Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
If Nintendo were given a dollar for every Pokémon clone out there, they’d be a whole lot richer…than they already are. Still, they can’t do anything about other developer’s lack of imagination and I’m sure they’re grateful for all the attention that these imitations bring to their monster hunting series. As it turns out, Spectrobes is just like the other millions of Poké-clones out there that share one universal purpose: to show off the vast superiority of Nintendo’s so-called decade-long ‘fad’.
As far as RPG settings go, one couldn’t ask for a more clichéd setting than the one that Spectrobes provides. It’s set, get this, in a sci-fi/fantasy world, where you play as an overexcited, spiky-haired, starry-eyed, anime teenager! Rallen is a young, brave, over-keen Planetary Patrol officer of the Nanairo Planetary Patrol, whose curiosity often leads him into all sorts of trouble. He is accompanied by his ever trusty sidekick, Jeena. For her part, Jenna is a strong minded, know-it-all, do-gooder who doesn’t look a day over 12 (seriously, how did these teenyboppers get such high-ranking roles in a universal defense force?).
US: 13 Mar 2007
While on a routine mission, the duo responds to a distress signal. When they lock down the location on the planet Daichi, they discover a weathered old man who has been fast asleep in a cryogenic capsule for decades. This mysterious figure with wild, ginger beard in tow is named Aldous (he is also known as Mr. X, to make him seem more mysterious I presume) is devastated (for a whole 2 seconds, he’s a real man’s man, Clint Eastwood rugged if you will) to discover that his beloved home system of Giorna has been wiped off the face of the universe by the dastardly Krawl beings. It does seem, however, that he is more upset about failing his mission, which was to find a means to stop the Krawl, before his crash landing.
The Krawl, a species with an insatiable hunger for destruction, marches from galaxy to galaxy annihilating everything in its path with its sights set firmly on Rallen’s neck of the woods. Step up the Spectrobes, a race even more mysterious than Mr. X and the only line of defense against the Krawl. Once upon a time, Spectrobe and man lived in harmony. That peace ended with the unexplained extinction of the former, except that now, they can be re-created with the magic of technology, via the Prizmod device. Of course, only a chosen can wield such an enigmatic machine, and that chosen is naturally Rallen. The Prizmod, a communication device, allows interaction with the Spectrobes that would otherwise be impossible. Equipped with his new toy, Rallen is sent out on a quest to dig up as many Spectrobes, Cubes and minerals as he can find by Mr. X, who apparently runs things from this point on.
And this is where the trouble really begins. While exploring the fairly generic, though impressively large planets, Rallen is tasked with digging up fossils, so that his incubator may grow more Spectrobes. Rallen, though, is never alone, as he’s always followed by a child Spectrobe, which can find other fossils. There are three variations on Spectrobes altogether: Child form, while unable to battle, is the only form of Spectrobe that can find other fossils. Next is Adult form, which can join in battle, but which has left its archeology skills in its youth. Finally, there is the Evolved state, a kick-ass take on adult, with more flashy attacks, also sans the fossil-digging abilities of its Child equivalent.
With drill in hand, Rallen proceeds to dig up the elusive stones. Initially, you’re given basic extraditing tools, but can later purchase new equipment, when dealt trickier digs. The stylus acts as a drill, while the microphone (cleverly) can clear excess debris when breathed into. Digging up fossils is a patient skill; when forced, a dig can damage the Spectrobe-in-waiting beyond salvation. What can’t be salvaged is any fun from the digging. While feeling like an archaeologist is cool for the first three or four digs, when you’re forced to repeat the same trick time and time and time again, you’re left wondering who at Jupiter thought this was a good idea. What’s worse is that digging is as compulsory as leveling up; there are no other ways to amass an army of Spectrobes or acquire the necessary minerals that they require to grow.
The nail in the coffin is that the child Spectrobe that follows you must be held down by the stylus to actually spot the stones. There is no map, nor any radar, meaning that you’ll have to pigeon-step every inch of the already mentioned large maps to get anywhere. Worse, you aren’t allowed to move and scan at the same time. No doubt this mechanic is in place to lengthen the quest of the game, though in reality the only innovation that Jupiter brought to the table is finding an alternate way to stretch out the game time other than leveling up.
With no map, the game is played out on both screens, leaving a blind spot between the lower and upper screens. This can often be a nuisance, as when exploring the towns often NPC’s can be missed. Worse, though, is when the blind spot gets in the way on the battle field, where Rallen’s team can find itself sucked into combat due to the aforementioned. In its favor, battles aren’t random, one of the few things Spectrobes gets right. The Krawl themselves are represented by purple tornadoes, and Rallen can take two of his collected monsters into battle. Fighting is hardly challenging, but what makes it almost unbearable is the insipid combat system. Less turn based than a free for all, it takes place on, bizarrely, what seems like a mini-globe. Stranger yet is that both avatar and foe slip and slide across the globe as though they’re on an ice rink. The Spectrobes are controlled by the shoulder buttons and can be commanded to attack (and not much else) in between waiting for a meter to fill à la Final Fantasy XII. Rallen has two attack buttons for himself. That’s as far as it goes—there is little or no strategy, thought, excitement or tension, just constant button bashing and mild amusement at watching your team slide across the screen.
What further accentuates the tedious nature of the digging and fighting is that outside of the main game, there is nothing to do. Go to town, talk to dodgy merchant, go to planet, dig, fight, dig some more and end with boss battle.
Despite the by-the-numbers approach the developers have taken with the graphics, presentation, music, plot and gameplay, the actual Spectrobes themselves ooze class and imagination. Different enough from Pokémon, each has its own unique, yet equally extravagant and lavish art design. Clearly, all the TLC went into the Spectrobes themselves and as such they stand as sole proof of what could have been if Jupiter had spread the love a bit more. You almost feel bad for the Spectrobes, in that their gaming debut was in such a half-assed affair. For any sequel I hope they remain buried as fossils, saving them from the indignity and embarrassment of starring in trash like this, crippled by poor design decisions and an alarming lack of creativity.