There's something incredibly unsettling about seeing an animal talk. And we don't mean talking like that cat that says No - we mean proper, full word style talking, with mouths that move, lips that flap, and a voice that's so horribly enthusiastic it'll drain all the energy from you before it's finished a sentence. The last time we checked, dogs can't talk in real life - but in Playstation Vita pets, through the magic of the PS Vita, they've been given a voice box of their own...
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Sony's answer to Nintendogs (only three years later), PS Vita Pets is a game that blends the virtual pet fun of Nintendo's dog and cat fondler with the adventure-themed storyline of the Xbox 360's virtual pet standout, Kinectimals. You can adopt your own pet (we say pet, we mean dogs, as there's no other pets available) from a choice of four different breeds, with several variations of each on offer, before feeding it, dressing it up, and picking up its mess after it's gone and spread it all over the nearest tree. If you're particularly lucky, you might even get to go an adventure - that is, if you can actually find your way out of your back garden.
You see, buying a pet in real life is a big decision. A dog's for life, not just for Christmas as the old advert goes, and so if you were buying one in real life, you'd go in prepared. You'd read a book, you'd know how to handle it, and have at least the slightest clue what you're doing. In PS Vita Pets, however, you end up going in totally blind. After choosing your pet from the adoption centre, having decided between a Dalmatian, a Collie, a Labrador (the virtual pet game staple), or a Husky, you'll bring your new pet home, where he'll sit, staring up at you with those big round eyes, begging you to do something. And we mean literally, begging, seeing as this dog can talk, remember.
And God, he'll chunter on, and on, and on. Never mind that you can't find your way around the menu yet, never mind that you can't even figure out how to buy him some much needed water because nothing in your living room's labelled with text, just tiny, tiny icons (to find the shop, you have to touch the TV, then click the giant shopping baskets, if anyone's wondering) - your dog's decided he wants to go for a walk, and he wants to go for a walk now.
So you take it outside in the garden, and you have a look around, only to see there are two gates. One, with a picture of a frisbee on it, which your dog helpfully explains you can't go through unless you have a frisbee (you can only assume there's some dog zapping laser on the other side to stop anyone who's trying it on), and a door that has a string with a stick dangling off it. Touch the door, and your dog will huff and grunt as he tries to open it, but he'll soon give up, not before moaning about not being strong enough, before reminding you that he's still desperate to go for a walk. That's the back garden out of the question then - but what about the front of the house?
If you're particularly lucky at this point, your dog may tell you it needs to head back inside and play with the tuggy toy - but we seemed to somehow manage to skip over this, and only discovered it on a second play through. Either way, upon heading back inside, past the thirteenth pair of wellington boots you've seen that day, you look around, and there's no tuggy toy to be seen. All you have a is a ball, some water, and a dog that's drastically changed its mind and now wants to be stroked. Still keen to figure out how to take your dog for a walk, you head to the front door and touch it to open it, where the game switches to an augmented reality style view. Suddenly your dog disappears, it's replaced with a view of your lap, with a bar at the bottom of the screen telling you to try to point your Vita at an area with plenty of detail, so you can fill the AR meter. The only problem is, the bar telling you to watch the AR meter covers the meter itself, so you couldn't keep an eye on it if you tried.
So, with the front door and back door out of the question, with every opportunity explored, and with a whining dog that still desperately wants to go for a walk, what are you supposed to do? That, in a nutshell, is the problem with PS Vita Pets.
While games like this can have a fair amount of crossover appeal, their primary target audience is kids - and young kids. These are games that little ones will want to play, and, with the case of Nintendogs, games that have the potential to keep them occupied for hours - even if it is only through repeatedly washing, cleaning and drying their pet. But in order for that to happen, your game needs to be accessible. Things need to be clearly laid out, kids need to be able to find their way around it without issue, and it needs to be very hard to get stuck. Sadly, in PS Vita Pets, getting stuck is how you'll spend most of your time.
The list of issues here is as long as your arm, but most have to do with the general lack of signposting. It turns out, in order to take your dog for a walk, you have to train him to be able to pull the back door open - and to do that, you need to buy a tuggy toy from the store. Of course, nothing in the shop's labelled until you touch it, so if you don't know what a tuggy toy looks like, it's a case of pressing every item until you find the right one - but once you've got it, you can start training your dog. Play the tuggy toy mini game several times (basically by dragging your finger around the screen), and you'll increase your dog's strength, until he can open the door. The problem is that the game doesn't tell you what to do, and that means that kids may not actually even know there's anything to find outside of the main house.
That's a shame, because once you do get outside, there's plenty to see and do. With a sizeable island to explore (although only by travelling down narrow, pre-determined paths), you can head off on an adventure with your dog, moving around by either holding your finger on the touch screen (which is awkward, because the camera has a tendency to snatch and jump when you approach branches in the path), or using the left analogue stick instead.
There's a handy map in the upper left hand corner for you to follow, and you can explore pretty much to your heart's content, finding sniffing minigames (where you have to tell your dog where to sniff in the hope of finding treasure), secret tunnels, or perhaps most excitingly - a stick! - but, sadly, this mode still has its fair share of issues. For starters, if you want to look at the map properly to see where you're going (there isn't an on screen trail for you to follow), you can't touch the map in the top right - you have to touch the paw, and then the map rectangle that pops up. And for seconds, a lot of the game world, and many of the places the game wants you to go, will be locked off when you first find them, unless you've been training your dog in every category as ruthlessly as possible. And sometimes, when you come up against an obstacle, it isn't all that clear what you're actually meant to do.
A case in point is with the jumps you'll find. Outside an old windmill, there's a rickety old bridge that's collapsed in several places, and there's a little icon that you can touch that shows you can interact with it. Press it, and your dog's supposed to take a running jump across - but in our case, our dog couldn't. He'd step forwards, go to jump, and then moan about "not being able to do that". Great - so why can't you? Again, there was nothing in the way of guidance, and no hints. It turns out we were supposed to have discovered an agility course, hidden away in one corner of the map, where, by dodging some obstacles, we could train our dog to jump. But it doesn't give you anything in the way of prompts to help you find it.
Sadly, the obstacle course itself isn't much better. Holding your Vita sideways, it's up to you to drag a lure in front of your dog, to get it to leap over bridges. With a rather zoomed in view, the game has an icon pop up on screen to tell you where the next bridge is about to appear, so you can line your dog up with it - the only problem being, they're in the wrong place. Substantially. Line your dog up with the icons, and you'll actually miss every bridge in the game - and when you only have a few seconds to move your dog into place anyway, it's not all that easy to do.
Getting around isn't as easy as it should be, either. With a pretty substantial world to explore, you could use some help getting from A to B - but when you first start playing, it doesn't seem like you can actually fast travel. Of course, you don't actually have to trudge from one end of the world to another, and you can fast travel - the game just doesn't bother to tell you how. Or at least not properly. Instead, if you want to be able to get around the map quickly, the game relies on you finding, and then touching one of few caves that are scattered around the world. Once you've done this, it'll then explain you can use them to quickly jump from one place to another - but for something so essential to the game, it's daft that it relies on discovery. Stupider still is how you don't actually seem to be able to jump to your house - at least, until you accept a totally unrelated prompt. Pick up some things in the sniffy mini-games, and the game will ask if you want to return home and sell them. Say yes, and you'll mystically unlock the ability to fast travel to your house at any time - but if you keep rejecting it, as we did, you won't even know the ability exists.
Another frustration revolves around your dog and his business. Rather than making it obvious when your pup's stopped to, er, go to the loo, your dog instead seems to be the master of the stealth poo, dropping a bomb when you least expect it without so much as a squelch. And forget the fact he can talk - the last thing on your dog's mind is telling you what he's done. And that might not be a problem, were it not for the fact that if you leave any doggie doo doo lying around, you get fined. And when you don't even notice your dog doing his doo doo in the first place - especially seeing as he usually does it off camera! - that can seem a tad unfair.
Of course, kids, and particularly young kids often don't mind not being able to finish a game. If there's something cool they can do, they'll happily do it over, and over, and over again, until it starts to drive them (or more likely, you) insane. In Nintendogs, that "cool thing" was washing the dogs, where our little four year old cousin must have had the cleanest dog in the neighbourhood. You can imagine her disappointment then, when she discovers that PS Vita Pets won't actually let you clean your dog until it thinks the time is right. Yes, unless you've left your dog on its own for a few days, or taken it out on a walk, you actually aren't allowed to wash your dog. You can stroke it as much as you want, however, but even trying to get that to work's a bit hit a miss.
In all, then, PS Vita Pets was a great chance to trump Nintendogs at its own game, but it's a chance that's been thoroughly missed. Falling sadly short of the high standards set by Nintendo's own doggy simulator, this is a game that grown ups will find confusing, yet alone the kids the game's aimed at. Adding a story in is a really nice touch, and the exploration aspect was a good attempt at making something more than just a dog fondling game, but PS Vita Pets gets most of the basics wrong. All we really need is a game that'll let us fuss a dog to our heart's content, and we'd be happy, but it's just not as much fun as it should be here. We'll just sit here with our fingers crossed, hoping we get a sequel with a variety of pets, and a much, much better interface, so this can be the time sink it really should have been.
Format Reviewed: PS Vita