Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Novarama Technology
Invizimals wants to be Pokemon with augmented reality, real-time battles and Brian Blessed.
High concept formulas don't get any better than that, do they? Pokemon provides the addictive core of catching, training and battling some cool critters, brought to full 3D life by the Vita's processing power. Augmented Reality uses the cameras to merge the game world with our own, letting players discover creatures in the playground or office and throw down on the bus home. And Brian Blessed is a national treasure with an amazing beard. As such Invizimals: The Alliance ought to be the best game ever made, and at the very worst it's exactly the sort of mainstream family-friendly franchise the Vita needs right now.
And yet Novarama found a way to cock it up. They've over-developed it to within an inch of its life; drowning a strong and simple idea in a hot mess of obnoxious minigames.
Then added insult to injury by forcing us to dig out AR Cards every five seconds.
"Keep It Simple, Stupid," is a golden rule, and I hate to see games succumb to the dreaded spectre of 'feature creep,' especially here since Invizimals starts out very promisingly indeed. The PS Vita becomes a communicator and scanning device for a team of researchers, who address us directly and appeal to us for help in locating and capturing hidden critters throughout our world. The high quality FMV, low-quality acting talent and earnest save the planet from evil industrialists storyline wouldn't feel out of place in any Saturday morning TV lineup, while the plot keeps things interesting by making the player the star of the show. It's surprisingly immersive and feels like an ARG at times.
Pleasingly the first character we meet, Hiro, is just a tie-in with Invizimals: The Lost Kingdom and only makes a cameo. A good thing too since he's got the raw acting ability of a young Keanu Reeves. Instead we get some voiceovers from Brian Blessed, who commentates on battles and delivers occasional tidbits of info throughout the game. He's on bombastic form, as always.
The story is just an excuse to get us collecting, battling and training our Invizimals, though, as our digital pals conveniently enjoy fighting the same way as we enjoy catching up for a chat over a pint or cuppa. Dozens of creatures have been brilliantly realised and designed, all looking unique and sensational both in terms of detailed character models and fluid animations, boasting their own personalities and fighting styles. From playful Gryphons to mecha-dinosaurs, there's a fantastic roster on offer. Battles subscribe to simple yet effective real-time arena scraps that are slightly slow and syrupy, but feature functional block and stamina systems alongside traditional attacks and free movement around the battlefield.
A straightforward experience-based progression and evolution system underpins the combat, encouraging us to get involved with quick battles, multiplayer brawls and championships in an addictive effort to create an unbeatable team of fighters - all in a growing virtual town that we can customise to our specifications.
You'll have to catch your Invizimals first, however. Doing so forces you into a selection of deeply inconsistent Augmented Reality minigames that vary wildly in quality, and are designed to show off every single one of the Vita's myriad input methods like a glorified tech demo.
Each creature has their own specific capture minigame that overlays 3D action onto live camera footage, and at best, it's a thrill to experience your lounge or train carriage in a totally new way. Markerless AR lets you scan walls and floors for creatures or specific shades of colour, while the microphone sometimes demands you to attract Invizimals with noise or stay silent to lure them in. After locating your quarry, you'll then fight or play with them, perhaps directly controlling them as they roam around the carpet in search of artefacts.
It's a nice idea that sometimes works well, but the barrage of new concepts (and frequent use of the rear touch pad) forces you to sit through overlong and deeply patronising non-interactive tutorials to learn what you're supposed to be doing, while the Vita often decides to cut a minigame short because it suddenly doesn't like the lighting or colour balance levels. The need to shout, sing or roam around means that you can't really play in public without attracting odd looks or worse. Plus, for every minigame that's vaguely interesting, there are two that are boring, clunky or both.
Unfortunately the worst offenders -- of which there are many -- go one step further by forcing you to use the Vita's AR Cards. Assuming that you can actually remember what you did with them all those months ago.
In theory, AR cards provide a reference point for more complex and involved minigames, but in practice they completely undermine the portability and more importantly the fun of Invizimals: The Alliance. Gameplay flow is completely broken as you laboriously set up the cards and tether yourself a couple of feet away from them; forced to keep at least two or three pieces of cardboard on hand. Seeing as Face Raiders, Tearaway, Pokemon Dream Radar, The Denpa Men and even the better Invizimals minigames all use markerless AR in compelling and exciting ways no matter where you are, it's a crying shame that we have to carry around these restrictive anchors everywhere we go.
A single strong markerless capture mode that we could play anywhere, and gradually evolves throughout the game, would have been much more appropriate - with other minigames then strictly optional.
There's no escaping it since even the opening tutorial can't be completed before you've torn your house apart looking for the flipping things. Or realising that you threw them away yonks ago. Often the storyline won't progress until you've caught a specific creature or constructed a particular building (requiring yet another aggravating AR card minigame), meaning that they literally stand between you and having fun.
At a pinch you can display AR Card images on a smartphone or tablet, but even the best displays have limited viewing angles and several minigames require you to set up two or more in a particular pattern. Even when it works, it's galling to have to rely on another portable device to play a game on your portable gaming device!
The Alliance eventually outgrows its embarrassing infatuation with AR cards and frippery after several deeply mediocre hours, but even when it does, it's just not quite robust or interesting enough to maintain interest for the long haul. Crucially the combat lacks the nuance and depth of its more established rivals, without the tactical interplay of types and status effects you'd expect from the likes of Pokemon, meaning that things gradually simmer down as repetition sets in. It's such a shame that Novalogic clearly spent more time finding silly ways to use AR cards than refining the fundamental core of their game, and a missed opportunity for the PlayStation Vita.
- Brian Blessed
- Fantastic Invizimal designs, impressive graphics and FMV
- Neat markerless Augmented Reality functionality
- Solid core of training and battling
- Idiotic obsession with AR Cards, bloated with minigames
- Barely portable; sometimes requires privacy, silence or lots of room
- Simpering non-interactive tutorials will patronise even tiny tots
- Combat lacks nuance, depth and long-term interest
The Short Version: Invizimals: The Alliance is a solid monster battler at heart, powered by nifty augmented reality and Brian Blessed, but Novalogic should have concentrated on fleshing out the combat rather than bombarding us with dozens of deeply inconsistent minigames. The strong and simple concept is often buried beneath numerous distractions, then crippled by the overuse of AR cards, averaging out as a game that could have been so much more with a tighter focus.
Next time: "keep it simple, stupid." If we wanted a tech demo and minigame collection then we could just play Little Deviants. But we don't, so we don't.