Fantastic Pets Review (Xbox360)

If there’s one thing that’s come to characterise motion-control systems (and to a wider extend the videogame market as a whole), it’s lazy clones. Not only is Microsoft’s fledgling Kinect already home to an extended variety of terrible mini-game collections, but it’s taken little over a few months for the second iteration on the ‘interactive animal’ genre to surface in the guise of THQ’s Fantastic Pets. One part Kinectimals simplistic cutesy action and one part EyePet living room interaction, it’s a title undoubtedly aimed at a young audience weaned on saturated colours and fluffy creatures. The result is a blend of familiar staples of the genre, but shot through with enough personality to raise it just above the acceptable.

The game opens up with you taking to a HAL-inspired artificial intelligence in charge of looking after the house-bound inhabitants of one ‘Dr Menagerie’. It appears the Doctor is on a globe-trotting trip to capture all sorts of rare and precious animals to bring them home to be nurtured, played with, and maybe even subjected to a few cruel genetic experiments in search of the mythical four-assed monkey. Every time the adventuring scientist visits a country he’ll unlock a new animal from whom physical traits can be mixed and matched with others, lending Fantastic Pets an unerringly accurate title after a couple of hours. Sure there are more than a fair share of bog-standard puppies, lizards, horses and cats with which to interact, but crafting your own concoction from the library of flashy physical traits is far more entertaining.

One of the many crazy designs possible

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Underpinning that genetic experimentation is a fairly standard pet sim, albeit one with more than a fair dose of charm for the young pups in the audience. Much like its forebear Kinectimals, THQ’s effort offers up a series of physical commands to make your chosen companion perform various tricks and stunts in real 3D space. Spinning around on spot will command your friend to do the same, jumping up in the air results in the expected action, making a pawing motion with both your hands commands it to stand and beg, whilst patting your legs will bring it scurrying from whichever dark corner of the environment it’s currently foraging in. Those are just a few.

It’s those environments that are perhaps the most entertaining aspects of Fantastic Pets use of Kinect technology. Although the game ships with a multitude of brightly-coloured arenas in which to interact with your new-found friend, it’s the aping of EyePet’s living-room camera that easily outshines everything else. True to purpose, the Kinect sensor can read every object in your space, allowing your pet to wander freely around sofas, coffee tables and whatever you may have lying around. It works too, with an impressive lack of clipping or other spell-breaking visual deterrents on show, and you’d imagine it may well be the sort of experience that could be magical for those of an appropriate age. At least for a few minutes.

The pets themselves all show a decent range of personality, with your ever-present AI companion encouraging interaction to a certain point but leaving the rest to the discovery to play. The commands work pretty well for the most part, but a general lack of confirmation beyond glowing green sparkling cursors can lead to a somewhat disjointed experience. When it works it’s great, but when your pet is dancing around to a new beat and you have no idea what you did, the lack of clear guidance can be frustrating. Just a little on-screen diagram would have been enough to dispel the confusion, so it’s a wonder why such a device wasn’t included.

The creature designer is basic but fun

True to form for the genre though, there is a dearth of things to do outside of those interactions. The usual slew of fairly dull mini-games are on offer, each with the goal of making your pet collect or generate GEMs (Genetic Energy Modules, in the parlance of the AI), which translate to a currency to send the good doctor on his hunting missions around the world - and thus to unlock the majority of the content. Despite a harsh warning that a pet is a ‘great commitment’ at the beginning of the game, there is no finality here or reason to keep coming back outside of those parlour games. Perhaps it’s a bit too much to expect the emotional impact of a tamagotchi on today’s muffled and sanitised kids entertainment market, but even a basic nod to the likes of Animal Crossing’s persistent features would have been beneficial. As it stands, once you turn your Xbox off, little Tiddles the psychedelic kitten monster ceases to exist until that green glow emanates once more.

None of which is likely to trouble your average child of course, but that doesn’t make Fantastic Pets’ general lack of playable content any less forgivable. What’s there is decent enough for the genre and certainly as technically accomplished as any Kinect title aimed at kids would ever need to be, but without any strong hooks to keep people coming back it could well end up as just another fad - much like the majority of other content for the all-seeing camera. With Kinectimals already offering up a slightly superior take on the same subject matter, there is little here to recommend outside of Sunday afternoon fodder for young kids.

Best Game Moment: As with all Kinect titles, catching a glimpse of yourself in a mirror.

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