Porting life management simulator The Sims to handhelds has proven a mixed experience with more missteps than successes, but when The Sims 3 debuted as a 3DS launch title the series hit one of its lowest lows to date. The obvious rush job felt like a cynical slap to the face, EA having sped the title to store shelves in a direly unfinished state. Myriad bugs and a thin selection of activities mired an experience that a clunky interface already made feel like a chore. In the same year, its follow-up The Sims 3 Pets approaches jaded fans like a cat that's just scratched you asking for a second chance. And, as it turns out, that's a chance worth giving.
What a difference half a year can make. Everything about this game improves upon its predecessor, and with the majority of negatives out of the way players can now truly enjoy its advanced virtual pet-like formula. Over a decade has passed since Will Wright's groundbreaking initial entry repeatedly caused players to go to bed slightly embarrassed that they'd spent yet another night making sure their little computer people don't pee all over themselves or setting them on fire, and now handheld players can feel that rush again.
Sims have six basic needs – hunger, bladder, energy, social, hygiene and fun — and it's up to you to keep them full. Moodlets and a mood bar show how environments and circumstances affect your characters, and pop-up wishes range from befriending a Sim to rubbing your dog's belly. It's a system that works well, and the frequent mini-objectives help keep things interesting. You can toggle free will and let your characters do what they're inclined to without interfering for as long as you like, though the game doesn't play itself – it just means that you can ignore one of your Sims for a long period without worrying they'll die of starvation.
You can learn various skills along the way, giving you a goal and altering your experience – if they're great at cooking, for example, they can fill their hunger meters at a quicker rate and with much less frustration, while if they're a musical virtuoso they can entertain a crowd by picking up an instrument. Sims also go to work, and you can elect to make tough decisions here at a rate of your choosing; although they're completely based on chance, they certainly liven things up.
Each Sim has a lifetime wish, such as having a number of relationships, becoming a great musician or doing very well at their job. It's nice to have a goal to work towards, and can really add to your experience in interesting ways: you may find that your spouse may wants nothing more than to juggle ten mates at once, for example. Having to face such situations gives the game a lot of depth and can jar you out of your comfort zone, forcing you to veer from the path of least resistance. These desires derive from Sims' character traits and enrich the game to a great extent, shaping interactions and behaviours and making experiences relatively unique.
Pets function like regular Sims, with their own traits, desires and skills, and you control them just the same while you work to fulfil their needs and status bars. They can befriend or become the enemies of man and beast, and perform a variety of adorable activities. Some of these are useful, like hunting valuable prey, though they can claw up furniture and pee on the floor too, or just act like idiots, hissing and barking at inanimate objects. Only dogs and cats populate the animal world here, however, while the PC expansion comes with horses too.
While The Sims 3 only contained two public properties, Pets features four, with a variety of activities, people and animals with whom to interact. These luckily exist in what seems like their own temporal plane – while time passes here, returning home occurs only a minute after you left, so you can still have fun about town even if you work during business hours. And with the series' trademark sense of humour running throughout, this iteration encapsulates well what makes the franchise so much fun.
The controls take a big leap in quality from its precursor, with object selection no longer relegated to a clumsy stylus-based scheme. Now you'll move a column about the top screen with the Circle Pad, choosing between whatever you might land on from a menu rather than maintaining exact precision. The touchscreen contains five clean and simple tabs, and you can click on their contents to learn more, so rarely is anything ever vague or confusing. Each button has its own function, but it's all extremely easy to adapt to and works quite smoothly overall.
The Sim creator is fairly robust, with lots of options as well as dog and cat breeds. You can also create Townies to interact with and share any of your spawn via StreetPass. Karma Powers allow you to affect your citizens in a variety of negative or positive ways, though we're not sure that allowing you to purchase them with Play Coins was the best decision as it's quite simple to have bags of money dropped on your property unless you can resist the temptation.
While scrolling about tends to create a bit of jerky slowdown, overall the game looks great, with lively surroundings and amusing animations as well as an almost complete lack of pop-up. The 3D effect won't dazzle you, but it adds a good amount of depth that helps bring the Sims' world to life. The music is great, especially when it includes that crazy Sim language, as amusing as ever either spoken or sung.
Of course, Pets isn't without glitches and downsides. A pile of trash bizarrely appeared outside of the playing field, for example, forcing us to move to another property to keep visiting neighbours from constantly retching. Babies and children are absent, though your Sims (animals included) can Woo-Hoo. The house is full at four, so you can't go pet-crazy, but that shouldn't hurt too badly unless you have to disown an animal to make room for, say, a spouse, which you can only accomplish by acting cruelly toward your beloved cat or dog until the option arises. Load times, while short, and the lack of an auto-save also cause issues, and we'll rejoice the day that we see a Sim game that lets your character squeeze through two closely placed objects or people when it's realistic instead of complaining about their proximity and giving up.
We must also say that at this point in the series, the gameplay just isn't as edgy or interesting as it once was. Relationships too easily boil down to similar sets of actions and consequences, differing personalities notwithstanding, and the combination of menu-based task assignment with an open-ended M.O. can become repetitive. It's still got that addictive quality, but it likely won't grab you like it did a decade ago; while complexity, scope and functionality have improved, the experience has made smaller strides in terms of depth.
While EA released its predecessor only half-baked, it's come through with The Sims 3 Pets and created a quality life simulator that's still mystifyingly amusing and addictive, now with the added cuteness of playing as dogs and cats, though it might not grab you like it did ten years ago. Of course, if you've never taken to the series before, you won't change your mind now; the improvements in this iteration help bring out what makes the franchise fun and entertaining, but they don't revolutionise it. Those who don't care for it still won't, then, but for everyone else, this is the handheld Sims game you've been waiting for.