I recently wrote an article looking at Vita’s 10 most technically impressive games, that I always intended to be a two-part series also looking at Vita’s 10 most technically disappointing games. Despite being the strongest handheld console released in 2011 and being more than capable of handling ports of PS2; PS3 and even PS4 titles when the developers put the effort in, not every company was willing to take the time to ensure the Vita version turned out well – and as such we have a number of great games that remain hugely disappointing on the handheld due to the way they run.
In this article, I aim to examine these ports – what was disappointing about them (and why they should have been better than they were), as well as possible explanations on why they turned out the way they did; alongside a conclusion on how well the Vita did as a machine capable of handling console ports during its lifespan.
Accel World vs. Sword Art Online: Millennium Twilight (and Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
The Sword Art Online series has a fairly long history on Vita, starting in 2014 with the release of Hollow Fragment, an expanded release of the 2013 PSP title Infinity Moment. Developed by Aquria, the game was impressive at the time, packing in a tonne of content into its pseudo-MMO setting while still maintaining the feel of the anime. The game had some slowdown in its main town area, but overall the title ran well – mainly due to the fact it was a PSP up-port.
This was followed up in 2015 with Lost Song from developers Artdink, who also had a long history on the handheld ranging from Gundam SEED Battle Destiny in 2012 right through to Neo Atlas 1469 last year. They often took full advantage of the console’s capabilities, with graphically impressive titles like Macross Delta Scramble – and Lost Song was very much in this vein, with big open areas that actually ran pretty well on Vita – solidifying them as one of the handheld’s best developers.
Yet somehow in 2016 with the release of Hollow Realization, the series suddenly took a massive downturn in terms of quality. The game – also available on PS4 and developed by Aquria – had taken a serious graphical downgrade in their porting process, removing plenty of environmental objects and effects as covered in Havian’s video. In addition, the framerate slowed to a crawl during boss battles; something that was only slightly improved by patches.
Things had gotten even worse by 2017’s Accel World vs. Sword Art Online, developed by Artdink. Despite being based on the Lost Song engine to the point vast amounts of content were copied across, the game had taken a serious graphical hit with models looking pixelated and pop-in being extremely evident; and the framerate was suddenly all over the place. This was particularly disappointing given what the developers had previously achieved on the handheld, even with their last Sword Art Online game.
The reason for this seems fairly simple – in that the Vita stopped being the lead version for development after Lost Song. See, Hollow Fragment was based on a PSP game – meaning with the Vita’s increased power, it ran pretty well; while Lost Song was developed first for Vita then ported to PS3. With Hollow Realization, the main version was developed for PS4 and then it was ported to Vita – which causes a lot more difficulties due to the power gap between the two consoles than developing for Vita and porting up to PS4. It seems the same thing happened to Accel World, and as such we’re left with very sloppy ports of the final two Sword Art Online games on the handheld.
Atelier has pretty much been Vita’s most prominent series alongside Hyperdimension Neptunia, with eight entries released over the course of five years. The ports have always been of variable quality – often full of pop-in and framerate hitches – but never anything particularly noticeable, and they’ve always managed to look beautiful thanks to some great modelling and environmental design.
The most recent entry – Firis – was widely anticipated by fans due to switching things up with the formula, opting for a pseudo open-world approach alongside tweaks to the alchemy system; as well as continuing the storyline started in Atelier Sophie which had been available across PS3, PS4 & Vita. Gust announced that the PS3 version would be dropped for Firis, but thankfully the game was still coming to Vita.
Unfortunately, despite there being one less version to develop this time around, it seems the company did not put extra effort into making the Vita port work – in fact, it turned out to be the worst port they’d ever done in the series’ history. The world of Firis was full of low-res textures; pop-in of objects and just a general lack of details, yet despite all of this the framerate was incredibly low – particularly in the starting town and some of the forest areas. LatestVitaGames captured this perfectly in their video, where the game looked like it was running in slow-motion.
This seems to be recurring theme among some of Gust’s later ports, as Nights of Azure is notably littered with issues and Blue Reflection supposedly does not run well either. It’s gotten to the point where the company have released a video of their upcoming Nights of Azure 2 with a specific bullet point noting that they will have a “prettier Vita version” this time around.
Why Gust have struggled quite so much on the handheld is unclear – they’re a fairly small studio, but after being bought by Koei-Tecmo they should have increased manpower and access to development tools. More likely, it’s the same reason as with the Sword Art Online games – that they started using PS4 as their lead development version and the gulf of porting down to Vita was just too difficult. That at least explains Firis compared to Sophie (which used PS3 as the lead version); but it doesn’t explain some of their other wonky ports.
Probably the most notorious port on Vita, Borderlands 2 was an incredibly ambitious effort – an open-world, first-person loot-shooter with some beautiful cel-shaded graphics; that most publishers wouldn’t have even bothered attempting to get running on a handheld with Vita’s power levels. When Sony established their ‘Third Party Productions’ team, headed by stalwart Vita supporter Gio Corsi, this was the first project they took on.
I have to commend Sony on hiring Iron Galaxy to at least give it a go and to get this title at least running on the console (especially as the reason for the game at all was due to fan feedback requesting the game which was eventually organized by Sony themselves), but the final product was littered with so many issues that many fans thought the game wasn’t worth bothering with even if this was your only way to play it.
For starters, the port had its player count for the online co-op cut from four players to two – presumably to help it run better, but taking away a big attraction in the gameplay department. The graphics were toned down quite significantly, with things like enemy corpses immediately exploding upon death rather than being left around the environment and draw distance being significantly reduced. None of this seemed to particularly help the framerate, which still struggled during encounters – Digital Foundry note that the game dropped as low as 8fps during a boss fight, but was averaging 20fps anyway. Most frustratingly, the game could hard-crash quite often, requiring you to either restart the application or your console altogether.
Quite frankly, I suspect the way Borderlands turned out is purely due to what it is – a title far too ambitious for a handheld with a power level somewhere between the PS2 and PS3 – that’s actually somewhat of a miracle to actually be running at all. It’s likely the developers weren’t given enough time and/or resources to properly finish it either, judging by the improvements that were made through patches, but it’s still a shame to see such a landmark Vita title turn out like this.
Despite a lack of support from AAA publishers, in many cases gaps in Vita’s library have been filled by indie developers. We might not have gotten a new Castlevania game but we’ve had plenty of metroidvania imitators; and we may not have gotten Deus Ex, but Dex promised a similar cyberpunk adventure on a 2D plane.
You’ll notice there are precious few indie games on my list, mostly due to the fact that the majority are ported with enough care to ensure they have few issues with graphical presentation or performance (assisted by the amount of great porting studios out there as I detailed in my previous article). Prior to release, it would be easy to suspect Dex would fall into this category – especially as it was being ported by the game’s original developers Dreadlocks – but sadly that wasn’t the case.
For starters, despite being a fairly graphically modest title, somehow things seemed to have gotten messed up in the conversion, with shadows in particular looking dreadful on the handheld as noted in The Vita Lounge’s review. In addition, load times have taken a hit, with the game taking an appallingly long time to load any new areas; and the framerate doesn’t hold up during more intense scenes either. It has all the hallmarks of a lazy port – except it’s exactly the kind of title that shouldn’t really have these issues.
It seems the reason for the port turning out this way is two-fold. The first is due to the engine the game is running in – Unity – which has traditionally had a lot of issues on the handheld relating to load times and frame rates (other games which suffer from this include Corpse Party: Blood Drive and I am Setsuna, titles from much bigger publishers). The second is simply that the Vita port seemed like a contractual obligation for the developer – something they promised in their original Kickstarter but was subsequently forgotten about, meaning there was just a general lack of effort when they did get around to porting it.
Disney Infinity 2.0
As part of what seemed to be an ongoing licencing agreement between Sony and Disney (that also saw Marvel DLC added to LittleBigPlanet and games like Phineas and Ferb being made), 2015 saw the release of Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes on the handheld after an earlier release on home consoles in 2014. Providing an open-world take on the toys to life genre, it should have been seen as the beginning of some great support on the handheld from the franchise.
Ported by Panic Button Games, who provided coding support on the Vita version of Injustice, the project was pushed as being compatible with the PSTV (allowing for a more traditional way of playing) as well as handheld mode, making it a perfect purchase for families whose children may wish to take the game with them.
Unfortunately, Disney Infinity 2.0 was both the start and the end of toys-to-life on Vita and if the quality of the port was any indication of what we’d have gotten going forward, then this was probably a good thing. The game’s performance was horrendous, routinely dropping into single figure fps whenever a lot of action is happening on screen – which was particularly problematic in toy box mode when adding plenty of items to your level. In addition, the very nature of the genre seemed poorly thought out, with the physical portal and figures required to play even in handheld mode, meaning you’d also have to carry the base portal alongside the models just to play the game.
Why this game turned out quite so badly is difficult to nail down – obviously being a 3D, semi-open-world title would mean it’s a struggle for the console, but with the right optimization this shouldn’t have been a barrier. Rather, it simply seems that this was a lazy port – not enough time was spent tailoring the game to the handheld and as such we’re left with a disappointing end product.
The Jak & Daxter Trilogy
When Sony announced that the Jak & Daxter games were coming to the Vita, it marked the beginning of a bright future of PS2-era ports on the handheld which would continue through 2013 and 2014 with Final Fantasy; God of War; Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper. Sadly, the quality of the ports of each of these series fluctuated wildly; meaning Vita didn’t quite turn out to be the handheld PS2 many had hoped it would be.
Now you may have noticed that I reviewed the first two games in this series fairly highly when I revisited them on Vita, which surely doesn’t make sense when I’m including them on this list, right? Well, that’s because the games themselves are so good – brilliant 3D platformers/adventure games with some fantastic variety; beautiful locations and interesting plots. All of that is thankfully still in tact on the Vita versions, which do manage to maintain image quality throughout most of a playthrough.
What isn’t in tact is the performance – the games have been ported incredibly poorly, full of slowdown throughout the three titles that literally slows the framerate into single digits at points. It feels incredibly inconsistent too – getting better as you play through the first game; but then tanking as soon as you step foot in the open world of Jak II and Jak III. In addition, the trilogy’s resolution seems all over the place – sometimes looking like the most beautiful games on the console; other times looking abysmal.
Now, the reason for the this one is different from previous cases and somewhat more understandable. In a ‘making of’ video of the series, Paul Mithra from Mass Media Inc. – the porting studio for both the PS3 and Vita versions of the games – stated that Naughty Dog used a variety of tricks to basically code the original games on the PS2 to the metal (including using the console’s PS1 processor), which couldn’t really be replicated on the PS3 (or indeed Vita). As such, the ports were among the trickiest they’d ever done; and quite possibly were too much for a console of Vita’s power. Which is a shame – but at least they managed to get the games working at all, which is something I’m very grateful for.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus was among the Vita’s standout launch titles – a brilliant port of the PS3-remake of the seminal Xbox release, providing some fast-paced ninja action to go along nicer with the slower pace of something like Shinobido 2. The game made some smart changes to make it compatible with the console, dropping the framerate to 30 but locking this in to make the action feel smooth; as well as adding some Vita-specific bells and whistles.
So when Team Ninja rapidly announced that the sequel would also be getting the handheld port treatment, fans were understandably excited – they second game made a number of refinements to the formula but wasn’t a complete overhaul, so you could at least expect a competent version that performed well like the first game, right?
Sadly, this was wrong. For whatever reason, Team Ninja absolutely phoned in the sequel which – although it could look relatively pretty at times – suffered from a wildly changing resolution and an all-over-the-place framerate, losing the essence of the fast precision action the series was known for. This was particularly disappointing as the studio had shown they could do better with the hardware (and would do better again as their port of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 later showed), but chose not to put the effort in this time.
The reason for this port turning out poorly may have something to do with the fact that the game it was based on – Ninja Gaiden 2 – was originally an Xbox 360 game, rather than the original Ninja Gaiden which was an Xbox title. Still, we’d seen plenty of PS360 to Vita ports turn out better than this; meaning it’s more just a case of being a rush job from the developers rather than anything else.
Ratchet & Clank: Q Force
Sony’s cross-buy initiative is possibly one of the best things they did for the Vita – promising that if you bought the PS3 (and later PS4) version of the game, you’d get the Vita version at no additional cost (and even allowing this with select physical releases thanks to a disc benefits system). One of the flagship titles of this was Ratchet & Clank: Q Force (Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault in North America), a spinoff to their popular action-platformer series which was scheduled to release in the fall of 2012 alongside PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time.
While the PS3 version eventually came out in November of 2012 and those aforementioned games released without a hitch, the Vita version of Q-Force was nowhere to be found – as compensation for the delay, purchasers were offered a free copy of Ratchet: Deadlocked and promised that the extra time was being taken to ensure the port was up to the high standards Insomniac set for the titles.
Fans who eventually got to play the Vita port of Q Force in February 2013 quickly discovered that the delay had more to do with getting the game running at all; rather than any quality assurance. The title had an array of technical issues, ranging from jagged graphics to inconsistent framerate to the dull filter used to coat the whole game, that made it look far less vibrant and colourful than the PS3 release. Certainly, if you’d been waiting to play this version of the game, you’d come away from the experience very disappointed.
What happened in the development of Q Force to make it turn out quite so badly is anyone’s guess, although handing porting duties to Tin Giant – a company with no prior experience in development who have worked on no projects since – likely didn’t help. In the end, it appears to have been yet another game that required a lot of love in the porting process which sadly wasn’t afforded here, probably down to the tight time schedules the team were working under to get it released.
Resident Evil Revelations 2
I have to give it to Gio Corsi and the team at Third Party Productions for trying. Their first few years of existence were defined by high-effort ports on both Vita and PS4 – aside from the aforementioned Borderlands 2, they also had a hand in getting Ultra Street Fighter IV onto PS4 and Resident Evil Revelations 2 on Vita.
All of these had their issues (which was particularly surprising with Street Fighter given it was the version of the game that was supposed to be used at EVO2015, which ended up getting pulled and switched to the 360 version) but at least with Resident Evil, the team were providing the kind of experience that had long since evaporated from the handheld – fully-fledged, console-quality games; alongside bringing an IP to the console with a long history with PlayStation consoles.
But as with Borderlands, what was being done here was just too much for the Vita. The game looked bad – with poor-quality texture work; downgraded character models and some stripped-back environmental detail. Worst of all was the framerate which was wonky at the best of times – but downright abysmal during some of the game’s snowy raid missions or in particular, if there was blood on the screen (meaning the game got harder as you lost health). Destructoid also note that the Vita release uses a washed-out colour palette and has some extortionate load times.
Why things turned out so badly is anyone’s guess – Frima Studio had experience on the handheld, developing both Nun Attack and Zombie Tycoon 2 in previous years, although perhaps they lacked experience with a game of this scale. Given that the end product looks and performs worse than Resident Evil Revelations on 3DS – a which released in 2012 on a much less powerful handheld – it doesn’t paint a pretty picture, although at least that game was custom-built for the hardware it was running on.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus
Possibly one of the longest-teased ports in Vita’s history, XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus was originally listed by British retailer Tesco in 2014 for a release on the handheld. This got fans very excited, as the franchise’s particular brand of strategic, turn-based gameplay seemed a perfect fit for on-the-go gaming.
The title didn’t actually see a release until 2016 – making it one of the last western-AAA ports in Vita’s history – and plenty of people expected this extra time was spent polishing the game to provide a smooth, high-quality experience. The port was handled by 2K China, who had also been tasked with bringing the mobile title Civilization Revolution 2 Plus to Vita at the end of 2015.
As with Civ Rev, XCOM was also a mobile port – although despite the similar hardware, things had managed to get very messed up in the conversion. Load times were long, meaning it’s not a particularly easy title to pick up and play – but worst of all is the performance, which is buggy and stutter-y nearly all of the time, with enemies moving jerkily and aiming feeling off. Thankfully the game’s nature as a turn-based title manages to bypass a lot of this, but it’s a shame to see in a release which is otherwise perfect for the Vita.
Why the port turned out quite so badly is unknown – especially given that 2K China managed to port Civ Rev to the handheld relatively well. Perhaps looming deadlines meant they weren’t afforded the time to deliver a quality product; especially at the late stage in Vita’s life that the title saw its release.
When Sony first launched the PlayStation Vita, they advertised it as providing console-quality gaming on the go – meaning it could handle the home console experiences which were available on the PS3 and Xbox 360, as well as making many unique experiences of its own. In many ways, it did achieve this goal – particularly if you look at the titles included in my list of games that showcased the handheld’s technical abilities.
Yet for all the handheld’s success stories, there are an equal number of titles that didn’t realize this goal – nearly always ports of home console games which didn’t make the conversion well enough, running at poor resolutions or with choppy framerates that make the experience less than optimal. What’s striking about this is that many of these releases were being handled by Sony themselves – if anyone could understand the Vita’s technical specs, it should have been them.
As such, Vita was less the paradigm shift in handheld gaming than it should have been and felt like more of a continuation of the PSP – capable of handling certain titles in a cut-down capacity, but certainly not the powerhouse it was made out to be. Vita also suffered from fewer bespoke ports (think Assassin’s Creed Bloodlines or Need for Speed Carbon: Own the City) that were custom-built for the hardware; and many more examples of full console games being crammed onto the weaker hardware.
Personally, I’m still happy Vita received the vast majority of these games – being able to play childhood favourite games like Jak and Daxter or explore fun open worlds in Borderlands 2 on the go is worth the technical disappointment, but I can’t help but lament a universe where all of these ports turned out much better than the end products we got.