Did you see that? Something bouncing around your peripheral vision… probably nothing. Wait, what was that sound? A faint cry… probably a bird. At night time? Hmm. Those unexplained little specs and sounds don’t mean you’re crazy, there’s actually a logical explanation. Spirits have entered the world and they’ve taken residence in your house, at your local park and everywhere you take your 3DS. How convenient! They are invisible to our human eyes, but now there’s a software app on DSiWare that exposes their presence in the world and lets us play with them!
I’m talking about a game (no way!). Spirit Hunters Inc. recently came out on DSiWare and I’ve been playing it in short bursts for the past month. The concept is very ambitious; an RPG set in the real world. It uses the camera of the DSi / 3DS to display your surroundings on the screen and bring spirits to the surface. Clouds of dust circle you and tapping them reveals a spirit and initiates a battle. This is essentially the entire game, but thankfully the novelty is backed up by a robust and interactive battle system.
When first starting the game you have one attack which varies depending on which element you align yourself to, it might be a laser attack or slash. The game doesn’t play itself like some “modern” RPGs, attacks are executed by drawing a line through your enemy, flicking something at it or holding the stylus over it. The attacks have a bar that recharges after each use like Xenoblade and Final Fantasy, and you can’t use it again until the bar refills. As you level up you slowly gain access to a whole arsenal of attacks across different elements, including status altering moves and health draining attacks. It’s important to equip yourself with the right balance to cover your weaknesses. Miraculously, ICE is super-effective against WATER; something that’s always annoyed me about Pokemon. Water is the easiest thing in the world to freeze, right? IT MAKES SENSE! Super effective attacks are a big deal and do double damage which is pretty much necessary to survive against high level spirits.
Most battles are pretty easy and it took until about level 30 until I started thinking about my strategy properly. At this point a rare spirit came out of nowhere and all of a sudden a simple slash and poke with the right elements wasn’t enough. The spirit was flying all over the place, blurring the screen and unleashing status attacks I hadn’t seen before. As the levels get higher this becomes the norm, and it becomes important to lay traps and draw barriers just so you can keep the thing in one place. The AR isn’t perfect, I find it a bit frustrating every time the spirit leaves the screen, I usually overcompensate by moving the 3DS around in circles and it still doesn’t seem to come back to me. This is strange because when the spirit is on the screen it’s very easy to center.
It’s quite a startling thing when you have your first AR encounter, and the novelty extends further as you realise it actually matters where you are. The game measures the colour balance in your area and uses that (as well as the time of day) to determine what type of spirits you’ll find. After getting nothing but fire and shadow spirits in my poorly lit lounge room, I decided to be a bit more adventurous and scan inside my fridge. Huzzah, an ice spirit! Going outside in the natural light of the day also revealed new fungal and water spirits emerging from the trees and sunlight. It’s also much easier to manipulate the colours when you’re outside to get the spirits you want; no amount of artificial lighting could get me a water spirit. There’s 16 different spirit families, each with six members or “elements” to it. While I’m not hugely motivated to find every single one, I find this game gives me a cool excuse to walk around. Some of the spirits have hilarious sound effects and it’s nice seeing their little quirks.
Your health regenerates slowly over time (whether you’re playing or not) and when you die it simply means you can’t play for a few minutes. This is pretty good motivation to monitor your health even in less serious battles. Battles initiate pretty quickly but it does get a bit boring after leveling up a few times, I’ve never been able to play for more than an hour. It’s essentially the same thing over and over which is just like any other RPG, but without much to do in between. You could say the games “overworld” is the real world, put the 3DS down and pick it back up when you’re in a new place. I actually like this design because it makes it a perfect downloadable game, always accessible on the menu for a quick spirit hunt. Little bits of story are sprinkled into the mix every few levels; nothing too deep but I like the sense of mystery and how it relates to our world. The music is awesome too, the main theme is very eerie and catchy and gets me in a supernatural mood. Playing this and ZombiU at the same time definitely made my house feel a bit strange.
There’s a challenge system that lets you send a spirit to your friends after playing it, but it’s a bit convoluted. After each battle you’re given the option to generate a code, and you need your friends exact Spirit Hunter name to generate it. It’s hard to communicate which spirits you want from your friends, because the empty spirits on your license are just blank and nameless without many clues. Communication is the key if you want to find every spirit, and one thing I like is how the game itself actually displays a link to Nnooo’s community forum, so everybody is sharing codes in the same place rather than randomly scattered around the internet. As a result, it’s pretty active and people are posting what spirits they need. I got a challenge from somebody there and it turned out to be a level 98 spirit which destroyed me in hilarious fashion. I did a surprising amount of damage to it (seems like the damage scales to your level), but its huge HP proved too much to overcome. It’s a neat feature but too handicapped and confusing to be useful to most players.
Spirit Hunters Inc. isn’t going to blow your brains out or sweep the Mountain Dew(tm) GOTY awards (new Mass Effect flavoured Doritos available now), but it succeeds in creating a new experience and coats it in a bizarre eerie atmosphere. It’s worth $10 just for the novelty of being an Augmented Reality RPG, but it offers a lot more than that if you look for it.