Announced way back in May 2010, Nnooo's Spirit Hunters Inc. — available now in both Light and Shadow flavours — promised, in Nnooo's own words, "a Role Playing Game set in the real world." That's both a tall order and an idea with enormous potential, which is why it's a shame that the finished product mistakes "role playing" for "standing and spinning."
Spirit Hunters Inc. casts you — yes, you... you'll even pose for a picture and everything — as the latest recruit in the titular organisation. The fact that there's very little story beyond this is not an issue... the fact that the little story you do get comes in the form of a pace-breaking text crawl at irregular intervals is an issue. And this, oddly enough, shines a light on a game-wide problem with Spirit Hunters Inc. — its execution. The entire experience positively aches to be tightened up and refined, as though we're beta testers fine-tuning a product before it's released to the masses.
The cameras on the 3DS and DSi have always cried out for interesting implementation that they've only rarely enjoyed. On the positive side of the spectrum you have The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave, which uses AR as a way of bridging the gap between the game's fantasy world and the actual space around you, but a far larger number of games tend to follow The Hidden's mission statement, which is that the game should actually take place in the space around you.
It's a nice idea, but the execution fails universally for one very obvious reason: games don't know anything about the space around you, and so can't react to it or offer gameplay specific to it. Therefore instead of masterfully crafted gaming experiences, we end up with bland titles that don't let us do anything more than spin in circles and shoot at targets, while our living room plays a cameo role as set dressing. That's Spirit Hunters Inc. in a nutshell.
When the game begins you fight a tutorial spirit. It's a simple experience that sees you moving your console around to keep the spirit in frame and tapping it until it dies. You might think you're being trained in some very basic strategy so that you can face bigger and more dangerous enemies soon, but, really, you've just seen everything the game has to offer. You spin around, you find a spirit, you tap it, and you repeat until it's dead. There's no planning or strategising necessary, and if you don't feel like spinning around you can just wait until the spirit comes to you, defeating the purpose of the AR hunt altogether.
Each spirit has an elemental affiliation — either Light, Shadow, Fungus, Fire, Ice, or Water — and you select an affiliation for yourself as well. As expected each element is strong against some and weak against others, and if you wield a weapon that complements your own affiliation you'll be more effective. Unfortunately there's not nearly as much strategy involved here as you might think; any spirit can be pounded relentlessly with any weapon and will eventually be defeated. You may not be doing much damage with your weapon, but as long as you keep tapping and swiping you will win every battle.
At the end of each battle — they all occur in isolation, further working against the intended immersion — you'll receive some experience and money, each of which allow you to upgrade your weaponry. Unfortunately all of the weapons feel similar. Sometimes you tap, sometimes you press, and sometimes you swipe, but once you've done all three you've experience the entire game. Navigating the menus to the shop and spirit list — wherein you can read details about the baddies you've vanquished — feels like a needlessly sluggish ordeal, and further breaks the pace of the game.
Visually, the spirits all share the same dead-eyed non-expression, and their designs don't seem particularly inspired. The audio is fitting and ambient, apart from the bizarrely chipper loading theme that, of course, you'll hear constantly.
The real disappointments come in what should be the game's main selling points: the friend challenges, and the Shadow / Light versions. First we'll address the two versions, as that's quite simple: the changes are minimal. Several unique spirits feature in each version, and there's a different ending, but aside from that they're pretty much identical. That's okay, though... the intention isn't to get anyone to buy both versions, but to give those who buy one version an experience unique — in some small way — to that of those who buy the other.
Mainly, though, it fuels the friend challenges, as the only way for one player to encounter all spirits is to share the unique ones through challenges. Of course the logistics here are almost comically cumbersome. See if you can follow us here: at the end of every spirit battle, you'll face a prompt asking you if you'd like to save the previous fight as a challenge. If you do choose to save the challenge, you'll be asked for the in-game name of your friend, and the challenge won't work unless you enter it exactly right. The game will then export a 28-character (!) code which you give to your friend. Your friend then navigates through a series of menus to find an open challenge slot, inputs the code, and is then able to fight the spirit you exported. Whew.
There are plenty of things that should strike you as potential problems there — the constant questioning after every battle, the need to know in advance who you want to share a challenge with and what their in-game name is, the fact that you can mis-type a name and then your friend won't be able to use the challenge, the fact that you can't export "open" challenges for anyone to try, the chance of writing down one wrong character and rendering the code useless, etc. — and all of them are valid. It's certainly a feature that's more trouble than it's worth, even when it does work, which we don't imagine will be very often.
It's worth pointing out the large number of spirits to catch and the almost dazzling quantity of weapons, both of which are bound to thrill completionists — especially if they do find themselves enjoying this game — but no amount of item collection or stat-levelling makes up for the paper-thin and entirely unfulfilling overall experience.
Spirit Hunters Inc. definitely had potential, but by fencing itself into a predominantly AR experience it never becomes anything other than a repetitive target hunt. And that's a disappointment that will haunt us for many years to come.
With all due respect to the developer, it's not easy to see two and a half years' worth of effort in Spirit Hunters Inc. While it has good intentions and clearly wants players to engage with each other and share their experiences, it feels unfinished and is far too repetitive for its own good. We like what the game tried to achieve but it didn't quite get there, and that's a big disappointment. This is one occasion on which we will advise you to give up the ghost.