Review by · August 9, 2008

The DS library has quickly filled with RPGs, and it’s definitely got its share of Pokémon/Poké-clone titles as well. Spectrobes is one such game, released last year by Disney. The development studio behind Spectrobes is Jupiter, the same people who worked on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for GBA. If you’re like me, you’d be inclined to judge a new title before playing it based on the developer’s previous work. I did this, and I was wrong to do so.

Chain of Memories was an okay game. At the very least, it was in a format that Jupiter seemed to be able to handle: 2D graphics (or “2.5D” with sprites and parallax scrolling) and single-player control. Spectrobes, in contrast, attempts a fully 3D environment on the Nintendo DS. This is a risky move, and apparently one that Jupiter couldn’t handle.

After multiple attempts at properly discussing the game, I decided to sort out my thoughts in a classic “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” format. Let’s do it!

The Good

Spectrobes had a lot of potential. Part of its “goodness” was its premise. On the surface, it may sound like simple Poké-clone fare, but there’s a lot more to it than that. In the game, the monsters that are used to combat your swarming, alien-like nemesis called “the Krawl” are legendary creatures called (you guessed it) “Spectrobes.” And it just so happens that Spectrobes are all fossilized in a particular solar system, and you can bring them back to life using mysterious technology (including your DS’s microphone…).

The plot starts out simply enough, and it feels good (if a little contrived). You play the young, brash hero, “Rallen.” Alongside your female counterpart, “Jeena,” you are a member of an intergalactic peace-keeping force. One day you get a call to check out a disturbance, and you find the escape pod of a man from another solar system. The sleeper, Aldous, awakes to discover that he’s been asleep for over a decade, and that the solar system he escaped from in hopes of finding the solution to its problem has been obliterated. And yes, it was the Krawl that destroyed his home. Fortunately, he has lots of theoretical knowledge on the Krawl and the Spectrobes, and he quickly becomes Rallen’s mentor.

Up to this point, the game is interesting, and the introduction to the plot is good fun. But it quickly goes downhill from there, and I will describe this downward spiral later.

The game makes full use of Nintendo DS’s various functions (touch screen, microphone, Wi-Fi), and in all three cases, the results are perfect. Spectrobes’ more interactive gameplay features help it to stand out even if they are gimmicky, which certainly helps it attract a younger audience.

First, the “excavation” mini-game is surprisingly fun. As you explore the field, a baby Spectrobe helps you identify areas that are worth excavating. Then you begin the excavation process. After tapping the screen a few times to break through layers, you’ll discover something to extract. It could be a fossil, a mineral (used for leveling Spectrobes), or a special type of crystal that contains key information about the Spectrobes. Whatever it is, you must be sensitive in digging it out. The mini-game is similar to the classic board game “Operation,” but with a pile of dirt poured on top. You have to remove the dirt on and around the item in question, but you must not touch the item with your tools, or it will be damaged. Too much damage, and you fail in the excavation. The tools in your arsenal include drills of various sizes, a fan to blow away loose dirt, and later on, some more advanced tools to help extract the items. As the game progresses, more difficult excavations are presented to you. Some items are extremely sensitive, and many come in a variety of awkward shapes. You have to uncover at least 95% of the item before you are allowed to pick it up.

The first time you excavate a Spectrobe fossil, Aldous teaches you how to “awaken” them. How does this happen? Well, you have to tell them to wake up. Literally. This mini-game requires the use of the microphone. Each Spectrobe type is designed to awaken to different volume levels. You have to hold a specific range of volume (indicated on the screen) for three seconds for them to wake up. There is no way to fail, but this was certainly a fun and interactive feature that we had not seen previously on the DS.

Once you start awakening Spectrobes, of course there is a place for them to naturally grow and change within your own Spectrobes lab (aboard your handy-dandy space ship). Every Spectrobe you awaken starts as a baby, but once they’re an adult they can join battle, and they can also reach certain “evolved” levels that are even more powerful. With the power of Wi-Fi and a couple of friends, you can freely trade your Spectrobes as well.

I’m pretty sure that’s everything good about this game. Now it’s time for the bad stuff.

The Bad

Other than the excavation and maintenance of the Spectrobes, the game is no fun whatsoever. The combat system is utterly broken. If you run into a generic purple tornado, you begin your fight against the Krawl. The fight takes place on a 3D field, and the screen is just so busy that it’s hard to tell friend from foe. Anyone who has imported Langrisser III will know what I mean.

It turns out that you, Rallen, are completely unable to damage the Krawl. If you fight anything that isn’t Krawl, yes, you can do some damage. But for the most part, you rely on your two Spectrobes. You use L and R respectively to tell each one to attack. But here’s why the combat is just plain awful: there’s a time gauge for actions to be taken, but it’s a shared gauge. Once you’re ready to act, you get to choose one person to act. It can be you, or one of your Spectrobes. Meanwhile, movement on the map is real-time action-oriented. So basically, battles go like this. You run in circles to get away from the ever-encroaching foe. Once the time gauge fills up, you get to attack–once–with one member of the party. Then it’s another long wait while you run in a circle. It’s slow, it’s tedious, and it’s absolutely stupid.

Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of combat in this game, and the main story arc (from beginning to the end credits) takes no more than ten hours. That said, it’s worth mentioning that the plot is sheer garbage after the exposition. Make up something entirely contrived in your head, right now, as to where this story goes. Got it? Okay. Whatever you came up with is either exactly what happens, or something slightly more entertaining than what actually happens. You rescue some people on other planets, talk to some shady characters, and then find out the hidden truth about the Spectrobes and the Krawl. Ohhh boy.

The Ugly

Just look at the screens provided on our site. It’s not easy to do a 3D game on the DS, so if you attempt it, you really have to make something good. This, my friends, is not good. The screen is cluttered. There is no camera control, so you’re always zoomed in. I hope you’re not vicariously claustrophobic. Yes, there is a cool opening FMV, but other than that, the graphics are awful. Even the 2D character portraits are subpar, typical of the “pseudo-Japanese” kid entertainment presented in the Cartoon Network culture.

Speaking of which, the dialogue has some awful moments to it. At one point, I kid you not, Rallen shouted “let’s be on our way… Iku ze!” This base-level, shallow exposure to childish Japanese pop-culture makes me skin crawl…or “krawl.” Whatever.

The music is also below average. I was sorely disappointed in it. Nothing further to say there.

The Big Picture

So Disney published an RPG with some innovative mini-games utilizing the DS to its full extent. Unfortunately, the rest of the game was garbage. If you’re willing to put up with the garbage because you really like to discover and train monsters in a fictional fantasy setting, and you want something a little more “sci-fi” with the galaxy/space exposition that Spectrobes provides, go ahead and get it. Otherwise, I’d just wait for the game’s sequel, coming in late 2008, which may just redeem the Spectrobes name.

Overall Score 62
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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.