Sony's San Diego studio delivers a more-adorable take on the traditional hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, a genre last seen on the PSP with Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade, with Neopets Petpet Adventures: The Wand of Wishing. By replacing twisted orcs and savage warriors with loads of fuzzy little creatures, The Wand of Wishing is made more enticing to casual and younger players--two constituencies that happen to make up a large portion of the Neopets community--yet it simultaneously excludes features that have streamlined other action role-playing game experiences and introduces new mechanics that further obfuscate the adventure.
Though you don't have to be one of the millions of members of Viacom's free online game community to figure out that Neopets are a rough, Western knockoff of Pokemon, you might be wondering just what the heck a petpet is. Well, just as you can collect Neopets, the Neopets themselves are capable of having their own adorable little pets, called petpets. This bizarre chain of ownership goes on to let the petpets have their own pets, which are called--wait for it---petpetpets.
But you don't need to know this much about Neopets to get into the swing of things, since the game kicks off with a certain Neopet tossing her petpet, along with the titular Wand of Wishing, into a dimensional portal, transporting both into Petaria, a fairly standard high-fantasy world. Though it can get a little bit sinister at some points, Petaria is generally a pretty sunny, inviting world with a consistent sense of style, though its presentation can feel kind of rickety, with occasionally cheap-looking level geometry, fairly unstable frame rates, and really repetitive character designs. Taking on the role of the displaced petpet, you must recover the Wand of Wishing and find a way back to your master. Predictably, these long-term goals are regularly supplanted by various quests you can take on behalf of friendly characters you encounter.
After choosing from one of four different breeds of petpet, you venture into the world of Petaria, where the game quickly takes on the familiar rhythms of a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. You scurry about the landscape, taking on various quests, fighting enemies, and pilfering treasure chests. The quest system lets you take on more than one quest at once, but the game suffers from a terribly anemic map system. Though you have a tiny compass map up in the corner at all times, it's only big enough to give you a sense of your immediate surroundings, and the only way to bring up a larger map is to stop the action entirely and cycle through your inventory system. Even then, the map gives no indication of the locations of your quest-givers or where you need to go. It's cumbersome, and even though the world isn't incredibly massive, it's easy to find yourself wandering aimlessly, hoping to find the appropriate non-player character so you can cash in your quest and move on. The game doesn't mark quest-givers on your screen, which means that any NPC could possibly have a task for you. This could be justified as building atmosphere if nonquest-yielding NPCs had something interesting to say. Instead, you'll mostly read the same handful of phrases over and over while listening to various dialects of gibberish until you find something to do.
Though each of the four breeds of petpet that you can play as starts with unique stats, you'll quickly have the opportunity to customize and improve your petpet's abilities. There are six different kinds of magic affinity that your petpet can be proficient in, and your affinities dictate what kinds of magical items can be put to use. Changing your affinities is as easy as finding or purchasing magical orbs. You also have the standard performance-defining stats of strength, agility, intelligence, defense, and health. While tradition would see these stats increase somewhat organically as you fight your way through dungeons and complete quests, The Wand of Wishing handles things a bit differently.
To build up stats, you'll first have to collect loads of Neopoints, the game's currency, then make your way to a battledome, which is usually found within a town area. Here you pay for the privilege to fight an enemy in a best-of-three match. A win will net you a token, and that token can then be applied to the statistic of your choice. Each battledome can be used to increase your stats up to a certain point, and then you'll have to move on before you can build up your character any further. Though different battledomes offer different challenges, effectively advancing your character means that you'll be going through each battledome many times, and it becomes tedious quickly. The whole battledome system is a needless complication of what has been a simple and elegant system of advancement since basically the emergence of the RPG as we know it. It's commendable that The Wand of Wishing has the nerve to reinvent one of the fundamentals of the genre, but its means are simply ill-conceived.
As mentioned earlier, petpets can have their own pets, which you can collect over the course of The Wand of Wishing. You'll regularly come across strange foodstuffs that are pretty much inedible to most creatures, save for a particular breed of petpetpet. You'll randomly see these petpetpets scampering out of cracks in the walls, though they'll usually run out of sight if you get too close. Drop a piece of their favorite food, though, and they'll come out, devour the treat, and then sit happily digesting, unaware that you're about to kidnap them. Once in your possession, you can equip the petpetpet, which will boost some stats and possibly lower others. It's the single most interesting thing that The Wand of Wishing does, and the potential stat bonuses offered make it worth your while to seek these little creatures out as you go about your quest.
You can equip your petpet with various melee weapons and projectile-based wands, as well as helmets and armor. You also have a belt lined with pouches, which you can fill with damage-dealing magical scrolls or health- and mana-replenishing potions and snacks. You can use the D pad to scroll through your pouches, and hitting the triangle button activates the selected item. While this puts life-saving potions right at your fingertips, it also makes it difficult to rely too heavily on the magical scrolls for offense, since there's a dangerous pause between the time you scroll from one item to another and the time you can activate the selected item. The combat in general feels a bit sluggish and unsatisfying, creating a detachment between your input and the action onscreen.
It's unlikely that Neopets Petpet Adventures: The Wand of Wishing was ever destined for greatness. It undoubtedly still has the potential to introduce lots of Neopets fans to the joys of a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. The missteps in its design, though, promise that at least a few will walk away frustrated, confused, or soured on the genre altogether.