Last year when we reviewed EyePet PSP we explained how elated we'd be receiving the augmented reality experience for Christmas. Fast forward 12 months and not much has changed. EyePet Adventures is the latest portable iteration of Sony's virtual pet franchise, and this time it's come packaged with a much bigger emphasis on exploration.
While we adored EyePet PSP before it, the game was essentially little more than a slender sandbox. We gave the game credit for its ambition and general sense of genius, but we criticised it for a lack of content. EyePet Adventures tries to right that wrong by adding some simple adventure gameplay into the mix.
The game opens more or less like you'd expect it to. Colourful graphics and cartoony faces welcome you to the wonderful world of EyePet ownership, and introduce you to the EyePet Explorer's Club — a kind of tween pact that sees you interacting with other friendly children and hunting for hidden items.
The biggest tweak to EyePet Adventures is the introduction of the EyePet Explorer Craft, a kind of cross between a helicopter and a toy capsule which allows you to adventure beneath the depths of whatever surface you've decided to play upon.
Like its predecessor, the game comes packed with what's dubbed as a "Magic Card", a marker which works alongside the PlayStation Portable's camera (required) to detect your playing surface and augment objects on top of it. The effect is no less magical than 12 months ago, and it once again cements Sony at the summit of augmented reality experiences. Though Nintendo's now jumped in on the action, we still think Sony's history with the technology puts them far ahead of their competitors. It's just a shame that the company hasn't been able to really enforce its position in the augmented reality space. Both Invizimals and EyePet have made reasonable names for themselves in continental Europe, but it's only a matter of time before someone runs with the idea and makes it mainstream.
Regardless, the technology is as rock solid as ever, allowing you to transform any still surface into an interactive playing field. The game works in all but pitch-black situations, and is pretty difficult to break. In short — children shouldn't have a hard time getting set up and playing.
As in EyePet PSP, part of the fun comes from making your own. Watching your EyePet shimmy around a variety of surfaces and interacting with the things it finds is still an excellent past-time. Kids will get hours and hours of enjoyment out of simply interacting with real-life toys and their EyePet on the carpet.
But while its predecessor stopped short there, EyePet Adventures introduces an entirely new adventure side-experience. The conceit is that your EyePet Explorer Craft is capable of diving beneath the carpet, table or bed that you're playing upon, allowing you to explore a sub-realm filled with different districts.
This whole side game can be played with the augmented reality features turned off, so there's still plenty of game available for kids playing at night or sitting in unsteady cars. The imaginative aspect is fun — with little animations showing the Explorer Craft break through the surface of whatever your PSP is pointing at to add to the illusion.
When you're in these two-dimensional exploratory environments you'll need to collect Magic Tokens, which allow you to explore more of the underworld, unlock costumes for your EyePet and happen upon hidden "Toys" (or minigames). The gameplay is exceedingly simple — as it's clearly been designed for kids — but there's enough exploration on offer to provide a good couple of hours gameplay. And while its repetitive diving for tokens, we imagine motivated kids will be keen to keep looking in order to unlock the next costume on their radar.
Unfortunately the underworld can be a bit labyrinth like, and subsequently difficult to navigate. Some very simple puzzles aren't particularly well introduced, and even as adult experienced gamers we found ourselves lost and "stuck" on occasions. Given the game's ridiculously slow build-up — which is obviously designed to get kids up to speed — we were more than surprised that the game didn't attempt to hold our hand tighter.
But these moments are few and far between, and once you overcome them you'll find a rich two-dimensional world packed with hidden costumes, toys and more. It at least gives the game a little more context, and no matter how simplistic, offers more structure to the sandbox found in EyePet PSP.
Collecting "Toy" components allows you to return to the augmented reality portion of EyePet Adventures and participate in some very simple mini-games. Vermin scaring, treasure hunting and sheep herding is all included, and it all uses the augmented reality well, allowing you to move around your playing surface and zoom in and out fairly intuitively.
The minigames themselves aren't particularly exciting, but the joy comes from seeing your EyePet involved in unique activities. Shallow score tracking and multiple difficulty levels at least offers incentive to replay the minigames multiple times.
When you're not discovering the Underworld or playing with your EyePet via augmented reality, you can interact with your adorable character inside the Explorer Craft. Here you can feed your EyePet, browse photographs (which can be snapped at any point during the game using the R button), view your records or kit out your EyePet in new clothing and fur styles. It's shallow virtual pet stuff, but again, kids will surely enjoy the novelty.
The game's presentation is suitably twee throughout, with bold colours and slick audio motifs running throughout the experience. Loading times continue to be an issue with any UMD based PlayStation Portable game, and EyePet Adventures is no different despite a reasonable install. Menus take a good 5-10 seconds to load, making browsing through the game a bit of a chore.
The EyePet itself is still a lovable protagonist though, and while not everyone appears to be taken with him, we still adore the scamp. He's cheeky and packed with personality, and a great mascot as far as we're concerned.
If you've already played EyePet PSP, we daresay the novelty of EyePet Adventures will be adversely affected. But with a much more "gamey" core and plenty of new things to do, this is still a recommendable experience for kids. While the game boasts a reasonable array of content, the longevity comes from the experience kids will make of it. Bringing real-world toys into the augmented action and simply taking photographs of your character dressed up in different outfits has a timeless kind of charm to it, and imaginative children will get more than their money's worth out of the casual experience.
We would have liked to have seen a bit more refinement in the design of the Underworld sections, and perhaps a couple more minigames, but it's hard to lament what's not there. It's a cute and cuddly experience that knows its audience well, and would make our ten year old alter egos beam with happiness if we were presented with it on Christmas morning.
EyePet Adventures is set to release on November 11th in Europe, exclusively for PlayStation Portable. At the time of writing, no North American release date has been announced. The game requires the PlayStation Portable's camera peripheral.