Even if you were a particularly lucky child, you were probably stuck with just a handful of games to play each year growing up. Regardless of their quality, you sucked the games dry in order to drain as much entertainment from them as possible until the next gift-giving holiday rolled around and it was time for a new one to gnaw on. Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals is a good modern example of this, as its meaty content will keep younger players more than busy with plenty to do before (and after) the credits roll. But the end result is a tragically generic action RPG, and the potential of Spectrobes: BTP's sci-fi setting and variety of gameplay options is completely wasted on repetitious, bland objectives, complicated menus and inventory management, and crummy combat.
As returning redheaded hero Rallen, a spunky space cadet with the ability to control and command monsters known as "spectrobes," you'll spend most of your time walking around desolate environments as you take on painfully repetitious missions and have lengthy conversations with an assortment of one-dimensional characters. Your on-foot missions set the stage and push along an initially intriguing story of kidnapped comrades and galactic genocide, but it quickly becomes a paint-by-numbers tale of "find and defeat Mr. Big Bad Man and his cronies." Where the first Spectrobes favored text over tussle, Beyond the Portals adds more button-mashing monster duels to accompany its massive amount of heavy-handed storytelling, but neither is exciting enough to make this action RPG fun. Both conflict and exploration take place in 3D environments, but the scuffles are too short to be intense and the world is too vacant for you to see anything interesting. Add on crummy D pad controls and you'll find yourself spinning circles around areas you're trying to reach or enemies you're attempting to attack.
The excavation and exploration elements are what will keep you playing. Using the DS's stylus you'll unearth fossils (which you'll evolve in to upgradeable spectrobes), minerals (used to feed and level up your collection of critters), and other items for selling or unlocking in-game awards that are analogous to the Xbox 360's achievements. Digging maintains its addictive quality all the way through, and though you'll suffer through many clunky menus to access your rock-encrusted goodies, it's loads of fun to feed and evolve spectrobes as well as dress Rallen up in awesome new gear that increases his health and power. Since he can also come under fire while running about, you'll need to use his sword, fists, and laser gun to fend off nasty baddies in real time. You'll quickly notice that this second combat system is as annoying as the two-versus-two monster bouts. If you manage to lose a standard scuffle you'll be sent back to the start of the current map.
It goes from bad to worse when you're returned to the starting area of a planet when defeated by a boss, as it can take up to 10 walking minutes to return to and conclude the battle. When you're forced to grind (meaning to level up your monsters with repeated combat) it becomes a stale, repetitious experience that ultimately fails to pay off. Thankfully, being able to explore and dig, as well as take part in side character Jeena's puzzle minigames from time to time, keeps things mixed up.
If you're starting to think that Spectrobes: BTP sounds like a placid Pokemon, you're on the right track. Because it drastically changes the formula it is blatantly inspired by, it becomes more of a frustrating endeavor than the traditional Japanese role-playing fun of Nintendo's monster mash. You'll find yourself yawning as you trek for 10 minutes from one end of a planet to another to have another pointless conversation, with the odd enemy encounter occurring when you approach the tornado-shaped Vortex that contains the evil Krawl creatures.
Ironically, the coolest thing about Beyond the Portals has little to do with the game itself. Though it offers monster trading and battling between players both online and off, as well as interoperability between both Spectrobes titles, the Disney D Gamer features let you unlock gear like masks and outfits from the game and apply it to your D Gamer avatar. Like a Web-based Nintendo Mii, these cute 3D characters act as your physical representation in the Disney online community. It's cool to see your avatar equipped with Spectrobes-branded gear, and unlocking stacks of items is probably the most rewarding thing about BTP.
Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals is a game with too many frustrating restarts and barren 3D worlds occasionally populated with a few lifeless characters who spout worthless dialogue in an attempt to advance the bland story. Other things, such as having to speak or sing into the DS's microphone to awaken uncovered spectrobe fossils, grating sound effects, and a forgettable soundtrack, add to the mediocrity that will only test your patience--even if you're an easily amused grade-school gamer.