My first introduction to Neopets came last May when I attended the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo. It was while checking into my motel that I ran across one of the people instrumental in the development of the original PC game, something I had not heard of at that time. He explained that it was an extremely popular virtual pet simulator that was used by millions of people every day. For months I didn't think about it, figuring I probably wouldn't hear about it again. But recently Neopets Petpet Adventures: The Wand of Wishing, the new PSP adventure game, showed up and forced me to think about what I had learned about the series from my short elevator ride from a year ago.
When I saw that I was reviewing game I wondered what it could be. Based on what I learned from the developer of the computer version I expected this PSP game to be a cute virtual pet simulator, something along the lines of Nintendo's Nintendogs or those Tamagotchi's from a few years ago. But that's not what I got out of The Wand of Wishes. This is no virtual pet simulator. Instead this PSP Neopets game is your basic dungeon hack with some of the cutest characters you ever will see.
At first I was confused; I have never seen a hack-and-slash adventure game that looked this cute and adorable. This game takes out all of those angry looking ogres, trolls and goblins, and replaces them with furry creatures that will appeal to the youngest PSP owners. But don't be fooled by the cute visuals, The Wand of Wishing attempts to be a serious adventure game in the same vein as Untold Legends. But while this game feels like it's aimed at kids, I'm not sure the youngest set is really going to have that much fun with this Neopets outing.
You don't need to know much about the Neopets going in, since this game and its story are both self-contained. Pretty much everything you need to know is explained up front, and the rest is done through drawn out dialog sequences that are sure to bore the young and old alike. The game begins with one of the Neopets throwing her pet (er, Petpet) and the Wand of Wishing through a dimensional portal. This portal leads to Petaria, a generic fantasy world you'll grow tired of the moment you arrive.
You get to choose one of four pets, each with a slightly different (but always cute) look and different attributes. Not that the different attributes mean much, it won't take long before you have a chance to mold your pet into the type of fighter you want to play with. It's your job to jump into this new world and do everything you can to get that Wand of Wishing back so you can return and reunite with your Neopet owner. You do this by going through entirely too many confusing dungeons and fighting a copious amount of furry enemies. This game is not what I would consider especially innovative, but that's hardly the only problem with this Neopets adventure.
Along the way you'll meet friendly faces that want you to help them out by completing their easy quests, ultimately taking you one step closer to finding that coveted wand. Thankfully you can keep multiple missions open at the same time, so, in theory, you can go about completing them as you see fit. This is a good idea that we see in a lot of games in this genre, but it's implemented here in a confusing manor that will only frustrate Neopet's younger players.
One problem is that these quests seem a little too vague; rarely giving you all of the information you might need to complete that adventure. It would have been nice to have some sort of marker telling you where to go or the general area you can find the item, enemy, or whatever you're looking for. I ended up spending hours walking around aimlessly because I simply had no clue where I was going or what I was doing, it was easier to just find another mission and hope I got lucky and completed something.
Another problem is the map. You get a small map of your immediate location in the top right of the screen, but it's not nearly as helpful as you would like. It really does nothing more than tell you what is right next to you, giving you very little useful information. There is a larger map, but that involves you pushing the "select" button and manually switching to it. While this map is certainly better, it's not especially useful because you often don't know where you're going. Most of the time you just go where you think you haven't been and hope to find an item you're looking for.
It's during this aimless wondering that I started to hate the game's combat system. Like most games in the genre, you select the type of weapon you want and equip it. The problem here is that the swords never feel that effective and they are entirely too slow for this type of game. There's a full second pause between when you push the attack button and the sword actually swings, long enough for an enemy to attack you or, worse yet, move out of the way. Once you got your swing going you can follow it up with a couple more quick swipes, but none of this works like it should.
The good news is that you will be traveling to all kinds of different worlds, each with their own challenges and enemies. Usually this would be a good thing, but Neopets doesn't even try to be different. We get the fire level, we get the ice level, we get a desert level, and yes, we even get water level. We've been here before, in way too many better games to name. I wouldn't have a problem with the clichés if the action in each of these areas wasn't so dull.
When you see a name like Neopets you probably expect it to be easy, but this game is far from a pushover. There are plenty of enemies that you just won't be able to fight until you are much stronger and are making better weapons, heck, some enemies should probably be avoided all together. Every time I died I looked at the box to see if I was missing something, the graphics, characters and sound all say that this is geared towards the younger set, yet the difficulty certainly said otherwise. Perhaps I'm underestimating the newest generation of gamers, but when it takes only a few hits from certain enemies to kill you I had to wonder if it was just me having a rough time.
Thankfully you can level up your pet, but it's not from killing enemies in dungeons. Instead of collecting experience points you collect Neopoints, the game's currency, and trade them at the battledome. It's in the battledome where you pay to battle for an upgrade token (win the token and you can apply it to whatever you want). If that sounds overly complicated it's because it is, most of these battles are pretty easy and require you to use the same tactics you've used to get the Neopoints in the first place. Doing it this way also ends up feeling pretty tedious, because you'll end up paying into the same battle entirely too many times. This is a unique way of leveling up your characters stats, but part of me felt that it was a bit pointless to have to do it this way. Part of me yearned for the simpler experience points system that has worked so well in so many other role-playing games.
One thing that surprised me about The Wand of Wishing was how detailed the item and magic system is. There are all kinds of different items you can buy and find throughout your adventure, including a few pieces that are character-specific. And that's not it; your Petpet can even align itself with one of six elements -- air, dark, earth, fire, light, and water. By focusing on your chosen element you can create new spells that you would not otherwise be available. If you are crafty you can even use these elements to your advantage in battle, helping to shield your little guy from certain kinds of attacks.
The game also packs in quite a few weapons to work with, as well as shields and other kinds of armor to pick through. If you give the game enough time you can really make a little friend you want to go out and adventure with. If it weren't for the sluggish combat controls and vague quests this might be the type of game young adventure gamers everywhere could get into.
The graphics in The Wand of Wishing are hardly the best on the PSP; they have a cute, but oddly dated look that is hard to get excited about. Some of the enemies are fun to look at and that smile on my Pet is infectious, but the textures are so simple and the look feels several years old. Also, many of the dungeons have very narrow hallways, which can sometimes make it difficult to see everything (even when turn the camera around). It's not that the visuals look bad; they just won't do much for you.
The audio, on the other hand, is awful. The music isn't terrible; it's the sugar-sweet mix of tunes you would expect from a cute game like this. But the fact that there's no real talking will drive some gamers up the wall. Instead you read text while various Pets speak in their language of mumbling. Kids might find this animal language cute and funny, but I couldn't wait to get out of Petaria just so I would never have to hear that annoying chatter again.
Neopets Petpet Adventures: The Wand of Wishing was never aimed at me or my age group, but that doesn't excuse the fact that this is a hopelessly broken adventure game. This game has a few of the key elements in place -- item and magic system -- but fails at most of the most important aspects. There's room in this world for a cute hack 'n slash adventure game, but the game still has to be entertaining. As it is I can't imagine The Wand of Wishing inspiring too many younger gamers to play other better action RPGs.
Neopets tries to be the cute alternative to your basic dungeon hack, but thanks to some questionable development choices, a sluggish combat system and some truly boring level designs, it's a hard game to recommend to anybody!