Following hardware add-ons for the PlayStation 2, including buzzers and cameras, Sony is now offering USB peripherals for the PlayStation Portable. The silver microphone included with Talkman lets you use the console as a basic translator between English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese. The game also includes tutorials to help you learn each of the languages, plus a number of other useful tools, such as a currency converter and a world clock.
Your companion in Talkman is Max, an enthusiastic, animated blue bird that acts as an intermediary between you and the hapless foreigner that you're trying to communicate with. The game's talk mode asks you to choose from a list of common traveling scenarios, including the airport, hotel, or theatre, and then presents a list of context-sensitive questions that you might want to ask. If you're trying to catch a train, for example, the game will ask questions such as, 'How much is the fare for the express?' and 'Which platform will this train leave from?' The game then displays the question in the chosen language and reads it aloud, before allowing the other person to respond and then repeating the process in reverse.
While the technology has limitations, specifically in that you can ask only the questions that have been prerecorded into the game, this interactive phrase book could be a useful tool for travelers. The game's 3,000 phrases cover quite a few bases for travelers who need basic information, and while it can be slightly odd thrusting your PSP into a stranger's hands, the game certainly offers value for money compared to the cost of purchasing six separate phrase books. If you don't want to scroll through the various different crib notes to find a question, you can speak into the microphone and the game will guess what you're trying to say. If you utter, 'Can I make a reservation?' Talkman presents a list of corresponding questions, usually with a good level of accuracy. However, the restaurant scenario didn't really cater to the many tastes and requests we experimented with, and a translation of traditional Spanish and Italian dishes would have been nice.
When you choose the scenario relating to your circumstances, Max is transported to a similar location onscreen, such as a golf course or a football match. Despite having a thick Cockney accent that might sound grating to your ears, Max can also emphasise phrases so that the recipient knows if they are intended in a positive or negative way. You can also choose to follow up certain questions with a request, such as, 'What time is checkout, could you write it down for me?' The people we spoke to who were fluent in Japanese, French, and German said that it was very accurate and would be easy to understand if used abroad.
There are problems with the translation part of Talkman, though. Load times can spoil the spontaneity of conversation, and if you're talking to a foreigner who has no idea who you are or what the game is, it can lead to awkward encounters. You also have to be in the correct scenario to ask specific questions, so you can't enquire about bus tickets without being in the bus scenario of the game. However, you can bookmark frequently used questions so that they can be accessed at any time, and this is certainly useful for common phrases such as 'How much?' or 'Where is the bus?'
The other element of Talkman is the game mode, which helps you learn basic skills in each of the six languages. The pronunciation section supposedly helps you to wrap your tongue around many of the phrases included in the talk mode, although the accuracy of the grading isn't especially precise. If you say something completely different to what's onscreen, Talkman will recognise this, but strangely it has a tendency toward varying marks for phrases uttered exactly the same way. Also, Japanese words are written in the kanji form, whereas transliteration would have been much more helpful for English pronunciation.
In the listening game, Max reads five foreign phrases complete with English translation, and then you are asked to identify one of them. This game is particularly annoying because of the time it takes to get through--every second question results in a whirring of the disc drive and an elongated pause before you're told whether you're correct or not. Both the pronunciation and listening games increase in difficulty by elongating the phrases, and if you manage to attain 25 A grades in each, you can unlock two minigames.
There are also a number of useful traveling tools that can be used when you're not trying to start conversations. There's a converter tool that will allow you to work out distances, temperatures, and currency, although you'll need to enter an exchange rate for the latter. There's also an alarm which can be used to attract attention, plus you can set voice memos to remind you to visit that famous bar in Madrid, for example. If you successfully manage to make friends through Talkman, you can also plot them on a map for when you return. The game will store an avatar of your friend, and you can record a 10-second clip to remind you of his or her exact location, as the map isn't detailed enough for you to see your friend on a city level.
Talkman can be a useful tool, but it's not much of a game, and unless you're using it to learn all of the six languages, it offers very limited longevity. Frequent travelers will find that Talkman is a novel replacement for the trusty phrase book, and you can even learn some basic language skills on the plane. However, both Talkman and the PSP hardware have limitations that prevent the software from being a recommended purchase for everyone else. The loading times are a frequent annoyance and intrude on the game when you want to change scenarios, and even in between phrases. The games are also very limited, and the phrase database is too small in certain situations. Talkman is a flawed experiment, and while it's certainly a functional tool, its limitations mean it's far from essential.