Friday, January 30, 2009

Elebits: The Adventures of Kai & Zero

The original Elebits was released shortly after the Wii hit retail shelves and was a showcase for the new functionality offered by the Wii Remote. Playing from a first-person perspective, you scoured the environment in search of elusive electrically charged creatures, using the controller as a virtual wand to overturn kitchen appliances and shake down trees in an elaborate game of hide and seek. The sequel makes the leap to the Nintendo DS with the same basic capturing mechanics but shifts the vantage to a top-down viewpoint. The emphasis is now placed on clever puzzle design rather than over-the-top physics, which makes for a satisfying experience. The pointless evolutionary system and unimaginative visual design put a slight damper on the fun, but interesting levels and varied puzzles make this an engrossing, and surprisingly challenging, adventure.

You once again play as Kai, a small boy with large problems. While exploring with your Elebit pal Zero, you happen upon an old bus that doubles as a time machine. Sadly, this talking bus does not have the best sense of direction, so you find yourself lost in time, desperately trying to make your way home. Kai is a weak protagonist, meekly following orders from the various people he runs into, showing not even the slightest hint of his own personality. But the characters are not the star of this adventure--the message is. The lands you visit have been hurt in some way by overly ambitious citizens intent on expanding their society without any regard to preserving the environment. The message can be a little heavy-handed, but the smooth manner in which these pro-environment ideals are woven into this otherwise fantastical journey is commendable. Having a likable character restoring order would have carried more weight, though.

While both the original Elebits and its sequel emphasize catching the little creatures desperately trying to escape your clutches, the DS iteration puts your captives to good use. You befriend various Omega Elebits--elemental beings you control to solve puzzles--and use ordinary Elebits to power them. There are trees, rocks, and other obvious hiding places scattered everywhere for these common Elebits to take refuge in, ensuring you never have a shortage of energy at your fingertips. To nab these walking power pellets, simply tap on them with the stylus and then tap on one of your Omega friends to scoop them up. The more you collect in one swipe, the higher your combo bonus, so it's wise to shake out every nearby bush before rounding them up. While building up a reserve of energy is easy, making your way through the levels can be quite difficult. Obstacles will block your every turn, and you'll have to overcome them all to nab the hidden Omega Elebits and find the map to the next world.

Each Omega Elebit has its own abilities, so you'll have to discover for yourself how you can take advantage of them to get past obstacles. You'll be able to destroy heavy rocks, burrow underground, freeze lakes, and control giant metal balls, among other things, and knowing when and where to call forth these actions is not always obvious. The later levels are particularly devious, stringing a number of puzzles together that force you to combine your Omegas' abilities in clever new ways. The boss fights are also quite impressive, making you quickly switch between creatures to take advantage of weaknesses when they present themselves. There are certain instances when your only way through is by trial and error (why would a rock creature be susceptible only to wind?), but the majority of the solutions are grounded in reality. The puzzles are strong throughout the adventure, continually placing seemingly insurmountable walls in your path before you figure out how to progress.

The common Elebits you collect not only refuel the Omegas, they evolve them as well. This changes their appearance and enhances their powers, but does so in such a limited way that there's little tangible incentive for it. Each evolution imbues your Omegas with the same bonus tweaks--a longer time bar to capture Elebits, which makes large combos easier to pull off, and more efficient energy consumption, which lets you use their abilities with less power. But that's all you get. Your fire-breathing Elebit cannot develop a stronger flame. Instead, you unlock X Omegas along the way, which render your ordinary Omegas worthless. The lame evolutionary system takes the appeal of the hunt away, giving you little reason to grab every Elebit in sight. Evolution also throws a wrench in the multiplayer mode. Players race to collect the most Elebits in a set time, but anyone utilizing the evolved forms will be able to pull off larger combos. Even without that imbalance, the multiplayer mode is forgettable, highlighting the weakest point of the main game (collecting), without offering any puzzles or combat options to make it fun.

The visuals are bright and cheery, giving the environments a welcoming feel, even in their chaotic state. The design of the Elebits is derivative though, drawing all-too-obvious inspirations from Pokemon. The similarities are even more striking when the Elebits are in their evolved state, where they sprout gaudy feathers and other adornments, making them look like dead ringers for various members of Nintendo's team of fighting monsters. The music stays firmly in the background, never getting in the way but rarely enhancing the experience. Unfortunately, playing without sound isn't an option. You have a Melody Elebit in your repertoire that can open up paths, but you'll have to listen for music cues to know when to use it.

Despite the watered-down evolution aspect and some uninspired visual design, Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero is a well-crafted and very enjoyable adventure game. With combat relegated to the exciting boss encounters, you'll spend most of your journey focused on the clever puzzles blocking your path. Your quest may not be particularly long--most players will be able to finish in less than 10 hours--but the adventure is well paced and provides a good challenge. Even though it offers a drastic change of pace from the Wii original, the second Elebits is a rewarding and wholesomely fun adventure.

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