When you look at the box for Little Deviants, what do you see?
Do you see a bright, cheerful mini-game collection aimed at the adolescent market? Do you look at those cutesy blobs with their big puppy-dog eyes and their dinky red rocket and think "this is a game I could happily buy for my child or nephew or niece to keep them quiet for a few days"?
When you play Little Deviants, what do you play? Do you play a mini-game collection filled with difficult challenges, unattainable goals, and games that rely as much on dumb luck as they do on learning and adjusting to the game's rules?
Do you find yourself, a grown adult, struggling to reach the middle of the rear touch pad; having trouble navigating your Deviant around an isometric landscape using said touch pad; being forced to hunch over your PlayStation Vita because you can't tilt it even slightly for fear of screwing up your run thus far; fumbling with a vertical Vita that requires you to use both front and rear touch pads to move a cog?
Do you look at this and wonder, "what damn child would want to play this"?
That disconnect between presentation and the experience of Little Deviants is but one of the many problems that plague arguably the most prominent new intellectual property in the Vita's launch line-up. Little Deviants purports to tell a threadbare story about the titular extraterrestrial blobs who are being pursued by the villainous Botz and have crashed on the world of the Whomans; blocky little people who don't do much other than run around and squeal incoherently.
To repair their ship, the Deviants must collect the parts they need; to collect the parts they need, they must complete a series of mini-games, the majority of which are clumsy and irritating to play for adults, let alone children. And what adults will see as a challenge – which Deviants invariably is, though not necessarily of its own design – children will see as a game to ignore.
It's not as if there aren't games in Deviants that work. The collection of 'Risky' games – shrewd candy-coloured recalls of Marble Madness that use the Vita's Sixaxis motion controls to great effect – are addictive and provide a healthy challenge, while still being accessible for children and people unfamiliar with the technological conceits on display. The same can be said for the 'Depth' games, which will pit a Deviant against the clock and sundry geographical obstacles as he races to the bottom of an underground maze to defuse a bomb. Even games like Cloud Rush (as frustrating as it can be for reasons that will become obvious later), Bouncer Trouncer and Cannon Codes are surprisingly enjoyable, if simplistic.
But these minigames don't make up the majority of the Deviants experience; indeed, rough arithmetic indicates that the fun, accessible games only make up thirty percent of that experience. What makes up the remaining seventy percent are a collection of games that are awkward and aggravating to play. Take the 'Rolling' series, for example: a set of three minigames that use the rear touch pad to deform the landscape, making the player push a relevant ball-shaped Deviant around a series of maps to collect stars and keys while avoiding Botz and Dead'uns – essentially zombies by any other name.
In theory, this sounds like fun. In practice, the inherently inexact nature of the rear touch pad is exacerbated by a inexplicable isometric camera, meaning that it's difficult to build any kind of flow across the map because the mere act of deforming the landscape is essentially a crapshoot.
Similarly, the 'Shover' games – basically more challenging versions of Whack-a-Mole – use both the touchscreen and rear touch pad to knock Botz out of buildings. However, alternating between the touchscreen and the rear touch pad (performed with increasing speed) is clunky in execution due to the Vita's considerable size, and the inability to tell with exactitude what the correct finger position should be on the rear touch pad causes simple mistakes.
And that's just two series of games. That's not even touching the interminably drawn-out 'Speeder' series; the 'Botz' shooting galleries, which require the player be able to rotate a full 360 degrees in a pinch – something that not even an office chair can adequately assist with – and the 'Corridor' minigames, which ape the old Labyrinth game boards while being incredibly finicky and sensitive.
Then there's the one-off games like Tower of Boing, an ungainly Blasterball clone that forces players to hold the Vita vertically while using the rear touch pad to move; Smashing Tune, an unforgiving singing game that quickly becomes a process of trial and error as it becomes necessary to scramble to find the correct pitch, and Manic Melter, an awful mess that forces players to rub the touchscreen and rear touch pad simultaneously in opposite directions to "twist the turntable", and rub the rear touch pad to "tickle the Pyruss Deviant".
If it hasn't yet become apparent, Deviants is dedicated to showing off the full range of the Vita's quirks, but it does so at the expense of the player's entertainment. So much of it is frustratingly obtuse and ham-fisted, taking simple concepts like Whack-a-Mole and shooting galleries and complicating them by forcing as much of the Vita's tech into it as possible.
As if to add insult to injury, Deviants is also an incredibly uncomfortable game to play, designed as it is to be played while the player is hunched over, staring down at the Vita they're holding flat in their hands. It's a problem that first becomes apparent in Cloud Rush, where the motion controls mean that holding the console horizontally (that is, level to the face) sends Deviants spiralling into the ether; the problem soon rears its ugly head in games like Speeder (it will slow down) and Manic Melter (as explained above). Deviants is not a game designed with comfort in mind.
It's a shame that so much of Little Deviants is so difficult and (literally) painful to play. There's a handful of games in it that really work, and a further set of minigame concepts that could have been pulled off if they hadn't been bogged down in unnecessary control complications. Further, while reception to the game's design has been mixed, the cutesy, brightly-coloured Deviants look great against the blocky, Duplo-esque designs of the Whoman world.
However, Little Deviants gets so lost in its own tech-demo concerns that it fails to be enjoyable, the awful minigames sullying the good ones by association. It's almost a blessing that there is next-to-no incentive to return to the minigames after winning a bronze ranking (silver rankings grant concept art and kitschy sculptures; gold rankings grant bragging rights; Moggers grant cats to look at).
If it had, then there would be a reason for players – be they children, casual gamers, or serious gamers – to return to Deviants, and that just seems cruel.