Frontier Developments' Kinectimals captured most of the cuddly critter market last year, with its furry felines pouncing on decent scores in the gaming press and good sales at retail. Six months on, THQ is hoping for similar levels of success with Fantastic Pets, but it can't top the best in show.
Fantastic Pets is notable for being the first augmented reality game for Kinect, which means the game merges video footage with computer graphics. You'll see live video of yourself on screen with your pet running around in a manner not unlike EyePet: Move Edition on PS3, and you can reach down to stroke the little furball just as if the two of you really did share the space. The effect would be a lot more convincing if your beloved companion didn't turn transparent so often, spoiling any illusion of solidity.
There's no need to teach your pets tricks as they come fully equipped with a range of responses, but you still have responsibilities to fulfil. The main thrust of the game is to rise up the trainer ranks to become the very best — no, not like Pokémon — by competing in and winning talent shows every day. Each competition offers a different selection of score-based minigames, with rosettes handed out to the top three scores: if you get more gold and silver rosettes than your computer opponents, you win, awarding you points towards your next trainer rank.
It must be said that in general these minigames are not terribly good, some of them feeling like simple EyeToy games than great examples of Kinect's capabilities: moving your body to avoid bubbles and swinging your arms to smash Piñatas are both too basic to entertain, with the latter only really needing you to swing your arms around wildly to succeed. Just because there's no controller doesn't mean Kinect doesn't do waggle controls, and that's what you get here.
Some are better though: throwing a ball through a series of gates to score points is a decent effort, though there are some issues with the throw recognition that prevent it from excelling. Even better is the game that sees your pet charging through a cardboard city, smashing it all to pieces in the process.
As you can only enter one talent show per day, you'll have at least two weeks of gameplay out of Fantastic Pets if you want to rise to rank 12. You can practice any of these minigames in your own time too, providing you have enough GEMs (currency) to unlock them, although these don't count towards your trainer rank. You can also feed your pet, a stupefyingly simple case of pointing at food your animal likes and throwing it to them, as well as wash and play with them. It's not just minigames though, as there's a pet encyclopedia containing pictures and facts about cats, dogs, lizards and horses, if that's your kind of thing.
Of course the real draw of Fantastic Pets is the promise of outlandish creatures such as unicorns, fire-breathing lizards and so on. To unlock these animals you must spend your collected GEMs to send Dr Menagerie off to all corners of the world, after which he returns with either a new animal appearance — a crocodile dog, a hairy horse and so on — or a new body part. You can change your pet's appearance at any time, letting you tweak their everything from their eyes to their size, so there's plenty of scope for your animals — you can keep four at a time — to look completely different from each other.
Tying it all together is an annoying voiceover from a female computer, though thankfully you can turn her down or off completely. The game isn't bad in the graphical stakes, though it certainly lacks the lush textures from the world of Kinectimals, but everything's bright and animates reasonably well, so it all hangs together decently.
Fantastic Pets is a minigame compilation with an animal theme, not a pet simulator: its augmented reality selling-point is decently done, but some of the minigames control poorly or are far too simplistic for us to recommend it.