Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Media Molecule
Tearaway is everything we say we want from a videogame. It's a gorgeous, colourful and exuberant burst of creativity that cuts through the Christmas slew of grim shooters like a pair of oversized safety scissors; a papercraft adventure where anything is possible. A whimsical world that impossibly exists right there behind your Vita screen, which grabs you and pulls you into it by way of the camera and touchpad, letting you directly affect the action onscreen with your face and fingers. With Media Molecule at the helm, many Vita owners have been looking to the acclaimed studio to bring some much-needed joy to the system.
Yet I must admit that I had my reservations about Tearaway, despite my colleagues descending into fits of uncontrollable enthusiasm every time its very name was mentioned. In the trailers, I saw little more than a platformer that sometimes swapped buttons for waggles or prods, nothing worth getting particularly excited about.
Now that I've gotten hands-on... so very hands-on... with an extensive preview build, however, I can report that Tearaway is likely to be one of the most creative and downright enjoyable games of Christmas 2013. Regardless of platform.
The game starts by making you the star. You're a visitor in an origami universe, constantly peering into it through a hole in the sun thanks to the Vita's front-facing camera. Once you've selected your gender, skin tone and hand size, the game then introduces to Iota, a papery messenger who'll act as your direct avatar in the papercraft world. Finally bringing Iota and your leering mug face to face is the aim of the game, but platforming puzzles and an infestation of nasty newspaper-clipping monsters known as Scraps stand in his or her way.
It's therefore up to Iota to face up to the challenge and proceed through a world made entirely from coloured paper and cardboard; every tree, mountain, building and inhabitant neatly folded into abstract yet instantly recognisable shapes.
Tearaway provides fairly standard platforming fare, at least at first. Controlling Iota, picking up scenery objects or enemies and throwing them around is simple and responsive, much sharper than clunky if adorable old Sackboy, while abilities like rolling and even jumping are unlocked throughout the campaign. You'll solve a few simple physics-based puzzles with pulleys and counterweights. Jump between platforms. Destroy some Scraps by evading their attacks, picking them, up when stunned and throwing them off a cliff. Ride a pig. All colourful and whimsical, but nothing truly new.
Except you'll quickly discover that you can reach into Tearaway and play with it. You'll pull open pop-up flaps with the touchscreen and unwrap presents, or squash Scraps under your fingertips. Tapping the rear touchpad sends shockwaves through drumskin membranes, propelling Iota to new heights. Mixing decks can be scratched, sounds can be recorded and all the while you'll see yourself quietly overseeing proceedings from your lofty skyward perch. Best of all, some papery floors allow you to thrust your fingers through into the game world via the rear touch pad, as many as you can cram onto it, which brutalise flocks of Scraps and manipulate the scenery in surprising ways.
This functionality might sound basic, but it genuinely makes you feel like Tearaway's world is real, that it exists inside your Vita, and you're literally reaching into and touching it. It's intoxicating.
And it's just the start. Tearaway includes a superbly intuitive cutting room that puts a range of coloured paper, pencil and pair of scissors at your disposal. Fancy making a boat or a banana? A moustache? An eyeball? Anything you can cut out can be assembled here. Sometimes you'll use this functionality to create or decorate a particular object in order to progress, such as tricking out a pumpkin with a scary face (and recording a terrifying roar using the Vita's microphone), but you're also free to mess about with Iota, covering your avatar with anything you like and stamping your own unique identity on it.
Your creation realised, an in-game camera is on hand to document it for posterity. Like Dealspwn McLogoface and his trusty triclops pig here.
Much must be made of Media Molecule's attention to detail, since it's clear that Tearaway is packed with adorable little subtleties and hidden depths. Random forest mushrooms move 1:1 with the thumbsticks. Objects you create sometimes appear on hilarious portraits that you won't see if you don't rotate the camera around. Snowflakes can be painstakingly manually designed, resulting in a flurry of colourful paper that you created yourself. Bland white deer become bizarre self portraits when you create a texture for them using the Vita's rear-facing camera. Numerous hidden secrets abound when you stop to admire the scenery.
Continued play unlocks a selection of papercraft blueprints that can be downloaded, printed and assembled via a companion website. Tearaway is all about knocking down the barriers between worlds, and it's very much a two-way process.
In terms of presentation, the preview build is no slouch both graphically and artistically. Tearaway is sharp in any sense of the phrase, all perfect folds and crisp detail. Also, folk music fans will be delighted to learn that Tearaway's soundtrack consists of footstomping jigs and reels, occasionally with a hilarious hurdy-gurdy dubstep twist. This is perhaps one of my favourite sentences of all time.
I still have a couple of concerns about Tearaway. Later levels will need to include more imaginative ways to use the editor beyond just making a random object to stick on the scenery to progress, along with some more imaginative platforming challenges and enemies to circumvent. The potential is there, but Tearaway will need to realise it.
We'll find out whether Media Molecule can deliver in a scant few days... but if they do, the Vita may have its first truly essential original new IP, and a Christmas present worth bragging about.