- Format: PS3
- Unleashed: Out Now (NA), September 13th (EU)
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developer: Sony Japan Studio
- Players: 1-2 (offline only)
- Site: http://uk.playstation.com/puppeteer/
“All the world’s a stage, and the decapitated children and talking animals in it merely players”. So wrote Shakespeare (or so that English teacher claimed shortly before being taken for a long holiday). This is a philosophy that Puppeteer takes quite literally. There are no levels; rather, seven ‘Acts’ each consisting of three ‘Scenes’. Curtains close and open to present and end each play session. And, of course, every character and all the backgrounds are designed and coloured to look like this is all taking place in a puppet theatre. But does that mean this game offers fun with (wait for it) no strings attached?
Presuming you’ve wiped away the final tear of laughter from our hilarious joke, we’d like to tell you about the story. You jump into the wooden shoes of Kutaro, one of hundreds of young children snatched from Earth to have their souls stuffed into puppets. Kutaro quickly becomes more than just another victim however, as the legendary pair of magical scissors (yes) known as Calibris chooses him to wield, er, it. Armed with this power that allows him to cut through enemies and the environment alike, he sets off to recover his soul while… princess… defeat the villain… rescue children… you get the idea.
We’re being rather harsh on the story. While riddled with clichés (and with an ending so saccharine it may well make you physically sick), it is extremely well told. Your arch-nemesis the moon bear king, for example, is a pleasingly vicious pantomime villain. The constant narration – expertly delivered – is welcome too, adding no end to the unique and slightly surreal atmosphere. This is a game that clearly has a team of people with passion and talent for children’s entertainment behind it and, to top it all off, the voice cast is full of people with years of experience in TV – usually including plenty of voice work for young children’s shows.
We can avoid the subject no longer; yes, this is a great looking game. The art design is superb, resulting in a game that not only looks largely unique, but also unstoppably impressive. Characters’ mouths move, but the lip sync is terrible. This is entirely intentional, of course – they’re puppets! As it’s a world of cardboard, wood and cloth, there are immediate and unavoidable comparisons with the LittleBigPlanet games to be made. In fact, the one flaw in the design is that strings and sticks are only visible at seemingly random moments.
Given the now long-established aesthetic of Media Molecule’s baby, Puppeteer can at times look like a DLC pack for any one of Sackboy’s adventures. There is one final aspect of the graphics which can set them firmly apart from those of LBP, however. It quickly becomes obvious that a lot of thought, time and money has been put into optimising this game for 3D displays. Characters and objects fly off the stage and into the ‘audience’ at every opportunity, offering brief glances at just how much detail there is in their designs. It seems rather bizarre to have concentrated so hard on this, however; only a very small percentage of people play in 3D, and the percentage of children who play in 3D is smaller still.
Over halfway into the review, and we haven’t touched on how the game plays. This is because, were Puppeteer not so visually enchanting (backed with a rich, dramatic soundtrack that would sit comfortably in any big-budget kids’ movie), the basic and slightly awkward nature of the gameplay would be a far more obvious and pressing problem.
This game is a 2D platformer at heart. You’ll be running, jumping, sliding, and collecting shiny things (being rewarded with an extra life for every 100 of course). The magical scissors mix things up a bit, certainly. As well as being a weapon, they’re also a mode of transportation; cut through the environment when allowed to move up, down, and, well… any direction needed, really. You’ll therefore cut to attack, cut to move, cut to solve puzzles… it’s a mechanic that works well, but it does mean you spend more of the game than is perhaps healthy tapping the square button.
Not long after you begin, you’re introduced to the fact that as you were rudely decapitated there are various heads to be found within the game – 100 total – each with a unique action. This potential is flushed down the toilet thanks to the game’s unflinching linearity. Each head’s action is only useful at strictly determined points, and even then will usually simply unlock a bonus stage or drop a handful of extra shiny collectables.
This is a game aimed firmly at the younger end of the market. Not only because of the pantomime presentation, but also because there is very little challenge for adults (we finished the game with almost forty extra lives in tow). There are even unlockable animated picture books. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with the inconsistency in checkpoints (too forgiving or not nearly forgiving enough) and, especially in the final Act, poorly judged difficulty spikes that will doubtless lead to some frustrated young players.
Perhaps this is why Kutaro is joined by a floating companion (the appealing character at the beginning quickly replaced by an amazingly annoying fairy). Playing solo you control them with the right stick – or a second player, using Move, can whisk this invulnerable character about the screen to tinker with the background and help Kutaro now and again. Think Mario Galaxy’s ‘co-star’.
Puppeteer knows how to tell a story like a master, but not how to back it up with an equally inventive and impressive game. Most frustratingly of all the penultimate, Alice In Wonderland-inspired Act offers a peek at the holistically gripping (yet trickier) experience this could’ve been. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination; but don’t expect hunger for an encore once the show’s over.