Frustrating technical issues, poor pacing and annoying difficulty spikes get in the way of what is ostensibly a great concept. Persevere and you will almost certainly find fun in the game's augmented reality technology, but it's hard to shake the feeling that The Lost Tribes could have been so much more.
Let's get straight to the point: Invizimals is a brilliant idea. It's amazing that Sony's Novarama developed Pokemon alternative hasn't really hit the mainstream. Despite posting huge numbers in continental Europe — where Invizimals is a big enough brand to prompt its own official merchandise — the game's relatively unknown across the UK, North America and Japan. It's only a matter of time before another developer, publisher or platform holder decides to borrow the game's ideas and better market them.
The concept is thus: you are an Invizimals hunter and your PlayStation Portable (equipped with the device's camera attachment) is your window into another realm. Physically moving your PSP around the real-world, you must hunt for Invizimals that live in different locations. In reality the game is looking for specific colours, but ignore the mechanical underpinnings of the experience and you have something rather magical that really takes advantage of the system's portability. For children Invizimals is incredibly imaginative stuff.
A crackling gauge indicates when you are close to an Invizimal, at which point you must toss down a printed marker — similar to the one used in EyePet — to detect the creature and begin the capture process. As in EyePet: Adventures, the augmented reality is wonderfully implemented, allowing you to move around heavily detailed character models in the real-world.
Each Invizimal capture prompts a unique mini-game, where you'll need to meet certain conditions in order to add the animal to your roster. One has you shooting the Invizimal like a snooker-ball, physically moving the PSP in the real-world to line up your shot. Others have you hopping for fish, or engaging in a sumo wrestling competition. Using the marker card and the PlayStation Portable's camera, each mini-game is built upon the surface your device is pointed at, offering the illusion of a window into another dimension. It's a concept that developer Novarama plays up heavily throughout the duration of The Lost Tribes' campaign.
If you haven't played the previous two Invizimals games, The Lost Tribes throws you in at the deep end from a narrative perspective. You are following in the foot-steps of Keni, a famous Invizimals hunter who stepped into the creatures' world at the end of the last game. Featuring a baffling cast of real-life actors — including the booming Brian Blessed — Invizimals delivers its plot with all the intensity of a children's Saturday morning TV show. The cut-scenes are overacted and way too serious, but have an unusual charm to them that prevents you from hitting the skip button. It's a complicated plot, that sees you globe-trotting around the world piecing together riddles left by Keni and uncovering what happened when he crossed over into the Invizimals' realm. But while convoluted, it's all largely exposition for the capturing and brawling that sits at the centre of the game's experience.
Battles are fun but under-emphasised by the campaign, making it a chore to level up your creatures. Club fights and tournaments are hidden under the game's menus, and, for the most part, strangely unconnected to the narrative, meaning you'll spend your first couple of hours with the game progressing without levelling. If you end up in the same scenario as we did, you'll feel heavily underpowered when you happen upon your first mandatory tournament.
Brawls — which can now be played in tag-teams — take place in the real-world, again taking advantage of the game's marker card. You can pan around the fights by moving your PSP, and zoom in and out of the action freely. As opposed to Pokemon's turn-based battle mechanics, Invizimals opts for a real-time gameplay style which is heavily dependent on stamina bars. Each of the PSP's face buttons represent a different attack type, with Strong attacks, Quick attacks and Standard attacks all represented. Each of your Invizimals have a different roster of attacks, with each assigned a different elemental property. Similarly to Pokemon, elemental properties have an impact on the effectiveness of your attacks, with Strength attacks working poorly against Rock types for example. Unfortunately the game does a really poor job explaining the game's rock-paper-scissors dynamic, and some of the concepts just don't make logical sense. There's certainly an argument to be made for the intuitive nature of Nintendo's Pokemon franchise.
The game is hard too, with most battles going down to the wire. You'll need to keep a close eye on your stamina, health and enemy in order to stay in the fray, and even then its a tough ask. Thankfully Vectors — items that can be collected or purchased with in-game currency — add additional defensive and attack options to your Invizimals' abilities. Straight-forward items such as life potions give back some much needed health to your creature, while more complex items such as earthquakes add one-off attack options to your character. Many of the Vectors add interesting input mechanics, such as shaking the PSP or blowing on enemies, and offer another dimension to the gameplay.
But you'll really need to grind before you can tackle any of the later stages. Vectors are imperative to some of the harder battles and you'll need to collect Sparks to purchase them. Sparks emerge mid-battle and drop off enemies when you attack them. You can pick these up by physically moving your PSP in the real-world, and aiming a cross hair over the currency to collect it. At the end of the battle, you'll be assigned the Sparks you've collected, in addition to any experience points your Invizimal has earned.
When levelling up you'll be able to spend points on increasing your Invizimal's health, stamina, armour and more. The game has the complexity of an RPG, but its maddeningly unwilling to communicate the things you want it to, leaving the experience overwhelming and frustrating as a result.
The technology is not flawless either, and is let down by some messy captures which depend too heavily on movement. In one boss encounter you'll need to shoot projectiles at mirrors in order to deflect them into the animal's unguarded rear, but trying to line up shots while keeping the marker card in the camera's viewpoint can lead to glitches while the augmented reality fails to keep up with your motions. The game's inability to track these high-activity moments will often result in you failing the capture, again leading to further frustration and repetition.
Those able to overlook the game's flaws will find a meaty campaign in The Lost Tribes, with a wealth of multiplayer options — both online and local — designed to showcase your endeavours. An initial install cuts down loading times, and there's plenty of concept art and unique items to unlock. You can even customise your Invizimals with custom colour patterns, and many of the characters have individual evolution paths which transform them from cute-and-cuddly animals to full-scale monsters.
It's a shame then that the game is so poorly paced and unwilling to communicate its concepts. Battling is reduced to an exercise in trial and error while you endeavour to understand the game's paper-rock-scissors concepts, and the whole campaign is poorly paced, frequently throwing jigsaw puzzles at you as opposed to the exciting Invizimals battles.
There's a brilliant experience hidden inside Invizimals: The Lost Tribes just itching to get out. But poor execution really gets in the way of what is otherwise an imaginative package. As it stands The Lost Tribes feels like a great idea squandered. Hunting around the real-world for hidden Invizimals is a genuinely appealing mechanic, but the game's inability to communicate coupled with frustrating technical issues and irritating difficulty spikes get in the way of the underlying genius of the concept.