Developers: Sony Japan Studio
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Sony Japan Studio are one of those outfits with an almost absurd excess of creativity. The ideas behind their games are frequently weird and wonderful -- just look at the likes of Tokyo Jungle and Gravity Rush -- but it's also true that quite often the execution doesn't quite match up to the inspiration behind it. So it has been that Japan Studio has created a number of games that we really, really want to love, but have perhaps been a little too fundamentally flawed to achieve those ends.
What's great, of course, is that this clearly hasn't dampened the creative spirit or sense of gumption at the studio, because here comes Puppeteer: a 2D platformer seemingly skewed towards children, but with a dark (and occasionally disturbing) story, narrated by English luvvies, and framed by a constantly shifting stage for a playable slice of marionette theatre. There's an Into The Woods joke in here. I'm not sure there's ever been a game before that's managed to slip in a half-minute musical homage to Sondheim before.
If there was ever a game that screamed *RISKY SALES PROPOSITION* at first glance, this is probably it. Thank whatever deity or secular object you pray to that there are still people who value creativity up at the higher levels of this industry.
Puppeteer tells the story of Kutaro, a young lad who has his soul stolen by the evil Moon Bear King, a figure who appears to be a gigantic bear made from the pelts of other bears and who wears a crown and lives on the Moon. Our young protagonist finds himself turned into a marionette and swiftly, sadly decapitated. Pushed onwards by the Moon Witch, Kutaro resolves to steal the Moon Bear King's magical scissors -- named Calibrus -- defeat the Bear's generals and the Bear himself, and restore the Moon to its former glory. It's a darkly, Burton-esque setup, and it sets the stage (quite literally) for an enormously imaginative, rather grim(m) fairytale to follow.
The action all unfolds on a constantly visible stage that blends music-hall theatre and pantomimic tradition with old-fashioned puppet shows. Curtains rise and fall and the beginnings and ends of each scene, breaking the game up into bitesized chunks in a coherent manner, and encouraging level replayability. The characters themselves, a motley bunch of personalities from the delightful to the (more often) macabre, are all constructed from wood and cloth and paper. Everything has a handcrafted feel to it, from the goofy grin of Kutaro's bongo-drum head (one of many you'll be able to pick up along the way) to the sets and backdrops themselves, which sweep in and out of view in mechanical fashion, occasionally dotted with holes and gaps that allow us to see the cogs turning and the magic in action. Make no mistake, Puppeteer is quite possibly the best looking, most aesthetically striking game of the year thus far.
Its visual invention is backed up to a certain extent by some aspects of the gameplay too. Although the handling and platforming controls unfortunately tend towards LittleBiPlanet-esque looseness, there's enough interplay between carving up textile-based critters with Calibrus, performing bomb-throws, ground-pounds, reflective shields and shifting around heavy objects to make for some interesting and inventive passages of play. The mechanisms themselves might not be particularly ground-breaking, but the manner in which they're deployed is often highly unique, no more so than with Calibrus itself.
As well as a combat tool, Calibrus can be used to snip along any cloth or paper foreground object, the pieces of which then tend to disperse in the direction of your cutting, with the warped physics allowing players to slice their way up vertical paths, but also reach hidden areas with some deft cutting. The checkpointing isn't quite as generous as Rayman Legends, but the speed and surprising pitfalls aren't as punishing. Sauntering through a scene might take anywhere between 5-30 minutes, and the challenge will predominantly come from directing Calibrus up plumes of paper smoke, through gelatinous spiderwebs, up into the canopies of trees via falling felt leaves.
Kutaro is never alone, either. In the early levels he's accompanied by a flying cat named Yin-Yang, who's later on replaced by a strikingly American Sun Princess. These companion characters, controlled via the right stick, can interact with certain objects in the backgrounds of levels, the discovery of which can yield up Moon Stone Sparkles (100 of which equal an extra life for Kutaro) and sometimes other children that the Moon Bear King has kidnapped.
As well as collecting Moon Stone Sparkles and saving the Souls of lost children, Kutaro can also collect a wide array of heads to replace his own. We've picked up burgers, drums, skulls, dinosaurs, a guillotine, a cherry tree, and god knows what else. Sadly, none of them have any actual bearing on gameplay itself. For the most part, the heads simply act as collectible chances: you can only carry three, and each time you're hit or hurt, your head will roll and you only have a couple of seconds to pick it up before it's gone. Lose all three and you lose a life. However, at certain points in a level, you might come across a ghostly, flickering image of a certain head. Deploy that head's unique little action in the vicinity and something cool will happen, be it a showering of Moon Stone Sparkles, a failsafe against platforming death, or maybe a route to a secret level.
It's just a shame that the bizarre array of noggins don't otherwise inform the gameplay somehow. There's a display cabinet off of the main menu where you can look at them all and read about the stories behind each of them, but it's a little disappointing that they have such a limited impact on the actual game.
There are deeper problems to Puppeteer too. As much as Japan Studio should be commended for managing to provide fairly innovative setting to explore a relatively meagre cluster of abilities and actions, some of the levels, particularly the Curtain 1s in a number of the game's seven Acts, do drag on a bit and become a little repetitive. The Boss Fights are immensely impressive, often requiring you to puzzle out patterns of action before dashing into the fray, but the sections in between can at time feel a little laborious.
And then there's the story itself; or, to be precise, the manner in which it's told.
When learning the craft of writing, whether it be critical or creative, the one thing you're taught to guard against is overwrought verbosity. The follies of long-winded speeches, written or spoken, are easy to identify; superfluous language and endless description can prove incredibly boring after a while, no matter how personable the voice. However, Puppeteer appears to be a game that commits this cardinal sin from the very beginning in terms of its narration, and it doesn't let up. It's a little thing to begin with, it doesn't detract from the game too much, but by the end you're screaming at the TV to let you play the damn thing! Children playing the game in short bursts might well find the over-the-top pantomime jokes and rambling storytelling amusing, but after a while it began to grate a little in places for this writer.
But I'd be lying if I said that it swept the smile from my face. I spent so much of my time with Puppeteer grinning like a buffoon, giggling at visual gags, awful puns and utterly enthralled by the art direction and the level construction that it completely overpowered those few sections that were less than stellar. Put simply, Puppeteer is a fantastic game that should delight both the young and the young at heart. It's frankly marvellous that a game such as this exists at, but to leave it there would do Puppeteer a disservice; it's an outstandingly imaginative affair that proves consistently engaging, even if the narrator does seem a little too enamoured with sound of his own voice.
- Fantastically original presentation
- Superlative aesthetic design
- Well-worked gameplay elements and reinvented puzzle/platforming mechanisms, Calibrus in particular
- Boss fights are wonderfully diverse in spite of the limited toolset
- Story is frequently chuckle-worthy...
- ...Even if the script is a bit long-winded
- Levels can occasionally drag on a bit too long
- There's more ham than butcher's shop in this game
The Short Version: Puppeteer is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, particularly when it comes to the striking visual design. The script could perhaps have done with a little more editing, and there are a few little pacing issues along the way, but Kutaro's journey is an utterly charming and gloriously imaginative affair, framed in superlative fashion.