Developers: SCE Japan Studio
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Puppeteer is absolutely bonkers, in pretty much every way, and it's a marketing rep's nightmare. After all, this is a new IP, with nary a gun in sight, no sexualised characters to slap on the front of the box, it's mechanisms can't really be explained in a snappy tagline, and it's a big-budget 2D platformer not made by Nintendo or Media Molecule.
Of course, Sony's Japan Studio is known for taking risks. Just look at Tokyo Jungle, the quirky Darwinian PSN hit that recently made the jump to mobile platforms. These are the folks who made mind-bending Vita exclusive Gravity Rush, who are forging the PS4's legacy from the beginning with Mark Cerny and Knack, and who are also making the Team ICO-esque Rain. Microsoft and Nintendo might be content for their first-party studios to pump out rehashes and sequels, but Japan Studio doesn't fall into that category at all.
The story is nuts. Puppeteer sees you step into the shoes of Kutaro, a young boy who finds himself transformed into a puppet by the evil Moon Bear King, and quite literally loses his head to the nefarious fiend. The Moon Bear King amuses Himself by stealing the souls of children and then transforming them into His own personal army of bodyguards, so in order to get your head back, you end up having to battle your way through His minions, rescuing your peers, and eventually defeating Him in a quest that ends up seeing the fate of the galaxy come to rest upon your shoulders, much like the head you lost might have done.
Thankfully, being headless isn't as bad as it used to be, as Kutaro can jam a wealth of items and creatures onto his neck, from spiders to burgers to bats and crowns and skulls and so on. As well as acting as lives -- the one you're wearing will pop off should Kutaro get hit, and then roll away before disappearing, giving you a chance to snatch it back if you're quick -- the diverse array of heads are swappable, equipping Kutaro with different abilities. The spider will allow Kutaro to peek behind the webs that adorn the game's visual stunning stages. The pirate will gift our string-limbed hero with a nifty little hook.
Cornered by the Moon Bear King's cook -- a batty old witch with a bit of a temper -- Kutaro is then sent off to snatch the King's magical scissors, named Calibrus. With Calibrus equipped, the landscape of Puppeteer becomes a canvas waiting to be manipulated. Armed with these magical snapping blades, Kutaro can carve up enemies, slice through certain parts of the stage, zoom along stitched lines in the fabric of the game world, and snip bosses into pieces.
The platforming is a delight, less floaty and more responsive than LittleBigPlanet. Kutaro handles like a dream, and is beautifully animated, tottering about the place in endearingly slapstick fashion. He's accompanied on his journey by a fluttering magical companion named Yin-Yang -- controlled with the right stick whenever you wish -- who's useful for discovering hidden items, trinkets, and rewards in an area. Should a friend wish to get involved, you can pick up, switch on, and seamlessly have a second human controlling Yin-Yang all of the time too.
Puppeteer impresses most, though, in terms of its outrageous design. In many ways it's slightly reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet Vita's madcap world of Carnivalia, but only insofar as the action takes place in a world that presents a dramatic carousel of weird and wonderful characters, and no small number of interactive features with which to play. Puppeteer itself plays out on an ever-changing stage for marionettes. As you near the edge of the stage, the scene will change dynamically, with new tableaux unfolding before your very eyes, whisked away or shunted aside like the slickest theatrical revue you ever laid eyes upon. It's fascinating stuff, like a cross between Optimus Prime unfurling himself from a truck into a bipedal leviathan and constantly moving decoupage.
Sadly, we were in the middle of a crowded space during the hour we spent playing this, so some of the vocal work was lost to us, but what we did catch was very impressive, suitably bonkers, and reminded us a lot of a Terry Gilliam movie. Nintendo provides the most direct comparison when it comes to Puppeteer, for here we have a gloriously progressive 2D platformer, stuffed full of character and whimsy, but Japan Studio re making something quirky, thoughtful, something risky and a little bit dark and potentially insane. Mechanically, it reminds me most of Kirby's Epic Yarn, which might well be the last time I was impressed by a Nintendo platformer (the 3DS aside), but that brief connection aside, there's nothing quite like Puppeteer.
We'll need more hands-on time with the game to be sure, but frankly we can't wait until September 10th.