There are plenty of monster hunting games on the market. Some of these are generic cash-ins on the genre, while others offer engaging and rewarding game mechanics. Given the ever-increasing popularity of the Monster Hunter and Pokemon series (especially in Japan), it’s little wonder that Sony decided to add another critter-crusade to the mix. Invizimals: Shadow Zone is the second game in the series and offers up more augmented-reality monster madness. It’s a sometimes fun, occasionally frustrating experience which clearly targets a young audience. However, certain gameplay sequences are so overambitious that the game loses its accessibility somewhere along the way.
The basic premise of Shadow Zone is simple. You point the PSP’s camera attachment away from you and scan your environment for Invizimals – small creatures based on both real and mythological animals. The game comes with a rectangular piece of plastic with a square hole in the middle, and this ‘trap’ is where the Invizimals will emerge from. A mysterious voice will tell you what colour surface you need to scan in order to locate them, so having a magazine nearby is a good idea unless you feel like going for a walkabout with your PSP. In case you were worried – the colours the voice asks for are standard ones like green and blue, so you won’t need to go ask Plascon for their complete range of colour cards to progress in the game.
Once you’ve located an Invizimal it’s time to knuckle down and catch the critter. In an interesting twist for the genre, each Invizimal you discover has a unique way of being caught. They’re hardy creatures, and can thus endure all sorts of torment without needing to keel over and play dead. One Invizimal can be caught simply by slapping it, while another needs to be distracted by your best attempts at whistling. Essentially, each Invizimal capture is used as an excuse by the developers to create a unique augmented-reality mini-game. It defies logic that in order to perform a successful capture you would need to complete an obstacle course by controlling an Invizimal you’re not yet in possession of. However, Shadow Zone is a game clearly aimed at kids and the ludicrous nature of some of these mini-games is more likely to win them over than push them away.
Your Invizimals can be used to do battle in tournaments or club fights. Winning the tournament being held at each location (for example, India or Kenya) advances the storyline forward and opens up new areas to explore. The battles themselves take place wherever your PSP camera is pointing, and the game uses the ‘trap’ card I mentioned earlier as a reference for the midpoint of the arena. Combat is a fun affair and provides plenty of opportunities for strategy. You have four main attacks as well as defensive and offensive items to use during combat. There is a stamina gauge which slowly refills over time. Each attack consumes a different amount of stamina so you need to watch this gauge carefully to determine whether you can use your most powerful attacks or rather need to stick to the standard ones until your gauge refills. You can also block at any time, and a perfectly timed block will allow you to avoid your enemy’s attack completely. Health and stamina orbs occasionally appear around the combat arena, and you need to point your camera at them to pick them up. Offensive items known as ‘vectors’ also make use of the camera and each one requires you to do something different with your PSP, such as shake it from side to side to activate the earthquake vector.
There are dozens of Invizimals to capture and do battle with, but you’ll probably only want to fight using a couple of them due to the game’s leveling up system. Like in any RPG, your Invizimal gains experience points after every victory and at each new level you can decide which stat to enhance. The only way to win tournaments later in the game is to use a high-level Invizimal, so either you need to stick with one to two from beginning to end or you need to play for many hours more just so you can have a range of suitable candidates to enter into these challenging fights. In my opinion, it would have been far better if the Invizimals were placed in classes, and leveling up increased the stats of all the creatures in that class. This would encourage players to experiment with different Invizimals beyond the beginning of the game, and ensure that battles felt ‘fresh’ even in the latter stages of the narrative.
Speaking of narrative, Shadow Zone features plenty of live-action cutscenes during the course of the adventure which provide a framework for taking animals out of their natural habitat and then making them fight to the death. These take place in locations all over the world, although when the people who issue you with your instructions move to more exotic locations like Kenya, it all starts to look very green-screen-ish. The cut-scenes remind me of some of the programmes I used to watch on ‘kids TV’ – lots of wide-eyed acting and emphasis on enunciation. I think children below the age of 13 will really enjoy the style of Shadow Zone, and I for one am happy to see a videogame using live-action cutscenes again. Clearly, the X-Files game on PS1 left me with a lasting positive impression…
Unfortunately, some of the mini-games in Shadow Zone are downright annoying and seemingly impossible to complete. I can’t imagine young gamers breezing through them all without experiencing a major hiccup along the way. The worst part is that 95% of them have to be completed to advance in the game, resulting in some serious moments of frustration. There is a brief tutorial video before each new Invizimal encounter which tries to explain what must be done to successfully complete the capture, but putting this into practice doesn’t always go according to plan. Some of the challenges require excessive amounts of blowing into the camera’s microphone, so expect to feel dizzy after a short while if you suffer from low blood-pressure. Another mini-game had me blowing on an Invizimal’s wings in order to push him through a hovering hoop. Half an hour later I still hadn’t completed the challenge because my despairing blows seemed to have no affect on his direction of movement whatsoever.
Invizimals: Shadow Zone is an appealing prospect for younger gamers. Being able to watch your collected Invizimals do battle in your own environment is an excellent (and natural) evolution of the monster hunter genre. How long will it be before we see the Pokemon series take a similar route using the 3DS’ outward-facing cameras? Unfortunately, Shadow Zone suffers somewhat for its innovative approach by including a few overambitious and buggy mini-games which are likely to frustrate players and keep them away from the other great features of this title, such as its strategy-rich combat.