Invizimals Review

Invizimals wows for a while with its augmented-reality visuals, but the limits of the technology and some baffling design decisions soon shatter the illusion.

Creatures made of pure energy are all around us, invisible to the naked eye. Luckily for us, a brilliant engineer at PSP R&D has figured out how to detect these creatures using Sony's handheld and a PSP camera. Seeing these elemental creatures on your PSP screen is remarkable in Invizimals, a game that makes it appear as if these tiny animals are doing battle on the desk, table, or floor right in front of you. But the novelty wears off quickly, and technical issues and baffling design choices soon sap much of the magic from this groundbreaking but ultimately frustrating experience.

Invizimals opens with a live-action introduction in which Keni, the PSP engineer who discovered the invisible creatures, communicates with you from his lab in Tokyo and introduces you to the basics of scanning for and capturing them. The process is done using the PSP camera and a patterned capture card you must place in the camera's view whenever you're trapping, battling with, or otherwise interacting with invizimals. Keni conspiratorially impresses upon you the importance of keeping the powerful invizimals a secret, making you feel like part of an elite global club with only a few members. As you progress through the story, live-action sequences are frequently used. These scenes are well produced and fun to watch thanks to energetic performances by the actors, including the booming-voiced British thespian Brian Blessed, perfectly cast here as a mad professor who regularly introduces you to new special attacks and other concepts. The plot has you acquiring invizimals and battling with them in nearly every corner of the globe and winds up involving wealthy industrialists, kidnappings, and arms dealers, which is pretty serious stuff for a game about capturing and battling with invisible creatures. But there's a slight hint of camp to the whole thing that keeps it from feeling like it's taking itself too seriously.

You soon need to get down to the business of capturing invizimals yourself, and it's here that some problems start to come into focus. To capture an invizimal, you need to point the PSP camera at a surface of a certain color. Scanning your immediate surroundings may be enough to trigger the appearance of an invizimal, but if the needed color isn't nearby, you have to go hunting for it. And sometimes, even if the camera is focused on the specified color, it may not work. For instance, while you scan for invizimals, a voice may instruct you to try a purple surface. But simply finding something purple to scan may not suffice if the lighting is less than ideal and the object doesn't appear purple to the camera, forcing you to try to adjust the lighting or move the object around until the camera registers the object as purple and the invizimal finally appears. Moments like this break the illusion the game tries to create that invizimals inhabit the world around us, just waiting to be discovered.

At a certain point, this already frustrating process becomes an even bigger aspect of gameplay, when invizimals, after first being spotted, escape into various ecosystems, which is just a fancy way of saying that you need to scan yet another color to capture them after they make their first appearance. If they escape into the fire, scan something red. If they escape into the ocean, scan something blue. And so on. The idea, as Keni explains in a video, is to get up off your feet and hunt them from room to room, but it's far easier to just gather items of various colors around you so you have them ready to scan when needed. This feels a bit like cheating, but what you're asked to do is so unnecessary and so easy to get around that it's almost as if the game encourages you to do it just to save time and give yourself a more pleasant experience.

Invizimals evolve to become much bigger and tougher than they start out.
Invizimals evolve to become much bigger and tougher than they start out.

The capture process isn't over once you scan for and locate an invizimal, either. Each invizimal has a minigame you must complete before it's successfully trapped and added to your collection. Many of these are engaging little games that make you feel like an active participant in the capture process. For instance, capturing a jetcrab requires you to dodge fireballs it shoots at you by moving the PSP left and right, while shooting back at it with the X button. And capturing a vipera is a bit like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole; you wait for the snakelike invizimal to pop out of a hole in the ground, and then you slap down on top of it with your palm. But some of these minigames don't work well. To capture a roarhide, you need to block the charging creature by placing your hand in designated areas. But the camera may not register your hand's position, and in that event, the roarhide will charge straight through your hand and escape, forcing you to start the capture process over. Issues like this can happen with infuriating frequency and take much of the joy out of the initially exciting technology at the heart of Invizimals.

As with locating invizimals, while capturing them you may often be tempted to cheat the game a bit when it asks you to do things that just aren't fun or feasible given your surroundings. Capturing a moonhowler requires that you jump out of bushes behind it and startle it with a loud noise. This is done by moving the PSP toward the moonhowler from behind some virtual bushes, but if you jump out in front of the creature, it will escape. If you're playing at a table you can easily move around, getting behind the creature isn't a problem, but if you're playing on a corner desk or other surface you can't move around in all directions, getting behind the creature isn't always doable. The easy way around this problem is to just rotate the capture card with your hand, tricking the game into thinking you've moved around to the other side, but you shouldn't have to resort to shenanigans like this to be able to accomplish the goals the game sets out for you. Adding to the frustration is that sometimes, for no apparent reason, you may be told that you have to wait 30 or 40 minutes before you can capture an invizimal you need to acquire for a mission objective. You can always go battle with your current invizimals in the meantime, leveling them up and earning the watts that serve as the in-game currency, but when you're just eager to move the story along, needing to wait until you can capture the necessary invizimal can bring things to an irritating halt.

Battling with the invizimals you've captured is the best aspect of Invizimals, but aside from its nifty visual trick, it's unremarkable. In battle, your invizimal has four standard attacks, with the more powerful attacks costing more stamina to use. Defending costs stamina as well, so being too aggressive with your attacks can leave you vulnerable. This leads to a bit of light strategy as you try to most effectively sap your opponent's life without leaving yourself defenseless. You can purchase or acquire special attacks called vectors, which often need to be triggered by unusual actions on your part: launching the earthquake vector, for instance, requires you to shake your PSP, while the lightning strike has you waving your hand to gather storm clouds. These activities keep you a bit more involved in the action than you would be otherwise. But other than the cool visuals and the occasional bit of physical participation, the battles feel very much like those in any number of other such creature battling games.

But those flashy visuals are the big draw of Invizimals, and they are impressive, at least initially. Seeing these three-dimensional creatures fight it out right in front of you, on your kitchen table or your lap or wherever you happen to put down the capture card, is novel and incredible for a little while. The creatures are cleverly designed, with appearances that range from adorable to fearsome, and as you level them up, it's rewarding to see your invizimals evolve from tiny creatures to larger, much stronger-looking ones. But the visuals glitch out often enough to break the illusion. The PSP sometimes briefly stops recognizing the way the capture card is oriented in relation to the camera or misjudges its distance, causing the invizimals to suddenly appear very tiny or upside down or otherwise completely out of whack with their surroundings. Because of this, it quickly becomes impossible to buy into the notion that there really are invisible creatures revealed by the PSP's camera dueling in front of you, and without that novelty going for it, Invizimals starts to feel like just another game about capturing and battling creatures, and an often frustrating one at that.

Vectors can cause natural disasters like earthquakes, firestorms, and PSP screen shatterings.
Vectors can cause natural disasters like earthquakes, firestorms, and PSP screen shatterings.

The Invizimals experience is better when shared with others. You can battle or trade your invizimals via ad hoc or infrastructure multiplayer. The online community isn't very robust at the moment, though, so you'll have better luck coordinating with friends than just hopping online and hoping to find a battle or trade partner. Those who like to live dangerously will appreciate the option to raise the stakes in their invizimal battles with a bet, which grants the victor the option to steal, destroy, or forgive the loser's creature. Trading and battling with others gives this game a bit more longevity, particularly for completionists who want to collect all of the 100-plus invizimals in the game. But other games have handled the creature battling concept with more success. The technology of Invizimals is very impressive at first, but once that wears off, these cute creatures often prove to be more trouble than they're worth.

The Good

  • Augmented-reality visuals are impressive when they work properly
  • Some fun capturing minigames
  • Battling has some engaging light strategy
  • Entertaining live-action scenes

The Bad

  • Many capturing minigames don't always work properly
  • Color and movement demands are frustrating and easy to cheat
  • Graphics often glitch out