Virtual pet games have got a bad name. We don’t mean the type of embarrassing monikers that you’re likely to overhear at a haughty dog breeder’s meeting, but more a downright abysmal track record when it comes to quality. Unsurprisingly, the House of Mario set the standard for portable animal interaction with Nintendogs on the Nintendo DS, but its success was tailed by a line of wannabe lap dogs, each eager to capitalise on the original’s commercial accomplishments without investing a tenth of the effort. PlayStation Vita Pets doesn’t have a clever portmanteau in its title, but thankfully it’s much more than a lazy, er, copycat.
This cute and cuddly exclusive developed by British studio Spiral House fuses Tamagotchi with Treasure Island, taking you on an idyllic tour of an ancient kingdom – which just so happens to be packed to the figurative play pen lid with secrets to sniff out. Unlike other virtual pet titles, this doggy-focused package isn’t content with simply repurposing the genre’s obligatory simulation elements, opting to layer a whimsical storyline and role-playing feature set on top. As such, you’ll still find yourself managing your hound’s happiness with various treats, but you’ll also need to build your best friend’s strength by playing plenty of minigames.
These are never overly complicated, but do take advantage of the title’s parent hardware in interesting ways. You’ll need to match the motions displayed on the touch screen in order to wrestle with your mutt when playing with the tug toy, or bat a ball back and forth on the swing machine. Engaging in each of these activities will increase the statistics of your animal, allowing you to access more of your surroundings, and thus further the fairly straightforward narrative involving a monarch and his pooch.
It’s never going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but the plot – which is relayed through novels and pop-up books – is extremely well presented, and complements the package’s overarching upbeat vibe. The visuals are genuinely outstanding, too, providing some of the best scenery that we’ve seen rendered on Sony’s handheld this side of Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Granted, the exploration is primarily on-rails – you can only follow pre-determined paths – but it’s difficult to deny the title’s artistic achievements, as this is a surprisingly good looking game.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the audio, which will start to grate on you like dog nails against a chalkboard before long. While the title possesses plenty of perfectly appropriate orchestral motifs, the irritatingly optimistic voice acting will make you want to have your pooch put down. In an attempt to inject some personality into the title’s roster of four-legged friends, each of the pickable pups – spanning a Labrador, Husky, Dalmatian, and Border Collie – has been assigned a maddeningly chipper set of discourse.
This isn’t particularly problematic at first, but as lines begin to be repeated, you’ll find yourself sarcastically miming your mutt as he spews out a neverending spate of sweet nothings. While we’re not overly keen on the saccharine delivery, we could have accepted it if there was a little more variety in the phrases that the pooches use, but you’ll have heard almost everything within a couple of hours. As a result, the developer’s laudable intention to infuse the animals with plenty of individuality falls flat on its furry tush.
And that’s a shame, because this title utterly oozes polish in almost every other area. Taking your canine for a shower will cause condensation to build up on the enclosing Perspex panel, which can then be wiped away using the touch screen. Meanwhile, you can teach your tyke tricks, and record unique voice commands using the handheld’s onboard microphone. Almost every facet of the system is put to good use, and while these additional interactions don’t always work out well – the obstacle course minigame is pretty poorly thought out – it very much feels like a game that was designed for the Japanese giant’s handheld from the ground up.
It’s just a shame that there’s so much repetition involved at times. While it’ll initially feel like you have a kennel’s worth of toys to play with, you’ll quickly find yourself forced to repeat certain activities over and over in order to increase your puppy’s rank high enough to progress. The title’s laid back structure perhaps counters this criticism a little bit, but if you want to get on with the story, you’re going to find yourself running around the obstacle course several times in a row in order to reach the next marked destination on your map.
Fortunately, the release is really well laid out, with tunnels providing an uber quick fast travel system to pivotal points of interest. There’s never much downtime as you explore either: sticks can be used for makeshift games of fetch, while you’ll constantly encounter sniffing destinations rife with buried treasure. Some of these include dress up items for your dog, while others host junk which can be sold in the title’s in-game store, or even buried for your real world buddies to dig up on their travels. Meanwhile, various progress meters keep track of your daily activities, and in turn unlock new items and tricks for you to learn.
PlayStation Vita Pets is not exactly a prize-winning pooch, but it’s definitely the pick of the litter in a genre that’s renowned for its mediocrity. With voice acting more annoying than a yapping hound, you may be tempted to turn away Spiral House’s portable pup simulator. However, dig beyond its surface irritations, and you’ll find a package with a heart of gold – even if it does grow old fairly fast.