The PlayStation Vita has had a hard time over the years trying to appeal to a younger audience. The number of games that will appeal to children have been few and far between. Outside of the occasional LEGO game and the recently released Invizimals: The Alliance (still not out in North America), there really hasn’t been much for younger players, and younger girl players especially, to play on the Vita.
Enter PlayStation Vita Pets from Spiral House and Sony’s XDEV Studio. This game is a mix of pet simulator with a bit of an adventure game thrown in as well. It is trying to straddle that fine line of being entertaining to older gamers while being fully accessible to younger ones. The good news is that PlayStation Vita Pets succeeds in both areas and is able to reach a new audience that might currently be playing on other handheld systems.
While screenshots may make this game look like other pet simulators you’ve seen over the years, PS Vita Pets is actually much different. You have your adopted dog (and yes, there are only dogs) that you will train and play with, but all of that effort is part of a larger goal. You see, outside of your house there is a wonderful realm filled with abandoned castles and treasures galore. But in order to explore the land and tackle those challenges, you need to make sure your puppy is skilled and strong enough to handle it. It’s kind of like, “You got your pet sim mixed in with my adventure game.” “No, you got your adventure game mixed in with my pet sim.” Two great flavors that go better together.
The game begins with you walking into the adoption center. You will then get to select a puppy from four different breeds (Collie, Husky, Dalmatian, and Labrador). Each breed has a different personality along with a different voice. Oh yes, in PS Vita Pets your dog will talk to you. Constantly. I adopted a girl Border Collie whom I called Jake. Yes, a girl named Jake (I forgot she was a girl when I was giving her the name). Then once you select your dog, you return home and the game begins.
In your home you will have a few ways to interact with your dog, and the number of activities you can do will increase as you progress though the game. You can grab a ball and play some fetch. You can go to the dress up room and try on new clothes. Or you can go shopping for some food and water because after all those games of fetch, your dog is going to let you know that she needs to get something to drink.
All of these activities will reward you with Buddy Points. As you accumulate more points you will start to unlock new activities to do. Whether it’s playing fetch or learning new tricks, playing with your dog will boost their different skills sets and open up other parts of the game. For example, playing with a tug toy builds up your dog’s strength. This will eventually allow her to open the gate in the yard so that you can travel out and explore Castlewood Island. This is where the game transforms from a traditional pet sim into more of an adventure game.
Castlewood Island is now mostly abandoned, but long ago King Rufus and his trusty dog Cosmo ruled this land until marauders chased them off. They have left behind a diary and a series of clues to lead you to a great treasure buried somewhere in the land. In order to find it, you and your pup will need to solve puzzles and navigate obstacles to unravel the mysteries of the island. And while the puzzles are never too complex (nor the challenges overly difficult), they do provide a nice change of pace for the game. You can spend some time playing fetch or tetherball with your dog and then go out exploring for awhile. The map for Castlewood is surprisingly large, and it will take some time to explore it all (it took me roughly 12 hours to finish the main story).
Then after you play through the story, there is still more to do. There are a collectibles to find, outfits to purchase, and more games to play. I’ve become quite a big fan of the disc throwing game, which requires more skill on the part of the player than just a regular game of fetch.
As for the visuals in the game, they are not spectacular but they are not bad either. The puppy’s are cute and playfully run around on their own. True to their nature, these puppy’s are curious and energetic and feel the need to sniff out and explore everything in the locations you bring them to.
The audio is a mixture of both good and bad. As I mentioned, the puppy’s talk to you and while the voice acting is pleasantly well done, the number of things each dog will say is somewhat limited. And since these dogs tend to talk a lot, be prepared to hear the same thing over and over again. You do have the option of turning off their speech, which can make the game a little more enjoyable. But outside of the repetitive voices, the music is nice and atmosphere sounds are effective.
One of the most important elements in PS Vita Pets is in its controls. Most everything in the game is accomplished with the touch screen but you are also able to use your voice for certain commands. In order to talk to your puppy, you hold down the right shoulder button to bring up the microphone prompt, and then you can give your commands. Standard commands like “Sit” or “Lie down” work surprisingly well. I had very few moments when my voice commands were not understood (and even then, I think my dog was just ignoring me), and for those times there are touchscreen gestures that work as well. So if Jake wouldn’t sit when I told her to, I could just draw a line down on the screen, and she would usually obey that command.
The D-pad and left analog stick are used for navigating the world and since you can only move forward, they work quite well. While there may be hints of an open world game here, there is a certain path you have to follow the whole time. You won’t be wondering anywhere the game does not want you to go. But seeing as this is a game generally designed for kids, that actually works out for the best.
And speaking of kids, how will they enjoy this game? To answer that question I reluctantly handed my Vita off to my 8 year old daughter and asked her what she thought of it. Some hours later I was finally able to get it back and in short, she loved it. As it turned out, it became a great game for us to play together since she enjoyed the pet sim stuff more than I did, and I was able to help her through the adventure parts of the game. It made for some really good family time together.
But I knew this game succeeded when we were in the car and she let out that burst of frustration that little girls are known for. She was playing Nintendogs on her 3DS when she shouted, “I wish I had brought the Vita instead! I want to play Pets.” And when given the choice between PS Vita Pets and Minecraft, she chose Pets. That just about summed it all up for me.
While I really enjoyed the game, there are a few downsides that I feel I should mention. The camera can be a little erratic at times and can be hard to control. I also encountered a few bugs where the game would not recognize my touch input. And occasionally the frame rate for the game would drop and there would be noticeable stutters. This seemed odd for a game that was not very visually taxing on the system, but it also never hampered the game play either.
The game is also pretty lonely. While you and your puppy are out exploring the abandoned world of Castlewood Island, you begin to realize that there is nobody else around. No people, no pets, nobody. You do see the occasional squirrel run across the path, but outside of that, it’s just you and your dog.
And while there may be no one else to encounter in the game, there are ways for you to interact with other players. The game features a system in which you can gift items to your friends by burying them in the ground for your friends to find. There is also a companion game available for iOS and Android devices in which you can buy items and then gift them to your friends or back to yourself.
PlayStation Vita Pets is a welcome addition to the Vita catalog and offers a little something for everyone. It succeeds as both a fun pet sim and as a cute adventure game. I am usually not a big fan of pet sims, but I was very captivated with this game. If you’re looking for a fun game, or something for the kids to play, then you can’t go wrong this one.