Vita TV: first impressions from Japan

PS Vita TV went on sale in Japan today, and we spent a couple of hours with our unit, testing the main features. The results are a mixed bag: region-locking, compatibility issues and a slightly inelegant interface detract from a well-built and well-priced device.

The unit itself feels solidly built, compact and quite sexy. About the size of a wallet, the highly pocketable device has ports for power, HDMI out, Ethernet, USB, Vita game cards and Vita memory cards, as well as Wi-Fi and 1GB of internal storage. Preorders opened in September but on launch day the device was readily available at major electronics shops in Tokyo for 9,950 yen (£62) on its own or 14,990 yen (£93) bundled with a white DualShock 3 and 8GB memory card.

As you probably know, Vita TV is designed to play Vita games on the big screen. It comes with a game card slot for retail games and a memory-card slot for downloads, and of course you can pull these straight from your Vita when you get home and continue from your last save on the telly. You can even transfer saves online via PS Plus.

Among the games we tested was God Eater 2, also released today, and displayed on an TV screen it could easily pass for a PS3 game, with very little blockiness to give it away as a handheld game up-resed to HD. (We tested at 720p, though Vita TV does go up to 1080i.) Ad-hoc co-op works just like a regular Vita.

The first problem is that many of Vita’s best games are not compatible with Vita TV. Sony released a list in September of the games that are, but missing from it were key titles such as Killzone: Mercenary, Gravity Rush and Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f. We tried to launch all of these, but after opening the Live Area screen we were faced with the error message “This application cannot be used with the PS Vita TV system”.

The reason is that Vita TV is controlled with a regular DualShock 3, and so there are no gyro controls, touchscreen, touchpad or camera, inputs that are integral to those games and many others. (Vita TV will support DualShock 4 in future, so maybe the touchpad will be used.)

Touch input can actually be simulated, though. Click L3 to activate a virtual touchscreen and a hand-shaped cursor appears on screen; click R3 for the rear touchpad and both sticks to pinch front and back. You can then tap or hold the Circle and trigger buttons to touch the screens, moving the cursors around with the sticks as you would your finger. It’s pretty rudimentary on first try – the King Of All Cosmos wasn’t too impressed with our lousy Katamari – but perhaps it’ll become more intuitive with time. It does seem weird that Sony included this workaround but still won’t let overly touchscreen-dependent games even launch.

Vita TV’s interface is almost identical to Vita’s, right down to the Android-style screens of circular icons. Message boxes fill the screen just as they do on Vita, which doesn’t look great, and the resolution is pretty chunky (the menus don’t seem to have been redrawn for Vita TV). The system was clearly designed for touch originally but navigating with the DS3 works pretty well, with the necessary menu swipes transposed to the D-pad and shoulder buttons and the PS button behaving just as it does on Vita. Vita’s on-screen keyboard is enhanced with a few PS3-style controller shortcuts. The same laid-back system music is there, and thankfully you can turn it off. Screenshots with the PS button and Start work too.

Once you’ve paired a DS3 via USB cable, the controller works wirelessly. Hold down the PS button for a basic control panel from which you can turn off the power, fiddle controller settings, toggle the touch pointer, set the brightness, access music player controls and so on. You can connect two DS3 controllers at a time – great for playing classic PSOne and PC Engine games in local multiplayer; we tested with SNK’s Samurai Shodown – as well as an external keyboard, BD controller and Bluetooth devices.

Just like on Vita, the OS is available in multiple languages, including British English. But don’t take that to mean that Vita TV is a multiregion system. Right now it works only with a Japanese PSN account and some others from around Asia; you can’t log in to an account from Europe or North America. And since Vita memory cards are tied to your PSN account, any card you’ve previously associated with an unsupported PSN region will be rejected. It’s an epic flaw, rendering the device even less import-friendly than the Vita, which at least lets you switch between accounts via an irritating but workable reset process.

Right now, there is no Remote Play app; presumably that will come after PS4′s Japan launch on 22 February. Seeing it up and running with Knack at Tokyo Game Show in September, it seemed to play at full frame rate and without lag, though the resolution took a hit.

Vita TV is also a multimedia device. A special Vita TV area of the PSN Store offers compatible apps for watching movies, TV shows and other streaming video, as well as Sony’s Music Unlimited and an e-reader for books and manga. Many of these are clearly designed for Vita, though, and so some features are slightly limited or look low-res on the big screen.

We’ll continue to go deep with Vita TV for a more considered analysis in issue 262 of Edge.

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