On paper, Fossil Fighters might appear to be little more than a Pokémon clone. It's a series about reviving dinosaurs — called vivosaurs — from fossilized remains and pitting them in turn-based battles against other dinosaurs. But even though the formula is undoubtedly similar, Fossil Fighters makes a solid effort to carve out its own identity. What's a bit surprising, though, is that even with two appearances on the Nintendo DS the series has never really found success with mainstream audiences. Developed by Red Entertainment and published by Nintendo, does this relatively-unknown series deserve more time in the spotlight thanks to the latest instalment, Fossil Fighters: Frontier?

We'll jump right ahead and answer that question with a big ol' “yes." Fossil Fighters: Frontier is clearly inspired by Pokémon but not necessarily limited by it, and the result is a game that is - for the most part - more accessible and straightforward than Game Freak's beloved franchise. Because certain elements of the package are more simplified when compared to other like-minded turn-based RPGs, Frontier won't appeal to everyone. But anyone looking for a charming, all-ages-friendly bargain would be smart to consider giving it a shot; there's a lot to sink your teeth into here, even if there are some issues to overcome.

Fossil Fighters: Frontier has an upbeat personality that is very charming and welcoming. Immediately after booting the game from the 3DS home screen, for example, you're greeted with an introduction sequence and a theme song that sounds straight out of a 1980's TV show. It's super cheesy, but it also seems to burrow into your subconscious to let you know that this is a game that's simple fun, and it shouldn't be taken too seriously. The visual presentation, which unfortunately is weak in some areas, further sells this sense of youthful adventure with bold colours and imaginative vivosaur designs.

The story, for better or worse, also feels like something out of a retro Saturday morning cartoon. The main playable protagonist seems to be about 12 years old, and he's chasing responsibilities that are quite dangerous. As a member of the Wardens, a global organization that protects the world's remaining Fossil Parks, he spends his time reviving and battling super powerful vivosaurs and dealing with any other threats that surface in the parks. To alleviate some of that weight from his shoulders, there's a pretty huge cast of characters – referred to as Paleo Pals – to accompany him and assist in battle.

The casually-disclosed plot likely won't do much to shock and surprise, but that being said we found ourselves oddly invested in it. With a supporting cast of characters typically based on various regional stereotypes, mixed with a bunch of so-corny-it's-good dialogue, Frontier finds a way to stay entertaining, humorous, and often charming during its 25+ hour runtime. Silly is probably the most fitting adjective we could use to describe all of it, so be sure that's a label that doesn't turn your stomach before jumping on board.

Instead of aimlessly exploring a sprawling interconnected world like you would in the Pokemon series, Frontier divides its modestly-sized parks up into selections that can accessed from three hub areas, which can be teleported between quickly. This works out very well for a game made for portable devices and for younger players inexperienced with the RPG genre. The various parks are rarely all that appealing or interesting to look at, but there's enough of a sense of exploration and discovery in their design to keep the occasional plainness from being an issue. While we started out underwhelmed with the first area that we visited, it wasn't long before we were presented with treacherous and suspicious roads to traverse, well-hidden fossils to sniff out, and even numerous minigame-like challenge routes to best.

What distinguishes Frontier from prior entries in the series is the inclusion of Bone Buggies. These rugged all-terrain vehicles are your method of getting around the parks, and they're fitted with the equipment that allows fossils to be dug up. With a Tonka truck look and essence to them, they're a fitting addition to the formula that makes you feel better suited to approach wild vivosaurs, as opposed to presenting yourself to a towering beast on foot. The customization aspect, which allows digging equipment and other related gadgets to be upgraded and added to the vehicle, aided in a sense of progression and caused us to feel more confident when stumbling on a tough-to-crack fossil. Just don't anticipate cosmetic customizations outside of altering the colour of your ride.

The actual act of digging up fossils takes place on the 3DS touchscreen with a stylus in hand. At first this task was a compelling one, being understandable but requiring strategy and a swift hand to earn the best score possible. But there's a point where the novelty wears off, and hammering and drilling away at fossil after fossil becomes a sigh-worthy proposition. The solution to this, we found, was to divide our time as evenly as possible between story missions, vivosaur battles, fossil digging, and the few other activities available throughout the campaign. When we did that, the flow of the game became much smoother, and we settled into the adventure quite nicely.

Possibly the most divisive design choice in Frontier is the fairly passive battle system, with the player not involved in the turns of their two AI teammates. However, after your Paleo Pal has selected their desired attack, you will have a few seconds to administer a limited number of buffs – these can do things like increase attack, raise defense, replenish health, etc. There's a lot of strategy involved in maintaining your reserves throughout a lengthy and difficult battle or during a tournament that limits your refills. When selecting an attack, you'll also have to consider the stance of both your vivosaurs and that of the enemy. Certain attacks will spin your opponent around, leaving them vulnerable to the subsequent attack, while others might allow you to deal a large amount of damage, but leave you exposed during the next round. This depth wasn't apparent to us from the get-go, but once we figured out how to use it to our advantage when the difficulty began increasing, things became much more interesting.

But even still, this isn't the most involving combat system out there. There's no doubt that some people will find it enjoyable and in harmony with the rest of the experience, but there will also be people – RPG veterans mostly – that won't be won over by it. Keep in mind that this is a game that's more concerned about appealing to and entertaining a younger audience than frequenters of the genre. That said, we bet that even people of all ages looking for a charming and Pokémon-like adventure to tide them over between big releases will get their money's worth. It would be foolish to immediately write it off as a kid's game.

Up until about 70% of the way through the game we didn't experience too much of a challenge. Nothing was criminally easy, but we didn't find ourselves in any scenarios that truly tested our skills. That is, until the last five or so hours of the story, when the difficulty ramped up out of nowhere. To overcome this hang-up, we had to return to the various Fossil Parks to battle and excavate, and we also signed up for a whole bunch of tournaments. It was a lot of grinding for the sake of powering up and raising our chances of survival. Needless to say, this increase in challenge might be at a disparity with the abilities of the target audience, and could result in much frustration. Being entirely forthcoming, this is the most significant reason Frontier didn't score higher.

We should also address that the visuals are often underwhelming. The graphics themselves range from good to bland, and the stereoscopic 3D effect of the 3DS is lazily implemented. Thankfully, we didn't uncover any nasty technical problems, and some of the great-looking 2D character art that pops up during scenes of dialogue adds a nice degree of depth and personality to the presentation. And for those wondering, the game doesn't utilize the New Nintendo 3DS nub in any way. It's no big deal, but it would've been nice to swing a camera around when cruising in a Bone Buggy. In many ways, Frontier does feel like a budget game, but that saying that is a disservice to how well it does come together and how many hours of playtime are available here.

To extend the value of the package further, there are a few multiplayer options to take advantage of. For one, the stadiums located at the Warden headquarters allow you to take place in vivosaur tournaments against AI, and you can even square off against actual humans over an online connection. Finding a match didn't always prove easy, but when we did locate someone to battle against things were smooth. Additionally, if you want to scour the land for fossils with a few friends, you can do this through local play if you each have a copy of the game. Sadly, we were unable to test this feature out, though we don't expect it would've made a significant difference in our overall opinion of Fossil Fighters: Frontier.

Conclusion

Fossil Fighters: Frontier's DNA is constructed from the formula found in the Pokémon series, but it has undergone enough genetic engineering to stand out as its own experience. If you're looking for an accessible turn-based RPG that offers unpretentious gameplay and presentation, then you'll probably dig what it's got going for it; it's the kind of game that succeeds because all of its differing parts fit together harmoniously. Be warned that there are a couple troublesome difficulty spikes that could derail your fun if you're not expecting them, but proper preparation can iron out and neutralize those moments. Overall, Fossil Fighters: Frontier is too innocuous and likeable to stay mad at for long.