Japan is a land filled with monsters.
From the Giant Koi carp invading the waterways to the fearsome Asian Hornet – the fauna has helped shape the mind of an entire people. Sadly (or perhaps, gladly), the typical Japanese home doesn’t have the space for a Koi pond or a room full of wasps. The urge to interact with nature from the confines of the home coupled with the incredible technology spawned in the Land of the Rising Sun has brought forward a unique genre: monster battle.
The Western world got a glimpse of this fundamentally bizarre phenomenon with 1998’s Pokémon. Millions of copies of the Gameboy game were sold, sparking a fascination with catching, collecting and fighting monsters of our very own. Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals is a worthy addition to this addictive and fun genre.
So, obvious Pokémon comparisons aside, this is a monster collecting RPG, set in space. Your primary goal is to defeat The Krawl, a malevolent bunch of outer-space baddies hell bent on eating solar systems. Lucky for you, Spectrobes are fighting machines, ready and willing to help kick some Krawl butt.
The original Spectrobes game developed for the DS was fairly popular overseas, bolstered by an involvement with Disney who touted it as their first piece of outsourced IP. No mouse related magic here. While the original was a hearty effort, it suffered from control and camera issues (which are for the most part solved in the sequel) which plagued the player from start to finish. I am glad to say these have been largely cleaned out in Beyond the Portals, which can be described as slick and quick. The camera floats around the protagonist Rallen with greased efficiency and the controls in and out of battle are responsive and sharp. For an action RPG, this is critical and it is done very well. Only in the most hectic battles does the camera become a pain, the option to directly control it would have been nice.
The gameplay of Beyond the Portals is standard Japanese RPG fare, solving puzzles to progress through an increasing labyrinth of exotic locales, battling monsters to gain strength before defeating ever more challenging bosses. So, where’s the meat? Why buy this game? Well first up, there’s the story, which is character driven and fun. Despite being aimed at a younger audience, I didn’t find my face in my palms too often. The length of the game is a little on the short side, but tracking down and evolving all of the Spectrobes is a worthy challenge which keeps the game alive.
A great inclusion to the game is fossil digging, which is presented in the form of puzzles. A fossil trapped under ice (on an Ice Planet!) needs to be melted out, dust needs to be blown away, lava cooled etc. Searching for fossils and minerals adds a worthwhile dimension to the gameplay and keeps things interesting. You end up solving puzzles to the benefit of your character; minerals being a key component of the Spectrobe evolution process.
Evolution, by the way, is handled well in Beyond the Portals. Each Spectrobe has two levels it needs to fulfil before it can evolve. A mineral level (increased by being fed minerals) and a battle level. In order to avoid having one core of highly trained monsters and a rag-tag bunch of slackers who never get used, Jupiter have included an incubator system which increases a Spectrobe’s mineral level while not currently in your party. This allows you to battle train one group, swap them out for an incubated group and systematically increase the level of a wide range of Spectrobes.
Overall, Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals is a satisfying and fun RPG. Jupiter have made an excellent effort to utilize the DS to it’s full potential, producing a highly involving and diverse game that looks great. Two multiplayer modes (adhoc and online) add more fun to the mix, battling your team of Spectrobes against a friend is a tremendous frenzy and is highly recommended. A great sequel to a flawed game, my hopes are high for the future of the series. If Japanese RPGs on the DS are your thing, you could do a lot worse.