Some games are easy to assess. Take Halo 3, for example. How many big shiny guns are there, what colour chunks will the Covenant explode into when I stick a grenade to their posteriors, and will the multiplayer component eat up months of my life when it finally comes out? The answer to all three of those questions, by the way, will probably be "many", "purple" and "yes", respectively. Then there are niche titles, like Eidos' Pony Friends. At the tender age of 33, I don't really think much about horses. Luckily for me, I have something of an advantage when reviewing Pony titles, however -- my five year old daughter, Zoe. Like many five year old girls, she's utterly Pony mad. As such, even the sight of a box labelled "Pony Friends" was enough to send her into a paroxysm of joyous squeaking.
The first thing you'll do upon launching Pony Friends -- beyond simple language selection -- is to acquire your first Pony and name it. In the interests of making sure that the five-year-old Pony-obsessed viewpoint won out, Zoe got to control everything, including naming. This is how we ended up with an animal called "zyiahtjel". Apparently she just liked those letters, but even she couldn't pronounce it.
In many ways, Pony Friends follows the/Petz model very closely as a game, albeit with a more obvious equine slant. The game revolves around a set of key activities, each of which is accessed from a simple onscreen icon. The homestead is where you can check your goals, journal, all of your ponies and receive your daily chores. Like other DS titles such as Animal Crossing, Pony Friends uses the DS' internal clock to control your access to chores, and thus one of the sources of money within the game. It's not a terrible hook to keep you playing over many days, but it is tough to explain to a young girl that she can't keep doing chores -- some of which cost money to perform -- in the hope of getting more money (and ponies) right away.
From the game's stable you can accessorise your Pony -- and if you think that accessories and Ponies don't go together well, you've clearly never seen a horde of young girls at a My Little Pony party. The Care section launches some simple scrubbing and tapping mini games for keeping your pony clean. You can move the pony to the field for some feeding or a very mundane patting mini game, or move it out on a longer ride. This then takes you to the game's main map, which is where you can explore, find new treasures and even earn a little extra money. Initially much of the map is locked off -- and this proved a problem with the five year old set, who didn't automatically work out why in the way a more seasoned gamer might -- and it controls via stylus dragging, which is also a touch tricky to explain when virtually every other selection in the game is via tapping.
Text is relatively minimal within the game, which is good for the younger set. Visually it presents its horse models well, and things like riding work well in a very simple first-person view. Parents will probably want to invest in some headphones for any Pony Friends-crazed children, as the music gives new meaning to annoying. That's a parent's perspective, however -- Zoe loves it. Likewise, parents with sensitive ears may not enjoy the racing aspect of the game, which centers around shouting into the DS microphone to cheer your pony on, but young kids will love it.
Pony Friends supports the Wireless connectivity function of the DS, but only in a very limited capacity. Specifically, you can share out a demo of the game to other Pony-crazed DS owners; unfortunately you can't share or trade ponies between copies of the game.
Now, all of that might sound a touch on the negative side, but bear in mind that while the 33 year old journalist is the one scribing this review, the five year old who did the bulk of the playing absolutely adored it. In fact, she adored it to bits, and could barely stop talking about it for days on end. It's testament to what can be done with a niche title. Yes, Pony Friends is very simplistic, the mini games are highly repetitive and the music has been composed by Satan's very own lift music maestro. All of that doesn't matter a jot if the core audience for the game loves it -- and with a free charm bracelet in every copy, there's no doubt that Eidos knows who it's pitching to with Pony Friends.
The final word, of course, shouldn't belong to the jaded journalist. So I asked Zoe what her favourite bits of Pony Friends were:
"Oooh.. the buying pretty things. And the choosing ponies. And the naming ponies. And the riding. And when I found a special shell. And the buying pretty things. And putting them on my ponies. And when my ponies started to love me. And the riding ponies. And the pocket money. And washing my pony. And the pretty things...."