EyePet & Friends|
EyePet & Friends is the fourth title in Sony’s camera-based virtual pet simulator franchise. With two prior PS3 console releases and one PSP release, Sony is staking a good deal of investment on the series it started in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity Nintendo has amassed with its groundbreaking Nintendogs franchise. Over the course of the four releases, the EyePet franchise hasn't changed all that much – gamers are presented with an egg that they help hatch to release an odd monkey-like creature that has been incubating inside, and then the new virtual pet owner is allowed to feed, train, talk to, and play with their creature, helping it develop into a loving and kind EyePet. Yes, this does sound a lot like Nintendogs – only in the case of the EyePet the creatures do not reside in a fictitious Japanese neighborhood; they live on your living room floor. At least that is the plan.
The EyePet franchise uses an intriguing technology that utilizes the EyeToy camera to present a live feed of the player’s gaming space, with the cute-as-pie creatures superimposed into the feed. The gamer can use their hands and the PlayStation Move controllers to interact with the characters – rubbing their virtual bellies, or superimposing a toy over the move controller to use with the creatures.
The technology certainly is impressive, especially considering that the PS3 versions do not require a specially marked mat or other “fiduciary marker” to zero in on the depth and dimensions of the room as with the PSP versions. Granted, the overlay is not quite as believable an effect as the PSP is able to pull off with its “magic” card, but a lot of that has to do with the size of the screen and the clarity of the camera and the lighting, which seems a bit harder to manage with the PS3’s EyeToy than it is with the PSP’s Go!Cam.
As cute as the EyePets are, they will always be hampered by the fact that they are limited to virtual character presented on a screen that the gamer is pretending to interact with in the real world. Whereas Nintendo’s Nintendogs fans felt connected to their pets by the dogs’ heads interact with their fingers rubbing touchscreen display, EyePet fans interact with nothing but air and watch the results projected ten feet away on the television screen. To say that that the EyePet games tend to leave gamers feeling a bit disconnected at times only makes sense. That’s not to say that EyePet & Friends is a complete rehash of the previous three releases – there are a handful of new features that have been added and some existing features that have been improved on.
The most obvious change is the ability to care for two EyePet creatures simultaneously on screen. The creatures can be cared for by either a single gamer or by two gamers cooperatively. Adding the additional creature only results in moderate changes to the core gameplay; clearly there is a bit more work involved in maintaining two pets needs for food and attention, increasing the level of difficulty. The two pets can also be employed to compete against one another in the minigames, giving added dimension to the gameplay. And best of all, in a home (like mine) with more than one child, multiple EyePets means that each child can raise their own pet without interfering (much) with the others’.
EyePet & Friends also replaces the game’s tedious “Diary” system to track accomplishments and rewards with a coin-based reward system that lets gamers spend earned coins on badges, stickers, clothing, and props. Gamers can dress their creatures up hundreds of different outfit combinations to give their pet a sense of uniqueness and individuality. This coin-based instant gratification is similar to what we have experienced with the LittleBigPlanet series, and shows that the developers are making efforts to improve their series for long-term sustainability. As with LittleBigPlanet’s “Sackboys” and Modnation Racers’s “Mods”, gamers are free to modify the colors and patterns of their EyePet’s skin and fur, including freeform customization with onscreen brushes and pens using the PlayStation Move controllers.
Where the EyePets eclipse Nintendogs is in the amount of fun there is to be had interacting with the creatures; there is still the obligatory shampooing and cuddling, but where Nintendo’s obedient puppies are content with a quick game of Frisbee or running through an obstacle course, Sony’s EyePets like to dance about the room, bounce on trampolines, play with water guns, and a whole lot more. Once again, LittleBigPlanet comes to mind as gamers are given the tools to design their own vehicles like boats and rockets for the EyePets to use in a variety of vehicular minigames, as well as a collection of building blocks that can be used to build new play spaces and obstacle courses for the EyePets.
Sadly, Sony’s EyeToy just can’t quite seem to deliver a clear enough image of the game space to make the visual overlay appear seamless – there is always a significant blurring of the background and a noticeable lag in action as the visual stream across the television screen. I attempted to fix things by adding a pair of floor lamps, but while they definitely helped with respect to the brightness the added light only made the blurring more evident. Still, the kids were obviously enthralled by the technology, and the enjoyed seeing themselves interacting with their pet onscreen.
The onscreen narrator (another nod to the LittleBigPlanet franchise) delivers help and guidance, but other than that the game is relegated to only a handful of eerie coos and giggles from the EyePets, and a library of average-sounding effects for the various tools and toys used in the game. The EyePets’ exploits can be filmed at any time using the in-game “camera” and posted to Sony’s internet space for later viewing and sharing via Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites – but the only purpose would be to look at the other gamers’ creations, as most of the EyePet’s moves are canned and predictable.
All in all, EyePet & Friends is an impressive piece of technology that is a definite improvement over the previous releases. It still needs quite a bit of work when it comes to presentation, as the blurry backgrounds and visual lag do not help in delivering a believable experience.