We go looking for Pocket Creatures, but find a game that’s as varied as pocket lint.

Virtual pets have been big business since they became popular in the 1990s, and it’s more than a little surprising that we haven’t seen more apps for the iPhone geared towards this market. Tactile Entertainment’s latest creation, Pocket Creatures, is aimed to appeal to anyone who likes the idea of carrying a digital pet around in their pocket, but a number of small problems keeps this app from being very enjoyable.

The story, as it is, tells of a mysterious island where a strange egg has been discovered. The egg hatches and gives birth to a cute little creature which players then have to care for. When the creature is born you can determine what color you want it to be, but that’s about it when it comes to initial customization (though achievements do unlock wearable items later on). Be warned, though: make sure you’re comfortable with your virtual pet’s color scheme, since there doesn’t seem to be any option to change this later on or any option to start over with a new creature.

Pocket Creatures

As your creature hatches and begins walking around its cave and the outside garden, you can plant seeds to make trees and bushes grow, interact with the local wildlife, and discover various hidden items to fill up your inventory.

Moving your pet around is accomplished via double-tapping on the screen, but it will wander on its own if you just leave it alone. In order to pan around the relatively small environment, players will need to drag two fingers across the screen.

Giving credit where credit is due, Pocket Creatures looks brilliant. There’s no other way to put it. Your creature is a bizarre blend of pudgy/fuzzy anatomy bits seems reminiscent of an adorable/unholy combination of a panda and a monkey. The creature is the only obvious 3D object in the App, while the other animals and environments are presented as very cute 2D images.

It’s a shame that there’s no option to zoom in or out when the creature is outside, since this could really help with the overall feel of the app: twinkling lights mark areas where hidden items are stowed, and zooming out would make it far easier to spot them around the garden instead of having to repeatedly drag the camera around the map. Meanwhile, since the graphics are clearly the strongest attribute of this title, it would certainly be nice if you could zoom in and admire them in greater detail.

Pocket Creatures

Sound, however, is another matter. The audio that exists is great, but there really isn’t very much of it. There’s some charming music in the main menu but the soundtrack is left behind when you load your saved game. The audio in the actual game is just background nature sounds and occasional effects corresponding to actions (like how the platypus will snort when you pick it up); these are all fine, but there really isn’t a lot there and it quickly becomes white noise as you play.

The main problem is that there just isn’t very much to see or do in Pocket Creatures. Initially, goals and tips show up on small tablets as your creature wanders around its cave and the garden outside. But, after you’ve gone through them, there isn’t much else to do except figure out what is required to unlock the forty or so OpenFeint achievements that are available. Unlocking these gives your creature extra items they can wear. Examples include a skull hat being unlocked after you anger your creature and kill five members of the local wildlife, and fairy wings become available after you are nice to one of the local animals. Many of the achievements are secret, which means players will have to flail around in order to unlock them.

Pocket Creatures seems to need more time to get the bugs ironed out. Case in point: when my creature became sick, I was instructed to feed it a root-like piece of food. I did so, healed my creature, and still received the same instruction. It was only an hour later -after the third time that my creature became sick and I healed it- that the instruction finally went away. This wasn’t the only time I experienced similar problems, but it was the longest-lasting bug I found.

Pocket Creatures

The app’s touch interface isn’t exactly perfect, either. Grabbing animals or objects becomes a tricky feat to accomplish when two (or more) such things are grouped closely together. Let’s say you want to grab an anteater so you can suck up some water and hydrate a plant you’re trying to grow. This shouldn’t be too difficult to accomplish, but it becomes a pain if the anteater is near anything else that can be picked up. You’re just as likely to grab a rock, a platypus, an ant crawling along the ground, a pile of manure, or whatever else is in the area. If there happens to be something standing behind the object you want (meaning you can’t see it), it almost seems more likely that you’ll end up grabbing that hidden thing than what you’re actually attempting to pick up. This is a regular occurrence, and becomes more than a little frustrating to deal with.

When you get right down to it, Pocket Creatures is cute and charming, but cute and charming isn’t enough to make up for the lack of content, absence of any multiplayer features (such as playdates via Bluetooth) and bugs in the play mechanics. This is a title snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness, but it could easily become something special with just a little more substance and polish.