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Spirit Hunters preview: Addictive ghost hunting on 3DS

Who you gonna call? Ghost bu.... er, Spirit Hunters!

Spirit Hunters could be the next big thing. For one, it's got hundreds of colourful little critters just begging to be merchandised, perhaps made into a Beanie Baby and stuck in a crane game or, if we're thinking big, offered to the Gods of Saturday morning TV.

Secondly, it follows the kind of business model that's like kryptonite for collectors. Split into two - Spirit Hunters Inc. Light and Spirit Hunters Inc. Shadow - both yield version-specific ghosts and both, of course, need a cheeky purchase if you want to 'catch 'em all'. And, more signs of potential, it's been in development for two and a half years, an eternity for a mere DSiWare and eShop downloadable title. Developers Nnooo clearly aren't letting the game out their sight until it's good and ready. And, let's be honest, the conceit alone is mind-blowing: Ghostbusters meets Pokémon in your living room. And you can scan your face in.

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So, it's all set up for success, for a global takeover just like Pokémon or, to a lesser extent, those stretchy aliens you used to get in 20p machines, but it's missing one vital ingredient: polish. Pokémon dripped with the stuff. Here it spreads thin and tends to spill outside the lines.

The core concept is augmented reality, but it doesn't need cards. Using your DSi or 3DS's rear camera, you scan your environment for ghosts. Cleverly, it's contextual, accounting for both time and colour. Point the camera at something blue and you'll encounter Wooff. Play in the evening and you'll find Theta. Play in the middle of a sunny day and you'll face Charlie (so no chance of British players ever meeting him then). Hunting for the right environment, or even manufacturing your own, are ideas which could actually impact your actions in the real world - like telling the bus driver to park up while you run off in pursuit of virtual monsters or, you know, just going for a walk outside.

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The problem is, clever as that concept might be, it isn't nearly fleshed out enough. Take a battle system which should form the backbone of the experience but instead boils down to attack-spamming and cool-down meters. Dozens of spells like fire fists or frozen slashes or fungal spore clouds line the bottom of the screen along with useful items, and you simply pick one with the stylus - the icons are too small and fiddly to prod with a finger - and fling it forward. After a ten-second wait, you pick it up and fling it again while trying to track your foe as it ducks and weaves around the room (initially the amount of chair-swivelling immediately renders this game unsuitable for those on the bus or toilet, but the spirits eventually come back into view if you remain still for a while).

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Once you've whittled down their HP and defeated them in the field of battle/your garden, you rank up a ghost-hunter license (cute) and earn the XP to buy abilities. The profiles of beaten ghosts are then added to a database of 288, where you can learn their favourite habits and conditions (did you know Styx likes cosy evenings?). Once the battling grows stale and all that's left is the endless cycle of 'find, defeat, repeat', the lack of any meaningful campaign (there is a story that holds the game together) starts to feel like something of an omission.

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