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For: PSP

Is it a bird? Is it a game? No, it's a pain

Product: TalkMan | Developer: In-house | Manufacturer: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe | Format: PSP | Genre: Virtual Pet/ Toy | Players: 1 | Version: Europe
TalkMan PSP, thumbnail 1
Like TalkMan's designer Yoshi Yamamoto, I had a neat idea - to review his speech recognition PSP title in the style of a GCSE French textbook:

"What is your name?"
"My name is TalkMan."
"How old are you?"
"I'm a brand new approach to European languages, although I've been out in Japan for a while."
"What's with the giant blue bird?"
"Donnie Darko stole our rabbit."

That sort of thing.

I abandoned the concept within minutes of loading TalkMan, however - it really can't consistently understand anything you say. It's like talking to your deaf uncle Alfred, only if Alfred wasn't deaf but French and insanely deluded about his English.

"Alfred, put the kettle on."
"Oh no, I'm afraid that seat is taken."

Which also buggers Yamomoto's idea to turn your PSP into a go-anywhere, say-anything device. He envisaged sweet nothings murmured into a PSP being spoken back in the language of nearby attractive Italian, French, hell, even German hotties if it's getting dark. But TalkMan would be better for marriage counselling - you could bond together over the shared adversity.

TalkMan covers six languages (French, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and English), boasts 3,000 phrases, and comes with a nifty microphone you plug into your PSP. TalkMan also has a face, that aforementioned blue bird, Max, who takes you through all its various features.

In order of how well these work - but unfortunately in reverse order of their potential usefulness - there's Tools, Listening Games, Pronunciation Games and Talk Mode.

The Tools enable you to convert units, record voices memos, put your pals' speech on a world map, and set a translation-testing alarm call. Not ambitious, and not broken.

The games are also straightforward, if too simple and slow at times. They test you either on listening to phrases or speaking them. The former works, although (as in Talk Mode) what Max says and the on-screen text doesn't always match, so don't trust it if learning grammar or vocabulary. The pronunciation game is less convincing; I'd sometimes be graded 'C' however good my accent was, or get As even when saying "Bonsoir" in increasingly comic Irish.

What about the crucial in-the-field translation? Well, the great British tradition of shouting, sighing and pointing hasn't muttered its last "bloody foreigners" yet.

Some 28 scenarios are covered (Nightclub, Hospital, Restaurant and so on), and multilingual Max knows hundreds of useful phrases for every one. You speak, and he - theoretically - offers up appropriate translations.

In the comfort of your home, you'll give TalkMan's speech recognition maybe ten minutes - pressing 'Square', speaking, and then selecting (or not) a phrase from Max's infuriatingly random suggestions - before resorting to choosing instead from the pre-supplied text lists.

In some far-flung cafe or ski chalet, you'll give it two minutes.

As for using TalkMan in a hospital - you're taking the piss. Which is exactly what they'll do if you're not careful.

Even when choosing words manually, in any scenario other than meeting your cute Dutch cousins, TalkMan is clearly bonkers. As one well-travelled friend dismissed it, "Only in Japan". Would you trust your PSP with a stranger while he selects directions for you? Or confront an uptight Parisian waiter with Big Bird made over by Klein?

The wonder is you keep muddling through. Because while the speech recognition quickly turns from funny to frustratingly useless, hearing Max say your choices and practising your listening can be compelling. And Max himself is bafflingly endearing, like a kindly-voiced children's TV presenter. You should hate him, but you don't. Repeated failure to select a phrase makes Max dejected, like he knows he's blowing his big break. You feel as sorry for him as for yourself.

TalkMan won't be the Walkman of the globalised 21st Century. Early Walkman players were big and ugly, but they worked. TalkMan doesn't really. It's as if the Walkman debuted as a fridge-sized ghettoblaster that randomly played tunes you didn't want to hear.

That said, there's nothing similar on handheld. "If you like this sort of thing..." is a reviewer's cop-out, but you'd clearly only consider TalkMan if interested in languages. The experimental use of the PSP is commendable too, and the end result is pretty and oddly likeable, even if flawed and utterly inessential.

Just don't ask it to translate your dying words.

TalkMan is on sale now – click here to buy.
Reviewer photo
Owain Bennallack | 16 June 2006
Talkman speakas de lingo, but anything you say will be all Greek to it
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