a few boss fights, though they do negligible damage. Spears and Gloves? They’re useless. Each weapon type has a bunch of elemental variants that are associated with each of the game’s 30 evolved-form Spectrobes. But whenever I got a non-sword weapon, it was a huge letdown. All I wanted were new swords, because the combat was most fun, and made most sense, with swords. Perhaps, for a sequel, they could limit weapon types to only ones that are worth using. That, or they could make the bulky/unwieldy weapons (that leave you susceptible to far too many attacks) more useful.

One final complaint with the game actually comes with a lot of praise. The game’s difficulty level and difficulty curve are a little off-kilter. Specifically, the last two hours of the game’s scripted plot are nearly impossible without a fair bit of level-grinding, but everything up to that point is fairly manageable. I enjoyed the difficulty of the boss fights, and of the battles in general, but I also enjoyed the satisfaction of being able to move forward without stopping to level grind. I didn’t beat every boss first try; sometimes I would have to hit the “Continue” button after failing. But it wouldn’t do to just “Continue” my way through the final boss. I had to really take some time to power up the Spectrobes.

A Note On Presentation

Three quick thoughts on the game’s presentation. The visuals aren’t “next-gen,” which is to be expected for a Wii title. But everything is shiny and the few FMV cut scenes are a lot of fun to watch. The game’s characters all have interesting designs and their voices match the character design very well. It’s worth noting that this game isn’t being “localized” from Japan. The game was actually developed and marketed primarily for an English-speaking audience, as evidenced by the fact that the game is still not out in Japan. Director Kentaro Hisai intends for the game to have international appeal, but the fact that the game is designed to work for English-speaking players first and foremost is very helpful. Mouth movement matches the English voice work much better, and the casted voice talent fits the characters of Spectrobes: Origins extremely well. Seriously, props to whoever did the voice work on Gretta, Krux, and Kamtoga.

The music staff took a switch alongside the development studio. “T’s Music,” a group comprised of four or five Japanese composers, did the music for this installment, and they did a fantastic job. It is disheartening to see that no official soundtrack release is planned. I really enjoyed the music in the game, and it was all cued very well, be it an action scene or an event-based dialogue sequence.

Not Just For Kids

If you’re around my age or a little older, and you’ve got some youngsters who enjoy playing fun games targeted for their age group on the Wii, this might be a great game for them. But you know what? It might also be a great game for you. Very few “made-for-children” games can make this claim. Mario and Zelda are intended to have age-spanning appeal, but games like Spectrobes: Origins are clearly meant for children and youth. The game is slightly edgier than, say, Barbie’s Horse Riding Adventures 4, as evidenced by the E10 rating. But it’s still for a younger audience. Nonetheless, as a full-grown adult who has no problem playing and enjoying the dark and mature RPGs of the world, I’m happy to report that this game was a treat for me to play. There are plenty of positive things about the game I didn’t get a chance to write about in this review, because the details would really bog you down. Suffice it to say, you’ll have fun if you give this game a fair chance.

Overall Score 87
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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and guinea pigs.