Invizimals: Shadow Zone is the sequel to the first Invizimals game released last year, a game which didn't set the world on fire nearly as much as rival Nintendo's mega-franchise Pokemon. Which is understandable, as the juggernaut that is Pokemon is an exceedingly difficult act to follow or topple. Although the Invizimals franchise has the similar premise of catching and collecting pocket sized monsters, the difference comes in the manner in which this goes about and the usage of a certain piece of technology - the PSP camera. As an augmented reality game, does Invizimals: Shadow Zone provide a worthy monster-catching experience on your PSP?
Invizimals: Shadow Zone plays out like an after-school children's show, through an abundance of live action FMV sequences. The acting in most of these scenes is about of that quality too, although randomly Brian Blessed is present, in a jovial but muted performance, as a professor who studies a very unusual subject. Shadow Zone purports that throughout our world in our everday lives, there exist 'Invizimals'. Their portmanteau name describing their nature exactly, these invisible monsters are only visible through the use of the PSP's camera. Who'd have thunk Sony would ever contribute to cryptozoology? Blessed's character Dawson theorises that these monsters have been the inspiration behind every legendary creature ever, and you set off on a mission to explore this possibility as well as trying to prevent the return of the evil 'Campbell' from the first game.
The story is rather simple, and conveyed through conversations between characters lounging about in studies, apartments or airport terminals, although a lot of the time the actors address you directly through the PSP as you take part in the events as some kind of disembodied observer. Kids will most likely enjoy the story the most, although the volume, length and frequency of cut-scenes, especially at the start of the game, means it takes a while to get stuck into the action. At times the game even feels like the 'FMV titles' of old, composed solely of live action footage.
Check out Invizimals: Shadow Zone through the super high-tech clickable video vision link above!
The success of Shadow Zone obviously rests heavily on the PSP camera, and we were actually very impressed with the results. The game shows you the image from your PSP camera on-screen during gameplay, and then overlays 3D graphics on top in such a way that it actually appears there are invisible monsters hiding on your school textbook or kitchen floor, and the technology being used actually works very well. When searching for Invizimals, the PSP acts as a kind of radar as it appears to search for solid colours (we think). When you've found an Invizimal, you'll be required to pull out your 'trap card', a square piece of card included with the game that allows Shadow Zone to track its position. This initiates a mini-game, individual to every Invizimal, in order to capture it. One sees you firing lasers at the Invizimals armour, while another has you whistle into the camera's mic for half a minute to distract the Invizimal. This is not a game you're going to be playing on the train. Nevertheless, the mini-games use the technology quite well, even if it can get a bit wearing having to go through them for every capture.
The trap card is also used as a surface on which your Invizimals do battle. Combat is pretty easy to play, with four attacks mapped to the face buttons, and blocking and items (called 'vectors') assigned to the shoulder buttons. You can swivel your PSP around the trap card to get a cinematic view of the action that's definitely very cool, almost like you're a director in charge of a movie. The combat is based around a familiar rock-paper-scissors formula, with several 'types' such as Fire, Ice and Rock. There are also several attack types, such as slicing and poisoning, and the game can get a little complicated when memorising what exactly beats what. It tries to help with catchphrases like 'You can't slice an ice!', but ultimately unless you're really dedicated, you'll just keep trying different attacks until you find one that works for you.
The game's formula centres around completing missions, which normally involve searching for and capturing specific Invizimals, competing in tournaments and grinding your Invizimals' levels up in club matches. This is all accessed from a fairly boring menu system, taking you directly to your next match or cutscene. Invizimals can be customised both in colour and in stats, allowing a degree of RPG-sensibility to enter the game. Sometimes puzzles will arise that need you to piece together jigsaws, or reposition lasers, in order to advance in rank or unlock features, and again using the PSP camera and the trap card in an impressively accurate fashion. You can compete in clubs online as well against other people, although at the time of review there was very little activity anywhere in the world outside of Europe, and everyone we encountered was either French, German or Spanish, meaning the well-implemented voice chat was a little wasted on us. As a whole, the gameplay feels a little flat, and not as addictive as other collectible monster games like Pokemon. The impulse to play comes from the cool technology at hand, and unfortunately not from original or particularly exciting gameplay. What's on offer is good, but not outstanding in any way.
All of the Invizimals are well rendered and animated, most of them apparently taking inspiration from mythological creatures with varying degrees of success. Their animation is pretty great, as are the special effects from their entrances and attacks. You'll see chunks of your floor fall away into an icy pit as you summon an ice Invizimal into your living room, and tomatoes and meteors fall down from the sky. Creature noises are pretty standard, and the music is not bad, but most of the time not missed if the game is left on mute. The quality of the FMV cut-scenes is outstanding, even if their content can grate, the videos themselves look pretty good.
Invizimals: Shadow Zone is a really good idea for augmented reality that has been realised very successfully. The augmented reality works, and not just as a gimmick, but as the basis of most of the game. However, the actual gameplay of the game, while reasonably fun, isn't close to the behemoths of the collectible monster genre. If you have a kid who's into all of this collection business, and has a PSP, then we actually think this would be brilliant for them. Kids will have a ball running around the house looking for Invizimals, whistling into their PSP and shaking it to cause earthquakes during battle. The inner kid inside you will probably find it all really cool too, for a while at least. An overabundance of cut-scenes, an uninspired battle system and poor presentation that sees you shuffled around the world through a series of menus make the game less interesting for us oldies. Nevertheless, Invizimals: Shadow Zone is a fun distraction, and possibly the herald of further cool things to come for the PSP camera.