Reviewed: July 7, 2007
Released: May 29, 2007
Catering to thousands of little girls (or little boys, adolescents, or adults, for that matter) all dreaming of owning their very own ponies, Tantalus Interactive has created a virtual pony game not unlike other virtual pet games, allowing parents to perhaps substitute a real pony with a digital one that their children can interact with via a Nintendo DS handheld system. Pony Friends gives players the chance to buy, customize, and care for a virtual pony that can be entered into races and taken on simulated trail rides.
While I must admit that Pony Friends is not entirely up my alley – please keep this in mind as you read my review – it doesn’t seem bad for a virtual pony game and will probably appeal much more to its target audience.
Pony Friends’ gameplay is very simple and straightforward. There may not be a tutorial, but most of the game options will give players adequate instructions as to how to play that particular aspect of the game. Just about all actions are accomplished using the stylus on the touch screen, and most activities are fairly intuitive (even for those of us who aren’t particularly experienced with caring for horses), so even younger children should have no problem getting the hang of playing.
The first thing you’ll be asked to do when starting Pony Friends is to pick a pony. The game gives you the choice of 7 different breeds, each with a few colors, as well as the option to create your own custom pony. The custom pony is a little bit pricier than the default breeds, but for players who enjoy customizing, the extra cost probably isn’t a big deal – though you’ll find that earning money in this game isn’t terribly easy.
In general, you earn your spending money by doing chores. Every day, the game will give you a list of three chores, and it rewards you with the day’s allowance when you finish all three tasks. The amount of money you receive seems to change from day to day and may depend on which chores you’ve been asked to do, since some chores (like washing your pony) may require you to buy items (like shampoo).
As I mentioned earlier, though, money can be a little tight, since you can only do your chores for a small allowance once a day, and essential items like food, shampoo, conditioner, and treatments cost money. Another drain on your wallet is the decorative items, such as mane styles, quartermarks (like those markings on the rumps of My Little Ponies), blankets, and saddles. They’re less necessary, but they improve your pony’s style score, and certain sets can give your pony stat boosts that can be helpful in winning the race events. Just be very careful not to buy the items until you can safely afford them, or you may be unable to accomplish chores for money the next day.
The accessories are also fun for customizing the look of your pony, and you can even design your own custom blanket using an in-game paint tool that is reminiscent of Animal Crossing’s pattern design program. Unlike the Animal Crossing tool, though, Pony Friends’ version is somewhat difficult to use because the stylus tip is larger than the pixel size on the design canvas, which makes for some frustrating painting. Also, I was disappointed that you unfortunately can’t customize both your pony’s mane and tail at once because only one or the other can be equipped at one time.
In any case, though, you can also race your pony for additional speed points. While racing, your pony’s speed and abilities are determined partially by its stats (which can be improved by equipment) and partially by how well you cheer it on during the race. This is a tiring trial in which you must shout more or less constantly – but not too loudly or too softly, so that the game’s volume meter registers in a limited green zone – into your DS’s mic in order to urge your pony to run at its maximum speed. The first handful of races are pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but the later races have smaller green zones and require your pony to have higher speed in order for it to win. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t seem to reward you with any money for victories.
Another activity you can do with your pony is to take it on trail rides. Most trails must be unlocked through improving pony fitness or finding hidden paths while riding along available trails, and they take you through a variety of different environments like marsh, forest, and farm. Riding trails help improve your pony’s fitness, and some of these trails may contain quests that will reward you if you can complete them. These simulated trail rides can be many minutes long, so be prepared to sit for a while.
You can also take photos of wildlife while on trail rides, and afterward, you may also find collectible seashells or other items when you clean your pony’s hooves. These collection mini-games also reward you with money when you complete particular sets, but going about adding to your collection is pretty random and more a function of time and luck than skill.
Also, be aware that your pony will get tired and dirty when you take it on trail rides or race it, so you will have to wash it and let it rest (limiting how long you can play per day) afterward to make sure it stays healthy. Note that this might mean buying shampoo and conditioner, so, again, the usage of money must be rationed carefully.
Finally, building a relationship with your pony involves feeding it snacks, brushing and caring for it, and petting it from time to time. The game can be a little picky about how you pet your pony. As with real animals, your virtual pony will want to be petted along the grain of its fur, and it will want to be petted gently, rather than quickly and roughly. Pony Friends ponies seem to be more finicky about petting than their flesh-and-blood counterparts, but it’s still not too difficult to figure out which stylus motions your pony prefers. My only real complaint about the pony interactions is that your pony leaves after your first interaction with it if your relationship with it is already maxed out, whether you’ve finished feeding it or not, which is especially annoying when one of your daily chores is to feed your pony.
In my opinion, the main weakness of this game is that it becomes quickly repetitive and a bit stale. My relationship with my pony was full up from treats and petting by the first few minutes of the game, and it didn’t take much to grab my first few race trophies and open up a good number of the trails, so I had most of my Pony Friends experience within a short time. After that, it was mostly more of the same – especially since not many of the activities require much skill on the part of the player – though the different scenery on new trails is enjoyable to look at the first time through. In any case, if you enjoy virtual pets and collection mini-games, you may not mind the repetitiveness as much as I did.
Pony Friends’ graphics are definitely a highlight of the game and seem to be fairly detailed and vibrantly colored as far as DS graphics go. The trails, especially, are beautifully landscaped with plants, wildlife, and reflective water, though the plants and wildlife can appear a bit pixilated and rough. The ponies pretty much all look the same regardless of breed, but they are smoothly rendered and expressively and convincingly animated.
The soundtrack to Pony Friends is pretty much what you’d expect from this kind of game: soft and mellow and rural. The sound effects – mostly pony sounds and outdoorsy noises – are all high quality and realistic. Some background music during the trail rides might have been a good addition (you only get ambient sound effects during rides), though I guess the lack of music also provides a welcome break from the banjo.
Pony Friends currently retails for $29.99, which is, for me, more than I’d want to pay for a few minutes a day of feeding, washing, and exercising my pony. Depending on your tastes in games, though, your mileage may vary.
Pony Friends may not have been for me, but for a virtual pony game, it’s pretty decent. In fact, some of the aspects of the game that were frustrating to me also make the game more suitable for younger players: the challenge of earning enough money to care for your pet can teach kids responsibility and the value of prioritizing and planning their spending, and the factors that limit daily game time (like your pony’s stamina) can help build good habits of taking breaks between bouts of gaming. And, of course, it’s cheaper than keeping a real live pony.