Spectrobes Preview

Buena Vista Games' upcoming original DS action role-playing game will put a sci-fi spin on the old Pokémon formula. We checked out a nearly finished version.

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So far, Nintendo has been uncharacteristically slow to bring classic, role-playing-game-style Pokémon games to its wildly popular DS platform--though the next installments in the core series, Diamond and Pearl, are finally due out in late April. In any event, the long-running series will see competition in the gotta-catch-'em-all space in early March with Spectrobes, a similar action RPG with a sci-fi bent. From what we've seen so far, it provides surprisingly complex creature-raising gameplay with a number of attendant minigames that make use of the DS's various unique input features. And hey, you get to excavate fossils, which isn't something you see in a game every day.

Spectrobes is the sort of game that you look at and immediately assume is based on a kids'-TV-series-and-toy-line property of great popularity, but in this case you'd be wrong. It's actually an entirely original creation that Buena Vista and developer Jupiter (of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories fame) surely hope will catch on with youngsters. The game thankfully doesn't shove a ponderous amount of story down your throat. You take control of ace space agent Rallen, who's patrolling the galaxy with his spunky sidekick Jeena under the watch of hard-nosed Commander Grant. At the outset, you're sent down to a nearby planet to investigate a crashed object that's been detected there.

Once on the planet, you discover an old man named Aldous, who has apparently been in hibernation inside his escape pod for some time. Aldous warns of an approaching menace called the krawl, a ravenous species of amoebic creatures that devoured his own galaxy and are now coming for yours. Humans stand no chance against the krawl, but Aldous says a long-extinct race of tough, scrappy creatures called the spectrobes do. But if they're extinct, how are they going to fight off the krawl? That's where you come in (and where the gameplay opens up); it's your job to roam around various planets, search for the fossil remains of various spectrobes, bring them back to life, and nurse them to a fighting state so you can take on the krawl that you'll inevitably encounter in your travels.

After you unearth a spectrobe, you can nurture it into a fighting adult in the lab.
After you unearth a spectrobe, you can nurture it into a fighting adult in the lab.

Spectrobes is an RPG at its core, but it uses the DS's input features quite a bit. You'll have a child spectrobe following you around each planet (the first one is provided by Aldous), and you can tap your spectrobe to make it expand a search radius that will reveal any buried fossils, mineral deposits (which make the spectrobes grow up), and cubes (which contain vital information) in the area. We could see this constant stop-and-search process getting a little tedious, but the items are so widely distributed that you can't go more than a minute or two without finding something. Moreover, later spectrobes have different search-enhancing abilities that should help out your hunt.

Once you've found something, you'll drop into a touch-screen minigame where you can scan through the dirt to see the general shape of the object you're excavating. You've got a couple of drills and a blower that you use to chip away at and free the object. However, if you drill too much into the item itself, you'll ruin it and lose the chance to excavate it. This minigame is pretty entertaining because you have to be fairly exact with your drill work to get most of the fossils out without damaging them.

There will be one other unique way to obtain spectrobes. Each game will include a handful of plastic cards (not trading cards, mind you) that have a group of numbered holes on them. At various points in the game, you'll get to access a computer terminal that will ask you to overlay one of your cards. You'll lay the card across the touch screen and tap the holes in the order specified on the card face; this will unlock a unique spectrobe or item for use in the game. Buena Vista is encouraging players to trade these cards with their friends. Extra cards will purportedly be available through some sort of unannounced promotion at a later time as well.

You've also got an extensive spectrobe lab on board your ship that you can use to revive and grow the creatures. To wake up a spectrobe, you'll have to talk to it. You're not exactly whispering sweet nothings to it, but you do have to keep the volume of your voice within a certain range (which varies by spectrobe) to coax it out of its fossilized state. (We found blowing on the microphone would also work effectively here.) Afterward, you can grow your baby spectrobes in an incubator by feeding them the specific minerals you find out in the world. Each of these minerals confer different benefits, such as strength or health boosts. Or you can take one out into the world to help you search for more.

Your quest to repel the krawl menace will take you from one world to the next.
Your quest to repel the krawl menace will take you from one world to the next.

All this spectrobe recovery and fostering is independent of Rallen's own development, which seems traditionally RPG-like so far. You can level him up and gain new equipment of various kinds to increase his offensive and defensive capabilities, which pale in comparison to those of the spectrobes, at least early in the game. The combat proceeds in real time, where you run Rallen and two spectrobes around an arena and make them all attack the krawl independently. Each spectrobe has its own form of attack; one spins around and hits enemies within range, while another rolls forward in a straight line. And, as mentioned, you'll get to steer the evolution of the ones you collect to tailor their combat prowess to your liking.

Spectrobes has a pretty solid presentation so far. The graphics aren't extremely detailed, but the game uses both screens to show you a lot of traversable ground at one time, which looks pretty neat. The computer and lab interfaces where you revive and evolve the spectrobes are all touch-driven. They also look futuristic and high tech, which adds some atmosphere to the sci-fi-styled proceedings. The game is due out in March, so you can look for a full review then.

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