While VR certainly has not caught on as popularly as the gaming companies had hoped or expected, there is no denying that VR has made it possible for some of the most creative gaming concepts in years. A perfect example would be The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets from Fast Travel Games. Fast Travel are the folks behind 2018’s VR adventure title Apex Construct, but don’t think that Curious Tale has anything in common with their previous first-person bow-and-shield expedition, because this game is nothing like you have ever played before. And given that, it is one of the most creative and enjoyable games I have played all year.
The concept is simple; after a long time away, you return to your grandfather’s house to help him solve a mystery that has caused his collection of pets to go missing. Only these aren’t real pets per se, but more like a collection of small animated creatures that look well, curiously like Littlest Pet Shop dolls. And this collection of pets isn’t lost within rooms of your grandfather’s house per se, but rather in a series of miniature landscapes – dioramas if you will – that you and your grandfather, and your grandmother, and your sister, built many years ago.
Each of these miniature worlds is incredibly detailed with a specific theme, from a scale model of your grandfather’s own homestead to a slope-side ski resort in the mountains, and from a prehistoric volcano to an underwater aquarium, the level of care taken into designing these gorgeously whimsical levels elicits the very same feelings I felt when I first saw the like of Little Big Planet and Puppeteer.
Most of the gameplay involves grabbing and rotating the world in 3D-space, all the while poking away at the landscape to manipulate the various puzzles contained on the levels, to release the half-dozen “stolen” pets that are confined within. Some of the puzzles are overly simplistic, with gamers simply poking sticks into caves or pushing buttons in a predefined sequence. But some of the puzzles are quite complex, forcing the gamer to get creative in properly setting off a string of inter-related events. I don’t want to go into too much detail here for fear of giving away too much of this rather brief game, but I will say that other than a few questionable results (“Why did that work this time, but not the 30 times I tried that very same thing before?”) most of the overly challenging puzzles are fair, and very rewarding.
With the VR honeymoon over, the once impressive PSVR headset is starting to show its age with a noticeable amount of graininess and a slight cross-hatch pattern overlay – even still, The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets’ is stunning within the aging headset. As mentioned, the worlds are incredibly detailed – with puffing steam trains, fire-spewing volcanoes, and trees with leaves so delicate that they gently float to the ground when shaken. But the detail isn’t just in the worlds themselves, but also in the atmosphere around them. For instance, in the underwater aquarium level I nearly jumped out of my seat the first time a small yellow guppy-like fish swam past my face, and the perfectly-perfect miniature snowflakes meandering around the winter mountain were absolutely hypnotizing. The whole visual package is amazing, and one so comforting that you can easily get lost in for hours if you let it.
The audio is equally as relaxing – with a soft-spoken grandfather reminding you about summers you and your sister spent visiting your grandparents. Equally as mesmerizing is the music, from the Swedish “folktronica” band Wintergatan (the Milky Way). The music is an hybrid of old-fashion air-driven instruments like harpsichords, calliopes, accordions, combined with modern day analog synthesizers. The result is an enchantingly whimsical, with unique tracks for each level.
The VR control is the only place I had any real issue with The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets. I had quite a bit of difficulty with camera tracking throughout the course of the game. Several times, I would come back from a loading screen to find my view turned 90° from what it should be, and no amount of holding the settings button would reset my view correctly. I tried adjusting the camera direction, camera distance, sitting, standing – nothing seemed to work. I eventually had to cover the camera completely for about 10 seconds for it to reset completely. Even so, I never really felt that I was in control of my distance from the world within the VR screen, and I was constantly having my cursor (which reminded me of a aged dandelion ready to be blown) float away into nothingness. I did end up using the DualShock controller as using the sticks and buttons seemed a bit more intuitive and reliable than the PS Move controllers.
The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets is a quick play – all of the game’s five levels can be completed in well under two hours, and given that it’s a puzzle-based game there’s little or no replay value once those puzzles have been solved and all the hidden coins have been accounted for. Still with an MSRP of $15, that works out to only $3 per level which is a steal considering the level of work that went into developing this experience. And that’s exactly what The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets is – an experience.