Of the many digital venues I'd expect to see a virtual pet simulator, the PlayStation Vita was certainly not one. PlayStation Vita Pets is an interesting diversion, not only because of the bizarre system it released on, but the fact that is breaks all the "pet simulator rules" I've become accustomed to. Forget Nintendogs -- these puppies don't need a leash and they surely aren't relegated to frou-frou accessories. They don't need you to make sure they go on walks, either, because they've got their own thing going on. Did I mention they talk?
Where most games are content to offer a selection of pooches for you to groom, walk, and train as you see fit, British studio Spiral House apparently sought to revolutionize the genre, and it's clear from the very beginning that this isn't your average Dogz or Catz clone. It's easy to dismiss as an uninspired piece of shovelware, but those who give it a look will undoubtedly end up pleasantly surprised by its refusal to adhere to traditional pet-raising convention -- even if it does have some accidents here and there.
PlayStation Vita Pets (PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Spiral House
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Release Date: June 3, 2014
PlayStation Vita Pets serves up an adorable amalgam of puppy-raising fun and role-playing. You'll pair up with your canine to explore an ancient island supposedly rife with secrets aplenty. It's not exactly a gripping narrative that you'll be playing through, but it does give you a reason to play beyond "just because," and uncovering the island secret is truly fun.
Things aren't completely different, though. You'll still choose a hound that fits your personality to begin with, only this time around the dogs plead to you with endearing chatter and reasons as to why you should adventure with them. It's positively "aww"-inducing from the get-go, even though it can be jarring to hear speech coming from the pups at first. I can imagine players going into the game completely blind will have a rough time adjusting to this concept, but will come to appreciate it more than the errant ark or whine when it's time to explore the island. And if you find that they're too talky, you have the option to turn off the speech for a more traditional experience.
The pets are upbeat and positive (some might say too positive) no matter what befalls them, and you can choose from a Husky, Dalmatian, Labrador, or a Border Collie. No corgis, though. Sorry, Dale. While managing your new best friend's health and happiness, you'll also be charged with building up their stats by way of simple mini-games meant to make use of the Vita's full range of capabilities.
Pick up the tug toy for a quick wrestling match by aping the motions displayed on-screen, toss a ball back and forth, bathe your pup, and complete other activities . This will in turn aid you when it comes to exploring the island. The higher the stats, the more you'll be able to access, so the generic "pet-raising" elements the game aims to transcend are actually integral to making progress.
Unfortunately, these mundane tasks aren't always engaging, and while you can use voice commands to interact with your pet, they don't always work the way they're intended. You can give your new best friend a name, but if you can't get them to respond or work with the voice commands you issue, they're just superfluous and frustrating.
When you first start out, it appears as though the mini-games are optional, but when it's quickly revealed that certain areas won't let you through without having reached a specific level, they suddenly aren't so entertaining anymore, at least for the long haul. The RPG-like grinding and backtracking are immersion-breaking, and will understandably frustrate players who just want to get on with the story.
Luckily, Castlewood is rife with areas to explore with gorgeous greenery, castles, and vast expanses that you and your pet can trot around in at your leisure. It's much more stimulating than, say, a living room or generic home interior, engendering more of that adventurous spirit the game seeks to promote. So even when things begin to feel a bit repetitive, there's still plenty to discover and an endgame goal that's satisfying to work toward. You just need to be willing to work for it.
With plenty of accessories to outfit your pet, an island brimming with secrets, and all the niceties of a "regular" pet sim, this adorable adventure has a leg up on the competition, but does falter a bit in its execution. If you're a casual pet lover or know someone who is, you'd be doing them a favor by handing them something that's a lot meatier than what's currently out there on the market. It's not perfect by any means, but with some tweaks in future installments or downloadable content, PlayStation Vita Pets could certainly be barking up the right tree.