Version tested: PlayStation 3
The most impressive things about EyePet sneak up on you. Take the way your new virtual pet casually jumps over your arm if you cross its path while activating one of its many toys and gadgets. Catch it unaware and the same movement accidentally knocks it over on its adorably furry little backside. And if your toe strays into the frame, it scampers over to investigate.
These little moments are so natural, and so casually confident in the way they sell the illusion that there really is a tiny sentient monkey creature on your floor, that you can easily take them for granted, and overlook the way that Sony's alternative to man's best friends is quietly pushing the PlayStation Eye in new directions. Well, relatively quietly.
You're introduced to the world of EyePet by a paternal scientist, who tells you he's researching these odd little beasts in a video that also explains what needs to be done to set up your camera - basically, place it somewhere around knee height, pointed down at the ground - and then walks you through the etiquette of EyePet care.
As a showcase of what console cameras and motion-sensing is capable of, what then follows deserves applause. The technology can't help but creak at times, but it's used for such endearingly whimsical aims that it can feel cruel to criticise. Sadly though, criticise we must, since the charming realisation of this digital lifeform doesn't always gel with the game-shaped box it's been squeezed into.
Your pet arrives as an egg, and even this initial stage reveals frustrations that never quite disappear. First you must warm the egg by using a heater. The game comes with a "magic card", which is essentially a black plastic placard with a white square and a paw-print on it. The camera reads this image to work out which way up game objects will appear. So you place the card on the floor and, on-screen, a heater appears on top of it. You activate the heater with a button on the top, but you need to maintain a bizarre and frankly uncomfortable constant wafting motion to keep the button pressed long enough to warm the egg.
Once a crack appears, you rock the egg gently from side to side. It's here that the most significant obstacle comes into play - you can never fully ignore the fact that you're interacting with intangible objects, and the lack of sensory feedback makes finding the right rocking rhythm more hassle than it should be. Your hands float through and behind the object you're trying to "touch", and when it doesn't do what you want, there's no fallback other than to keep gesticulating.
Thankfully, once the little critter pops out of his shell, things pick up considerably. You can tickle him and he'll purr and coo and - eventually - roll over for tummy tickles. Drum your fingers on the floor and he'll chase and pounce like a kitten. Wiggle your fingers in the air, and he jumps to grab them.
It's very cute, but hardly the foundation of a satisfying game experience. That's where the EyePet science comes in. The Pet Programme in the pause menu takes you through a series of daily tests and challenges, introducing and evolving your interactions with your pet. The trampoline is fairly basic, but once you get the sketchbook you start to see just what the software can do.
Draw a picture on a piece of paper and hold it up to the camera and your EyePet will try to copy it. It only works with bold black outlines (marker pen is best, crayon is pretty terrible) but the effect is still both impressive and immersive. Microsoft's Natal may be able to extract emotional nuance from such interactions, but the simple thrill of seeing your doodle instantly imitated on-screen shows that there's life in the dear old webcam yet.
The illusion is, unfortunately, slightly spoiled once you realise you don't actually have to draw what the scientist tells you. I received effusive praise from the daft old sod despite (somewhat predictably) drawing a cartoon nob instead of a fish, and the on-screen results vary depending on the lighting. Sketches copied in daylight are crisp and near-perfect, while those done under electric light in the evening are often patchy and broken.
As fun as the sketching trick is, the game ups the ante by later giving you the ability to draw cars, planes and even robots that will then be turned into 3D objects for your EyePet to play with. Taking your furry pal flying on a plane you just scribbled, soaring from the lounge carpet, through the clouds and up to the moon, is a joyous moment. It's also hard not to be won over by the musical features, which allow you to sing to your EyePet and hear them sing the tune back to you in a high-pitched Mogwai trill. They can learn dozens of songs, and while complex arrangements are lost in translation it's still a lovely use of the PlayStation Eye's microphone.
For all these moments of easy charm, however, there are clumsier elements that recall the lumpy opening and tug away at the goodwill being generated by the lovely visuals. Loading times tend to the sluggish, while directions for some of the challenges are irritatingly vague, a problem which is compounded by the intangible nature of the experience.
Unlocking the gardening set, for example, lets you grow flowers from your living room carpet - the EyePet digs the holes, you plant the seeds and your pet frolics in the spray when you water them. But then the instruction comes to "tap the base of the flower to pick it". I tried for five minutes to no avail, flicking hopelessly at the flower, and then somehow it just worked and the flower vanished.
The lack of feedback or explanation blights a few too many of the game's many challenges. There's one where you have to get your face down on the floor and take a photo of you with your EyePet - but I've yet to get a snap that fits the criteria. After multiple failed attempts, I still don't know what I'm getting wrong.
Ditto for a challenge where you need to get a photo of a butterfly landing on your EyePet's face. I grew the required flower, and dressed my pet accordingly, but the butterfly refused to play along. Then there's the first robot challenge, where you must steer your hand-drawn android around and smash watermelons. I picked up the baseball bat, I worked out that you have to hold down the button to charge your attack (since that's not explained), but I couldn't break the bloody watermelons and thus the robot toy remained off-limits. The game's minimal approach only makes sense when goals are clear and easily achieved through casual experimentation.
There's also the small matter that most of the gadgets require you to hold the card face on to the camera at all times. Tilt it away and the gadget blinks out of existence. Add in the slightly disorientating effect of the camera's reversed-then-flipped mirror image of your room, and a lot of simple functions prove to be a confusing chore for the kids.
That's how the tech has to work, of course, but you try explaining that to a peeved seven-year-old who just wants to feed their pet a cookie. My two youngsters were both enchanted by EyePet, and clearly thrilled at the possibilities, but it soon became clear that it was going to be me doing the actual challenges while they watched, shouted instructions and occasionally wiggled their fingers to get the attention of our pet, Trumps (yes, we're a lowbrow brood).
Quantity of content isn't a problem, since you're showered with new toys, costumes and building materials with generous frequency. Curiously, despite the daily structure, you can unlock days and days' worth of stuff just by continuous play - it's more than a little weird to have Science Man popping up to welcome you to Day Four when you've only been playing for an afternoon.
You can also send back Pet Reports by scanning your pet's vital signs - hunger, cleanliness, mental stimulation and exercise - but the game only lets you file a report when all the stats are fine. Not only is this an outrageous example of cherry-picking data (what kind of scientific institute are you running, sir?) but it makes it clear that it's pretty much impossible to do anything too harmful to your pet.
This is the other major flaw in the EyePet design. There's not really anything at stake, and your pet doesn't show any signs of evolution or growth. There are 15 "days" adding up to 60 challenges, but it doesn't take long for them to feel a little samey. Apart from songs, there aren't many persistent skills or tricks your EyePet can be taught, so you're mostly doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff. This is fine in those early days of "Aaah!" and "Oooh!" but it doesn't say much for the long-term prospects of EyePet ownership.
Tamagotchis may be far less sophisticated, but they provide both a more robust real-time challenge, as well as more incentive to play the doting parent. EyePets all look the same, underneath whatever hairstyles and clothes you choose, and there's neither any danger of them dying nor the potential for them to evolve into something unique.
The lack of online functionality also feels like an opportunity missed. There's an EyePet Store, of course, where you can download new trinkets - some of which will actually be free - but the absence of any social features is baffling. Swapping items would give you more incentive to keep grinding for unlockables, for example, while the option to visit with other EyePets in a separate communal area, thus opening the game up from the patch of carpet in front of the TV, would be most welcome.
You can't even send photos or movie clips to friends from inside the game. You have to first export them to the relevant PS3 folder, and then send them via normal messaging. When Noby Noby Boy can upload clips to YouTube during gameplay, EyePet's poor use of the PS3's online capability is very disappointing.
Of course, a game about a big-eared monkey thing was never going to be all about technical aspirations. That's not how it's supposed to be played - or, more accurately, played with. It's as much a toy as a game and for all the wobbles in the interface and some illogical structural quirks, it's all but impossible to dislike. If you find the concept attractive then there's certainly enough here to warrant further investigation and, when everything clicks, it's as charming an experience as you'll find on the big-boy consoles.
It's just a shame that while EyePet has clearly been designed to stretch the PlayStation Eye hardware, it never tests the boundaries of the virtual life genre with the same vigour.
6 / 10