Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Spiral House | XDEV
Why can the dogs talk?!!
I can't get my head around it. Grooming, petting and feeding virtual pets may be a fun and surprisingly engrossing pastime, but not when they can speak back to you in jarring American accents. Cute and cuddly puppies become uncanny hybrid monsters that are as unsettling as their voice acting is obnoxiously preppy. In a cartoon, it'd be adorable. With realistic graphics, adult voices and unnatural facial expressions, it's plain weird.
Is it okay to own another sentient being? Are they fine with me petting them? How can they possibly be happy with this situation? I freely admit that I'm overthinking like a blithering pedant who's two decades older than the intended target audience, but Spiral House score an own goal from the off and alienate animal lovers in the process. I'd say "screwed the pooch," but that adage becomes doubly inappropriate when the pooches can talk.
Mind you, this is just one of several ways in which PlayStation Vita Pets strives to be very different from NintenDogs and other casual pet simulators. The most important differentiator being... wait for it... an actual campaign.
Whoa there. Let's not be too hasty. Heel! NintenDogs still informs the basic premise of the game: adopting a puppy, then interacting with them in what boils down to a selection of minigames. We'll feed them, pet them, wash them, dress them in silly outfits and play with a selection of toys. Simple but pleasingly accurate and tactile thanks to the Vita's touchscreen, with AR functionality that puts Invizimals to shame. Watching your chosen pup gambol and play in your living room using markerless AR and the rear camera is a well-implemented joy that doesn't get old as quickly as you'd expect. Earning levels for different characteristics and games is also as addictive as you'd expect in a slightly cynical kind of way.
As such, it's initially entertaining, arguably more so than Nintendogs once the tutorials end and you repress the nightmarish gene-spliced talking dog-things to the very back of your mind.
Presentation is top-notch in the visual department, with crisp graphics and a colourful aesthetic that vies for the title of 'shiniest on system.' The audio sadly sours the proceedings due to the aforementioned voice acting, as the canines constantly talk at us in aggravating American accents and quickly use up an annoyingly slim selection of samples. The blurb boasts of "over 10,000 lines of dialogue," but you'll hear the same 20-50 repeated at all-too-regular intervals. Again, it's incredibly disturbing to hear puppies talk in adolescent and adult American accents, less an uncanny valley and more of an uncanny bottomless pit that constantly jerks you out of the experience.
Tomodachi Life sidesteps the issue with human Mii characters and stylised art direction, Pokemon's critters are mute and cartoony, but PS Vita Pets feels... wrong. No matter how you slice it, they don't feel like actual dogs, which is surely the whole point.
PS Vita Pets' transgressions might not matter to an eight-year-old, I suppose, even though I'd probably recommend the 3DS as a much more inclusive system. I don't know if the Vita's niche selection of cult localised JRPGs is necessarily what they want.
Regardless, Spiral House has delivered on a simple, shallow, satisfactory, forgettable and enjoyable bit of casual fluff, but PS Vita Pets thinks bigger. Instead of petting for petting's sake, there's actually a grand adventure to embark on.
Superb GMA-worthy humour aside [where's that then? - Ed], we're actually given some context for the casual core of petting and playing. PS Vita Pets' campaign is effectively a railroaded corridor with various minigames along the way, most of which require your dog to have reached a certain level in a particular attribute, but the window dressing is attractive and the minigames are rather fun, if inconsistently optimised. Expect plenty of tilting and tapping, not to mention excellent use of the system's microphone.
However, progression brings things to a grinding halt, and I have chosen my words very carefully here. Grinding is very much the aim of the game as you encounter dead end after dead end that can only be circumvented if your dog has reached a certain level in a specific attribute. If that attribute happens to be strength, you'll then have to return home and play repetitive minigames over and over again until the arbitrary number ticks up. Repeat ad infinitum/nauseam.
It's laborious and turns optional fun into mandatory padding, missing the point of the proceedings spectacularly, and not helped by sluggish movement speed that makes traversal a chore (thank goodness for fast-travel). There's a small degree of welcome exploration in terms of finding items around the environments, and we love the idea, but the execution lacks effort and most importantly fun.
Keep trying, though. Even without the context-laden campaign that finally unites pet sim with compelling adventure, PS Vita pets is still a valiant effort to do something different in the genre without losing the familiar core of owning, feeding and petting a virtual pet. It's fun while it lasts and I hope that Spiral House or another studio runs with the premise.
But next time, perhaps the dogs could... you know... bark?
- Fantastic handheld visuals
- Plenty of entertaining minigames and cosmetic options use the system's unique features well
- Tries to inject context and innovation into the genre
- Stodgy and laborious campaign will be boring even for the target audience, forces players to repeat minigames
- Voice acting is awful, unnecessary and extraordinarily creepy
- Has grind instead of depth, quickly becomes repetitive
The Short Version: A valiant stab at innovating on the traditional virtual pet formula goes awry thanks to a chore of a campaign and painful(ly creepy) voice acting, but PlayStation Vita Pets will still please its young target audience for a while.