Virtual pet games have been a video game mainstay ever since the much-vaunted Tamagotchi craze of the mid-'90s. Nintendo made its mark on the genre with the Nintendo DS release of Nintendogs and the recent 3DS update, Nintendogs + Cats. Still, not everyone is content to have a virtual cat running around. Sometimes you just want something a little more badass, like a dragon or a unicorn. That's where Fantastic Pets comes in.
Designed for the casual market, Fantastic Pets allows you to adopt your basic cats and dogs, as well as dragons, horses, lizards, unicorns and more. As the game develops, pets can be fully customized, both in their appearance as well as temperament. Using Kinect, you can interact directly with your pets using both gestures and voice commands. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Fantastic Pets, though, is how it makes use of the Kinect sensor and augmented reality to place your virtual pet in the room with you.
When playing in augmented reality mode, Fantastic Pets uses Kinect to project a real-time image of your room on the screen. Your virtual pet is then allowed to roam around in the room with you. It wanders on its own but also comes to you when you call it. You can have it perform tricks or point it toward the TV so it can get up close and personal with the glass.
There are also a handful of minigames that function in augmented reality mode, such as the bubble dodge and piñata smash. One thing that stood out here was that Fantastic Pets seems to make use of the depth tracking capabilities of Kinect. For example, when playing the piñata smash game, we couldn't just move side to side. Instead, some of the targets required moving forward and back in order to hit.
Casual interaction with multiple players (and multiple pets) is also possible, which promises to be a plus for parents with multiple kids in the house. There is a camera feature in augmented reality mode that allows you to snap a picture of you and your pet, but the camera is limited to storing no more than five images. Our preview copy of the game didn't seem to have any way of getting the pictures off the console; that was a tad disappointing, as we can imagine younger players would love to snap photos and then e-mail them to relatives or post them on a family Facebook page.
Aside from the augmented reality functions, Fantastic Pets also features a full complement of more traditional minigames to keep players busy. Some examples include washing your pet and feeding it, playing fetch and participating in a talent competition.
It's easy to dismiss casual titles, but Fantastic Pets looks like it has the necessary trappings to keep younger players engaged without boring any older relatives that get roped into playing alongside their Kinect-loving kin.
One word of advice: Don't underestimate the minigames. They may look simple, but some of them are a real workout. They're also designed with children in mind. That may not seem like a big deal until you start playing things like bubble dodge. A small kid may only have to duck down to avoid some of the higher bubbles, but a full-sized adult has to squat to get the same clearance. It can be humorous to watch an adult play.
Our only real worry with Fantastic Pets has to do with the length of time it takes to get into the actual gameplay. The tutorial section is quite long and has the potential to bore those with shorter attention spans. Loading screens are also tedious, though that could be due to the fact that we were playing an early build on a test unit. We're expecting that the final software should be fully optimized.
Fantastic Pets is scheduled for release later this month. A demo is also expected to drop on Xbox Live, though no specific date has been announced.
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