The PlayStation Vita has come a long way in the last two and a half years. Sony's handheld console has navigated a winding and sometimes uncertain route, often deviating from whatever we thought its original course would be. And yet somehow, these many months later, it has landed in a pretty good place.
When Sony released the Vita in February of 2012, we were excited, but cautious. We recommended it to some people, but not to others. Stephen wrote our official review before we had moved to our current "Yes/No/Not Yet" system for console reviews, but had we been using that system, the Vita would most certainly have gotten a "Not Yet."
Today, I'm going to be revisiting Sony's ambitious handheld. How does the Vita hold up, just a hair under two and a half years after it came out? Let's find out.
Good At One Thing, Not All The Things
In 2012, Sony seemed to want the Vita to be everything. It would be your dedicated gaming device but also your pocket organizer, your maps application, your email client. It would let you Tweet and keep your calendar. It would be an iPad and a PSP rolled into one. There was even an option to get a 3G Vita with a data plan, so that you could use apps and (theoretically) play online games on the go.
The Vita of 2014 is a much more focused device. Its non-gaming apps are mostly vestigial balloons floating on the lower sub-basements of the operating system, only half-remembered when we scan through them looking for the "settings" button.
It's not really a surprising development, given that as Stephen noted in his initial review, it never really did all that other stuff all that well. While there are still a few of the faithful who use every part of the Vita buffalo, my educated guess is that the majority of people simply use their Vitas to play games.
That's okay, though. The Vita is really good for that.
A Lovely Object, In An Odd Sort Of Way
The PlayStation Vita is a lovely device. It's also an odd device. Both of those things have been true since day one: The big screen, the well-balanced feel, the pop of the face buttons, those funky shoulder triggers that you eventually got used to.
These months and years later, some of the more experimental aspects of the Vita are more obviously questionable. The front touchscreen is a clear winner, but the rear-touch pad has never felt particularly comfortable to use and is too prone to accidental input. It is more unfortunate than ever that the thumbsticks cannot be clicked, and that a handheld could come so close to mirroring the inputs on a Dualshock controller only to leave off two shoulder buttons.
All of that leaves the Vita in a bit of an odd place. It's a well-made, shiny device that's missing a couple of features that it really needs. It's unusual, and in several small ways requires games to be designed for it, rather than matching a console controller 1:1.
In the end, that means that the Vita is better suited for some games than for others. The good news is, there are a lot of good games that are well-suited to the Vita. (More on that in a bit.) The bad news is, it'll never quite be able to match the feel of playing a console game like Borderlands 2 or God of War.
The New Model's A Modest Improvement
The Vita got a hardware update a couple of months ago with the release of the ligher, cheaper Vita Slim. I reviewed the Slim back in May, and had this to say:
The Vita Slim improves on the original Vita in several small ways—buttons, plugs, included memory, ease of use, lighter weight. It also brings one notable downgrade—the less brilliant screen. What once was a Vita remains a Vita, though now it'll be a bit easier to carry around.
That about sums it up. The new Vita is lighter, easier to hold, and cheaper, but the new screen is less brilliant than the OLED on the original. All in all it's a modest improvement, which is fine, given that the original device was a pretty nice piece of gear. Though it was hard not to be a little bit disappointed in the continuing lack of the aforementioned clickable thumbsticks and L1/R1 buttons.
Not An Essential PS4 Peripheral
At various points in its lifespan, Sony suggested that the Vita would eventually be able to effortlessly stream PS3 and PS4 games from anywhere in your home or abroad, letting you pick up a PS4 game mid-pause and carry on from down at the cafe, or from the library at school.
To relive those days of heady promise, watch this 2013 "A Day with PlayStation" trailer from the 1:05 mark:
That would've been pretty freakin cool, huh?
But while the Vita's remote play function can be cool enough, it's safe to say that the reality falls pretty short of the ambitions put forth by that video.
It's to Sony's credit that they've made PS4 games natively support remote play, but the feature works best if you enable a direct connect to your PS4 and stay close to the console. It gets less responsive as you move around your house and connect to your PS4 through your home network, and in our experience becomes basically unplayable should you attempt to jack in from a remote network across town.
The Vita's odd design doesn't do it any favors with remote play, either. While some games don't require clickable thumbsticks and two extra shoulder buttons to work properly, most do, and the Vita's workaround of having players tap the back or front touchscreens feels like exactly that—a workaround.
All in all remote play is a neat idea that doesn't really deliver as promised, and judging by the nature of the technical bottlenecks it's hitting, probably never will. It's a nifty way to turn your PS4 into a quasi-Wii U, playing games on the couch while someone else watches the TV. But the dream of go-anywhere, play-anytime remains just that: a dream.
My Enemy, My Friend
One thing about the Vita that's surprised me is how well it complements its competition, the Nintendo 3DS. When Nintendo released the 3DS XL, the screen-size gulf between the two handheld systems narrowed significantly. Shortly afterward, in early 2013, the 3DS started on a tear of incredible games, while the Vita was still finding its groove. It seemed as though Nintendo was about to eat Sony's lunch.
These days, however, the two handhelds practically work together hand in, uh, hand. There isn't much overlap between their game libraries, which means that each system has a unique gaming identity. The 3DS has a bunch of great Nintendo games and some interesting third-party exclusives, while the Vita has a ton of indie games that are more fun to play on the go than on a big screen, and a bunch of excellent new and remastered JRPGs.
The 3DS and Vita may be mortal enemies as far as Nintendo and Sony are concerned, but for a gamer who actually owns both of them, they get along like the best of friends.
The Games Have Arrived
When the Vita launched, it promised to blur the lines between handheld gaming and set-top console gaming. Sony made a big show out of Wipeout and Uncharted games that looked just like their PS3 equivalents.
Two and a half years later, the actual game library of the Vita is much stranger, more diverse, and more appealing than those early releases suggested. There are a few good Vita games that feel like portable versions of established PS3 and PS4 games, but the best stuff on Vita is much more interesting.
There are good AAA-style action/adventure games, like Gravity Rush and Killzone: Mercenary. There are playful games that employ the Vita's many cameras and touchscreens in the service of user creativity, like Tearaway and LittleBigPlanet Vita. There are arcade shooters like Super Stardust Delta and Pixeljunk Shooter Ultimate.
There are JRPG reboots and re-releases that outdo their console forbearers, like Final Fantasy X/X-2 and Persona 4 Golden—the latter of which went on to become one of the most unlikely killer apps of all time—along with a raft of less mainstream JRPGs. There are action RPGs like Soul Sacrifice, and there are oddball Japanese visual novels that have won over so many of us at Kotaku, games like Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward and Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.
The Vita also doubles as a terrific way to discover or rediscover great PSP games, as Sony has made a large number of PSP and PSOne games available on their store. If you wanted to buy a Vita and use it only to play classic JRPGs like Trails in the Sky and Final Fantasy Tactics, you'd have a very good time doing so.
And then there are the indies. So many good independently developed games are now on Vita, most of which are available for other systems, but many of which feel particularly at home on the Vita. Turns out, the platforming masterpiece Spelunky is a perfect fit for the Vita. Ditto Sound Shapes, OlliOlli, Thomas Was Alone, Lone Survivor, Luftrausers, Divekick, Fez, Hotline Miami, and many more.
Sony is making more and more Vita games "cross-buy," meaning that if you buy them on Vita you also get a copy on PS4 and PS3. With some games, it's even possible to have your saved data sync between devices, meaning that, in a way, the Vita is finally able to live up to its promise of allowing you to take your console games on the go with you. And as with their other consoles, if you sign up for Sony's PlayStation Plus service, you'll get a bunch of great Vita games for free, with more added each month.
The long and short of it: Over the past two and a half years, Sony has managed to cobble together a diverse and interesting collection of games for the Vita. FPSes, platformers, RPGs, shoot 'em ups, dating sims, visual novels, art games and so much more—there really is something for just about everyone.
When it comes time to recommend a game console, it almost always comes down to games. Are there enough of them? Are they good enough? At this point, the Vita answers both of those questions with a resounding affirmative.
The Vita hasn't become the system it set out to be in 2012. Instead, it's become something a bit odder, and arguably more interesting. While there are plenty of ways that the Vita could be improved, at this point Sony has done enough to make the Vita much easier to recommend.
There remains an elephant in the room, however: The fact that Sony has slowed down in announcing new games made specifically for the Vita, opting instead to port over PS3 and PS4 games and re-release other games that can be played elsewhere. Are we recommending something that is in the process of being abandoned by the people who created it? Possibly. Does it matter? Not really, because the Vita's future, unclear as it is, is irrelevant given how strong the Vita's present is.
The Vita's got more than enough good games to make up for any unfulfilled promises or unmet potential, and it's more affordable than ever. In 2014, should you get a PlayStation Vita?