Posted by Zach Kaplan
As good as Bill Nye, or would it make him cry?
Pokémon and its ilk channel a sense of wonder as players explore new worlds to learn about their inhabitants. It seems that someone over at Abylight had the revelation that our own planet is filled with fantastic creatures as well – they're just too small to see. AfterZoom has you go about collecting microorganisms from your very surroundings, then fighting them. It's one of the more interesting concepts we've seen on DSiWare, but is it worth a closer look?
Through a series of random events, your DSi Camera has turned into a microscope; this is how the game initially explains it, anyway. You focus the lens on whatever you please, then zoom in to see what's settled down there. Each spot contains many substances, generally molecules of carbon, oxygen and so on, as well as a small number of organisms. You focus your camera on these to process and collect them – the living creatures will try to wriggle away and force you to follow them along for about ten seconds – then play with what you've found, feeding the substances to your organisms to keep them healthy and multiplying.
Just like a real scientist, you'll pit your collection of organisms against the ones you're trying to collect to subdue them. Ok, that's probably not how it's done in real life, but we can dream. Combat is simple and relatively non-strategic – you'll browse through your creatures, launching individuals one by one until you find those that weaken your opponent most effectively or until time runs out. You can only have a certain number of organisms in battle at once, and you must avoid running your populations down until there's only one left or you won't be able to use that creature until it has time to spawn more of itself or you seek out and capture more.
The organism section of your lab gives you a few fun facts about each – nothing too scientific, mind you – as well as what they eat and sometimes which organism is the most powerful against them in battle. More importantly, it tells you where to find them, which amounts to looking at a certain coloured object. It might say that the organism lives in strawberry jam, for example, but looking in a similar shade of red anywhere will do the trick.
Searching for organisms this way is perhaps the game's best feature – it feels like a scavenger hunt, and though you're conscious that you're not really looking within the objects around you, it still carries a charm and can become somewhat exciting, especially if you're playing in public. Once you zoom in, however, you unfortunately won't do much exploring. Instead, everything you need is basically directly in front of you, and all you have to do is continue to zoom.
Feeding your organisms becomes somewhat tedious as well. The game operates in real time, so you'll have to check back somewhat frequently to keep your samples from expiring. When you build a fairly large collection, you'll have to spend more and more time feeding them to keep their levels in the green. Just maintaining their health can take a good half hour of swapping from test tube to test tube, looking for and then launching the correct molecules at them. On another note, they don't always eat exactly what you find – you'll have to mix combinations using real chemical formulas, doing the math work yourself if you want to make multiple molecules at once. Abylight definitely deserves credit from accomplishing the seemingly impossible – it's made learning fun.
For all that biology, however, you won't learn an awful lot about the microorganisms themselves besides some simple trivia. AfterZoom includes a lab journal that fills in as you progress, but it repeats itself and rarely approaches educational. You'll still learn a lot more than you would playing most other games, and this one never outright claims to teach anything, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
Unfortunately, the game is quite short. If you're looking in the right places, you can capture all 50 samples within a few days, and then there's nothing left to do except feed them and look for more of what you've already captured. As gameplay is so simple, basic and repetitive, losing the charm of finding new discoveries makes AfterZoom quite tedious.
The controls aren't bad as long as you neglect the stylus and gyrometer as much as possible. You use the latter when searching for objects – after you zoom in, you can still move the camera around like before, but it's much more accurate and less awkward to simply employ the directional pad. Unfortunately you can't just turn the former off, so if you shift position while using the d-pad, your view will shift as well and you'll have to scroll back. You can feed and launch organisms into combat with either the stylus or the d-pad, and again we recommend the latter. Flicking substances into play is far too slow of a process. You'll still have to use the stylus at other times, and it's somewhat awkward to have it in hand and ready to go at all times, but it beats playing with it when you don't have to.
The presentation is charming – zooming into your world is entertaining and looks realistic enough, while the creatures within are interesting in appearance without seeming out of place in a science-based title. The soundtrack is minimal and creates a somewhat otherworldly ambience, which proves a nice touch.
AfterZoom is charming, interesting and works well, not to mention the perfect tool for someone who needs help with multiplication. It just doesn't last nearly long enough, and while it does, it's simple and repetitive. The core concept is unique and compelling enough to keep its flaws hidden, but once you've solved the short scavenger hunt in its entirety, you don't need a microscope to see that there's a lot missing from this compound.