The EyeToy was an impressive piece of tech when it first arrived. Although PCs had been doing camera-based motion controlled games far earlier, the EyeToy moved things squarely into the mainstream, with predictably successful results.
Time has moved on, though. With Nintendo’s excellent motion controls on the Wii and the otherworldly promises of Microsoft’s Project Natal (I’m sorry, but I still can’t stop pronouncing that Nay-tal) the EyeToy has rapidly begun to show its age. So, when Sony unveiled the PlayStation Eye, and EyePet, I was a little surprised. The tech looked almost identical to the PS2 incarnation, and appeared to be a little dated. So, when my EyePet arrived in the post, packaged in a cute little pet carrier box, I thought I’d keep an open mind and see just what Sony had in store.
Once the camera (included with EyePet) is hooked up and you’ve loaded up the disc you’re greeted by a white-coated scientist working at the EyePet research facility. He promptly informs you that he’s going to send you an egg and, after placing the included ‘magic card’ on the floor (after correctly positioning the camera), lo and behold, the egg appears onscreen, as if sat in your own living room. You then have to warm the egg up with a heater, which is placed where you put the magic card, and can be rotated and moved around by manipulating this card.
Using the heater you have to warm up the egg, then roll it around with your hands, and eventually your EyePet, in a fountain of cuteness, hatches. Voila! You have your very own… erm…pet… thing. The EyePet itself is an odd little creature. He’s a kind of hairy, cat-like little monkey guy, and despite his pigeon-hole-avoiding classification, he’s about as cute and appealing as they come.
Once he’s hatched, the game soon opens up. You’re quickly shown a number of basics actions and trained how to interact with your new pet, such as feeding, grooming and playing, and many of the interactions are purely gesture-based. You stoke him by making the same stroking action onscreen, and you use the magic card to use a variety of objects by holding the card facing the camera and moving it around.
For example, hold the card facing the camera when feeding, and a cookie jar appears in your hand, which can be used to pick up cookies and tip them into his bowl, as well as throwing them around. The result is impressive – when it works, that is.
You see, although we’re now playing with the kind of power the PS3’s mighty architecture can muster, the PlayStation Eye is as flawed as it always was. Getting the right light balance isn’t all that easy in some home setups, and you’ll also need plenty of room to get the most out of the game. Get the light levels wrong, and you’ll have a truly frustrating time repeatedly trying to make the correct gestures or get the program to do what you want.
A prime example I found of this is evident in one of the game’s potentially most impressive features – drawing. This little attraction lets you draw any image you like on a piece of white paper and then hold it up to the camera. Once recognised, your little EyePet then proceeds to reproduce your work of art. At first, his attempts are little more than 3-year-old scrawl, but eventually he manages surprisingly accurate imitations, even if you ignore the scientist’s example drawings and do something totally different. The problem, though, is that it took me several tries to get the program to recognise the actual paper I was holding. Only by adjusting the light levels to unnaturally bright would it properly detect it.
A little tip: if this particular game is played in natural daylight, you’ll usually be fine, but if you’re playing with your living room lights on, the results will be notably worse.
This is hardly going to be fun for young kids, a demographic the EyePet is obviously aimed at, and unless you spend a good deal of time, frustration will soon set in to your little ones.
As long as you do get the levels right, the EyePet has plenty of offer children. As well as the basic feeding, playing and petting activities, there’s a host of mini-games that can be played with your Pet, including bowling. Perhaps more impressive is the EyePet’s general level of awareness and how well this virtual character blends into the real image of your home.
The cuddly little fella reacts to almost everything that moves around it, including objects that you place around him. He’s avoid items, and will follow your hands as you move them around, even jumping to attack much like a real-life cat. In this respect, the game is very impressive, and it’s clear to see how far the developers have come when it comes to camera-based titles.
As you progress through the 15 day cycle of games, you’ll receive more and more clothes and toys for your pet to play with, unlocking more and more if you perform better in the various challenges. This all helps to keep interest levels up, and is all colourful and attractive stuff, especially for younger children.
However, the limitations of the medium are still all too present. Besides the lighting issues, the controls are, even in a well-lit room, often quite sluggish and clunky. It can take a great deal of hand-eye coordination to get the EyePet to do what you want, a skill that many players in the game’s age bracket will still be struggling with. In fact, even the initial task of warming the egg is a chore, even for adults. The heater needs to be pumped up continuously, and if you miss a rhythmic beat, it shuts off, and you have to build the momentum up again. These moments of control slippage eat away at the illusion the EyePet successfully delivers most of the time, and is a real shame.
Sadly, the core controls are not the only problems. Once you’ve seen all of the mini-games and explored all the interactions possible with your pet, there’s little to keep you going. There’s no real challenge in looking after the EyePet, as he can’t come to any real harm, and he doesn’t really change or grow up. Aside from basic hair style changes and dress-up sessions, the EyePet you create won’t really look all that different from a million others, not that you’d really know, as the program has surprisingly limited online features, save some photo sharing.
Still, even with its flaws there’s no denying the fantastic appeal of EyePet, and for families, this is a real Christmas winner, guaranteed to keep children and parents alike amused for hours. (If you have young children at home, or who visit, this is an inexpensive option to get your hands on the improved EyeToy with a game thrown in.)
The more impressive EyePet games that appear as you progress, such as drawing objects that turn into real, 3D toys your pet can play with, won’t fail to raise a smile, and there’s always something entertaining going on.
EyePet is a charming and enjoyable pet simulator, and also one that won’t leave stains of the carpet – always a bonus.
EyePet is out now.