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Game Review: Invizimals: Shadow Zone

For: Playstation Portable

From: Novarama/Sony

ESRB rating: Everyone 10-plus (comic mischief, fantasy violence)

Price: $40 (includes PSP camera accessory)

Augmented reality is neat, and Sony's PSP camera accessory - an adjustable camera that pops into the top of the PSP and can be adjusted to be a front- or rear-facing camera - is pretty nice as well. "Invizimals: Shadow Zone" uses the latter to create a game based around the former, and as a demonstration of all that cool tech, it's certainly a proof of concept.

Whether it amounts to more than that will come down to your interest in monster-collecting games and your patience with a story that has you watching the game as much as you play it.

"Zone" arrives a year after the original "Invizimals," and most of the essentials remain the same. It's a "Pokemon"-style game, and when you drill that story down to its bare bones, the object - collect Invizimals and pit them in battle against other Invizimals - is the same.

The difference, of course, comes with how you discover and track those Invizimals. Instead of exploring an expansive game world, you're walking around your own world and panning the camera around until you spot an augmented-reality Invizimal frolicking around your furniture or other surroundings. (They favor bright colors, so if your surroundings lack any, it may be wise to correct that before hunting in vain.)

Upon spotting one, you have to lay down your trap card (bundled with the game), and once you do that, one of a handful of rather simple minigames commences. Complete that, and the Invizimal is yours to customize (name and color scheme), upgrade and employ in battle.

"Zone's" fighting portion also differs from "Pokemon's" in that it's more real-time combat than not. Attacks are mapped to buttons instead of menus, but a need to recover stamina between moves lends an air of turn-based strategy to the fight.

Problem is, there isn't much more to the fighting than the threadbare description implies. Because the Invizimals appear in augmented reality and in relation to the trap card, you can't move them around the space with the analog stick. Outside of basic and strong attacks and a block button, there's little nuance to the fighting, and that doesn't change as you advance through "Zone's" storyline.

Nor, for that matter, does the act of trapping Invizimals, which is neat until the tech's novelty wears off. Though "Zone" offers incentive for those who absolutely must collect every single Invizimal for no other reason than sheer compulsion, it never builds on its mechanics in any substantial way, nor does it introduce new concepts as things progress.

That's a problem when you spend as much time watching as you do playing.

"Zone," like its predecessor, tells its story through first-person live-action cutscenes, and if you got into the first game's story, you'll be happy to know it delves even deeper into Invizimal mythology this time around.

If, however, you didn't like that story, "Zone's" incremental advancements over its predecessor are bound to disappoint. The AR tech works better this time around, but the game's inability to take that tech and expand on it is hard to defend in light of how simple those mechanics are.

"Zone's" competitive multiplayer portion (two players, local wireless or online) consists of a pretty straightforward versus mode and a tournament option, while a co-op mode (local only) allows two players to team up and complete select quests together. None of the modes eludes the aforementioned problems that bring down the story mode, but it's still nice to have the option to put your custom Invizimals up against those of a friend.

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