Pet simulation games don’t stand tall in the teeming hierarchy of video game genres and offerings, possessing a reputation that slips it right to the bottom of the quality food chain. The UK-based team at Spiral House examined this glaring issue and went back to the drawing board, aiming to mend the blemishes of its pet-raising forerunners like seasoned veterinarians. The result? PlayStation Vita Pets; a game that donates enchanting new ways to interact with your pets, but falls short of convincing you that its exhibition of simulated pups are worth fostering.
Right off the bat you’re introduced to four breeds of cuddly canines that will make you smile from ear to ear, that is, until you see their anthropomorphic mouths rattle on, cloying you with their overly chipper catalog of syrupy phrases. Don’t get me wrong, the voice talent displayed services the cheerful tone of the game, but after an hour or so of repetitive chatter, you can’t help but want to strap a belt around your poor pooch’s muzzle. The blame is put less on the performance delivery and more so on the thin variety of phrases recorded – in addition to the awfully short intervals timed between each speaking line. Thankfully, this method may keep young toddlers more engaged than their parents, but it will require quite a bit of tolerance.
Once you’ve adopted your precious, but gabby pup, you’re teleported to a home that’s sprinkled with the usual playthings featured in a virtual pet sim. You’re welcomed to a series of generic tutorials that will teach you how to nurture and play with your dog. These are conveyed through signature mini-games that will usually require the use of the Vita’s touch-screen, like playing with a tug toy or petting your, well, pet. Continue to mingle with your mutt and you’ll level up your dog’s abilities; a definite requirement if you wish to move forward in the game’s campaign.
Yes, the game has a campaign, and to my surprise, it fosters a charming narrative that covers an ancient mystery surrounding the tale of a famed king and his loyal pup, Cosmos. Herein lays the cornerstone for the developer’s vision – one that attempts to bolster the virtual pet formula by introducing supplemental design elements that are extracted from other genres. There is a story that stimulates exploration. There are collectibles and trinkets to stockpile or sell at the in-game store. There is a simple, RPG-centric skill system that invokes progression. This is all paved with good intention, but sometimes it does more harm than good.
This is most evident when the game pits you against barriers that require your pet to be suitably leveled at a certain skill in order to pass them. You’ll come across logs or doors that will call for a requisite ability, and if your pet is not up to snuff, then you’ll have to trek back home and train your tyke. Sure, playing tug-of-war with your pup is hearty the first few times, but when you realize that you can’t progress with the story until you level up your animal’s strength by engaging in the tug toy mini-game over and over and over again, the short-lived diversion quickly becomes a chore. It’s a shame, because what could have been an enchantingly lighthearted adventure is dulled into a monotonous grind fest that stalls the buoyant pace of the story – so much so that even a child would likely zone out from the confusion of figuring out which activity is tied to which skill.
Furthermore, it does not help that your character walks as slow as a turtle in the first-person perspective. The game’s lush woodland does exhibit branching paths and treasures to uncover, but for the most part, you’re on-rails hiking along a narrow dirt road. All you have to do is press in the direction you want to move onscreen or use the left analog stick to walk forward. Thankfully, the game features a fast travel system by way of tunnels, just in case your patience runs thin from moving like molasses. As expected, just about every characteristic of the Vita hardware is put to work, from the camera and microphone to the touch-screen and tilt function. Some features are clumsier than others – the mine cart and obstacle course mini-games are poorly optimized – but overall, most facets of the system function well.
If the turtle-speed gameplay doesn’t keep you or your youngster engrossed, I must say that its graphics will try hard to win you over. On a visual scale, the game certainly impresses and gets the Vita hardware working in high gear. The greenery is abundantly vivid and colors flourish the screen with exceptional detail, but the star of the show is – unsurprisingly – your precious pet. The star-in-the-eyes look you get from your pup can steal your soul (now if only the same could be said about that obnoxious voice). Their fur jauntily sways about and gets soiled with dirt after venturing out, calling for a well-earned shower after a long day’s journey into the woods. The soundtrack too adorns the presentation with delight, ushering an orchestral score that puts the pep in your puppy’s step.
It’s difficult not to commend Spiral House for trying to invigorate life into a genre that to many is already dead. Even with notable amounts of visual polish, both children and parents alike might find its repetitive progression system and occasionally vague objectives a bit too arduous to deal with. Animal lovers might connect to the game’s heartfelt efforts, but the apparent design flaws outweigh the developer’s ambition. In this regard, it doesn’t make the impact it wants to, but the endeavor to do so is respectfully showcased and the result is something unique to the genre.