Neopets might not sound familiar to the more serious sect of gamers, but the Internet phenomenon of Neopets.com is no joking matter. Similar to the handheld game, Tamagotchi, Neopets are virtual characters that you must adopt and care for using an economy called Neopoints to purchase items and food. The Web site is incredibly intricate and popular, so it makes a good amount of sense that those behind the license would try to capitalize on some of that popularity by creating a full-fledged game within the Neopets universe. Of course, the problem with the console version of Neopets is that its major attraction is the license and not the gameplay. Like Neopets.com, the game is targeted at a primarily young audience, but unlike the Web site, it combines some overly simplistic mechanics with some terribly frustrating ones. It's likely that fans of Neopets will be happy to see formerly 2D creatures come to life in a 3D mock-up of familiar environments, but that excitement will be horribly undermined by the no-better-than-average gameplay. For a good Neopets experience, you're probably going to get more-consistent entertainment from Neopets.com than Neopets: The Darkest Faerie.
The game lets you control two young characters, a lupe (wolf-looking creature) named Tormund, and an acara (twilek-looking creature) named Roberta. In the beginning, you'll learn the ropes--the ins and outs of combat-based gameplay--with Tor, as you aim to elevate his status from farm boy to knight. In the second act, you control Roberta, niece of the king and diplomat, as she hones her sorcery skills. Eventually, the two join up, and you're able to switch between the characters on a whim, using the best of both of their abilities in succession. The gameplay is somewhat similar to combat-based platformers, only there is barely any platforming here and the combat is at its best when it's avoided. Instead, the primary focus is exploration, as well as item collection and management. You'll find, earn, and purchase a number of different items, which all serve to boost your statistics, whether it's in the form of petpets, consumable items, or motes, this game's version of materia (made popular by Final Fantasy). In many ways, this makes Neopets: The Darkest Faerie more akin to the gameplay of the life simulator at Neopets.com--that is, if you didn't have to also deal with long, tedious exploration and annoying combat.
The game begins on Tor's family farm, where you learn the gameplay mechanics by completing Tor's daily chores. The one main story mode that you pursue takes you from just another day on the farm to the big city of Meridell and eventually on the quest to defeat the darkest faerie. Along the way, you'll find side quests and hidden treasure maps that help give more depth to the spacious environments. But the gameplay never really evolves from simple tasks, which are chained together by backtracking through massive areas. Interacting with characters and most activities can be done by standing in the appropriate place and pressing the square button. For the most part, accomplishing an objective simply requires getting to the right place and interacting with something, although there are also a few platforming and jumping sequences within the game. At any point you can quickly access the mission objective menu that will give you a vague idea of what objectives you have left to complete. Although, the cribbed version on that screen is never as helpful as the one-time text you get when you're first given the mission. This is just one way in which the gameplay can get confusing, so it's crucial to pay attention to the dialogue at all times.
From time to time an indicator will appear on the in-game map to alert you of when you're in the proximity of your next quest, which you can access anytime during gameplay. However, most of the time, especially if you're not in the vicinity of your objective, there will be no clue about where to go. In fact, there's no text on the map other than the name of the current location, and there's no way to scroll through maps of areas you've been without just running there yourself. This leads to a tremendous amount of trial and error, as you follow vague directions and occasional signposts to find the location of your next objective. For a game with such simple mechanics, the navigation is surprisingly tedious. Otherwise, the vast environments are nice, and you'll be able to break apart tall grass, plants, and barrels to uncover health items and potions.
In the beginning of the game, you'll only encounter enemies in hostile camps or fighting arenas, but as the darkest faerie's influence spreads, the land begins to be overrun by bad guys. The problem with this, other than the obvious, is that the combat isn't any fun. There is one button for attacks, which can be slightly modified if you choose to chain three attacks in a row, jump and attack, or spin in a circle and attack. But the enemies take many hits, and having to balance attacking and blocking never feels worth the effort. You're much better off avoiding all combat entirely, since you'll most likely save yourself more health than you would gain back by whatever the enemy would have dropped, if anything. As the game wears on, and the enemies begin to populate the land, the once- boring backtracking now becomes even more tedious, as you have to jump to avoid (or, heaven forbid, actually fight) enemies along the way.
To help make the combat less difficult, you can use motes to increase attack power and decrease your own damage. Motes are small circular wisps that can be placed on your sword, shield, and armor, and they come in six main varieties: air, earth, fire, water, light, and dark. Each one has a polar opposite, so if you're dealing with an earth enemy, for example, you should use the air mote on your sword to do more damage. You'll find motes in the places that you would most expect them, so earth motes are among trees in the forest and water motes are usually found in streams. The more you use the motes, the more you deplete them, so you'll have to keep searching for them in order to stay fully stocked. Assigning motes and using items is extremely simple, and it's no question that the interface is one of the strongest aspects of the game. At any point, you can press in one of four directions on the directional pad in order to use items, assign motes, check the map, and find out what your current objectives are. Petpets, which are the Neopets' pets, can be found throughout the environment, and if you give a petpet some food, it will follow you and give bonuses to your attack power, your health, or other attributes.
The graphics, while crisp-looking and smooth, are definitely reminiscent of the earliest games on the PS2. You'll find that the lighting, shadows, reaction, and particle effects all do exactly what they should do, but they're never of a very high quality. The cutscene graphics are a notch more impressive, but not compared to other games' cutscenes. So, these issues, combined with the somewhat cheesy voice acting, will probably leave you unimpressed. The voice acting doesn't even carry over, so while the cutscenes are fully voiced, none of the in-game text is vocalized. Instead, as each line of text rolls across the screen, the character in question will grunt, laugh, or otherwise indicate the mood of his or her sentence, without actually speaking. This is better than no sound at all, although the combination of the sound effects can be weird. The game does have a fairly nice score, which sounds appropriately like music you would listen to if you were a knight or sorcerer questing through a magical land.
Neopets: The Darkest Faerie does have some nice moments, and it makes plenty of reference to popular creatures, items, and areas from the Neopets.com Web site. Unfortunately, the crux of the gameplay is made up of unnecessarily long, aimless exploration and disappointing combat. However, the item collection is kind of cool, and so is the attached story. While it's certainly nice to see a game this rich available for younger children, too much of it is overly complicated, frustrating, or just not that entertaining to consider it a valuable gameplay experience.