Do you remember a small game that was released a few years ago on the Playstation Network called Noby Noby Boy? It was made by the creator of Katamari Damacy and as weird as you might expect. Many argued that Noby Noby Boy’s simplistic gameplay was more like a toy than an actual game—but that didn’t make it any less fun to play. Sometimes as gamers, however, we come across titles that aren’t as fun as they are serious. While still containing enough jumping or flying or shooting to be classified as games, these titles have you come out at the other end feeling like you have witnessed something more entirely. Papo & Yo is another unique addition to that library that is sure to divide critics on where it succeeds as a game and where it succeeds as something more.
The inspiration behind Papo & Yo has been its biggest talking point coming into release. Creator Vander Caballero is quite open in saying that the game was inspired by his troubled childhood with an alcoholic father. The story opens with a child, Quico, cowering in a dark closet hiding from a shadowy monster. Quico retreats into his imagination through a glowing door to a world full of life and color. In this world, Quico is looking to cure his friend Monster of a deadly addiction. Normally Monster is kind and gentle but he has an addiction to eating these poisonous green frogs; as soon as he eats a frog he storms into a rage and tries to kill anything in his path—even Quico.
As you can tell, the symbolism isn’t thinly veiled. While playing, I felt that Papo & Yo would make a great children’s book or movie despite how mature the underlying content was. Though the story gets dark at moments, you are still wrapped up in the child-like beauty of the world and each new section of the game is like turning a page. You might not think such content is fitting for something like a kid’s book, but keep in mind that this subject isn’t uncommon in the world. Anyone who has experienced a troubled childhood is likely to feel a chill run down their spine at how cathartic of an experience this is. It says a lot for video games when alcoholism and child abuse are the driving points behind the plot of a game. These are intensely mature and personal themes and the fact that Papo & Yo handles them with such care shows just how far the medium has come.
It’s strange to say that the most upsetting thing about the game isn’t actually related to the story but to how the game plays. Papo &Yo is a puzzle platformer but by no means is it that difficult of a game to play. Quico runs around levels activating switches and levers that manipulate the environment allowing access to previously unreachable areas (or even more switches and levers). While this mechanic isn’t anything new, the problem is that it becomes far too repetitive. Additionally, the solutions to puzzles are often revealed by a white chalk line connecting two points or by an obvious camera pan. Platforming segments aren’t particularly great due to awkward jumping and can definitely be frustrating if you fall and are forced to backtrack. What saves the puzzles is the art direction. Sometimes, activating a switch will cause a building to suddenly come alive and sprout legs or wings. In another instance part of the level might peel away or fly off into the sky making for stunning moments. You might also notice the wonderful sound direction while trying to solve a puzzle. In fact, the soundtrack is one of the standouts of the year. As you move closer and closer to solving an area the music will add layers of new sounds and instruments. By the time I was nearing a final climb or jump I took a moment to take in how great the music was. If it wasn’t for all this originality bleeding into the actual gameplay then Papo & Yo would be dead in the water.
Make no mistake: the South American setting is beautiful in concept. Seeing rundown favellas sprout to life never got old. Enormous and original graffiti art litters the sides of buildings. You even get a moment where the entire world folds onto itself (à la Inception) and then breaks off in enormous floating chunks. Quico’s imagination is anything but bland, yet is complimented by some subpar graphics and a host of technical issues. Monster might get stuck in the environment or Quico will clip through objects (even the world) forcing you to restart from a previous checkpoint. Frame rate hitches and some ugly close up textures only affect the product slightly but I couldn’t help but wonder how amazing it might have looked on the Uncharted engine.
Papo & Yo is one of those difficult games to review because of how untraditional it is. Where one might make the argument that gamers are merely playing through Caballero’s own therapy session at the expense of the gameplay, another might argue that the experience is unlike anything ever presented in a game and worth every penny. The game does suffer in a few departments—there is no getting around that. Would consistent graphics and a wider variety of puzzles and gameplay help? Certainly. I would be lying if I said that there weren’t a few moments where I just wanted a section to end so I could move onto the next area. But it’s that drive to see what the game will give you next that makes it a journey in the first place. You want to save Quico from Monster and, in turn, his father because the story is so deeply personal and sucks you in. Quico and Caballero’s struggle becomes ours because as humans and as players we don’t want to see suffering; and that is powerful storytelling. More than anything Papo & Yofits the growing trend of games that aren’t just about having fun. It shows that adult concepts and dark themes can be molded into an experience that you not only play, but that you feel. And to me, that makes it a resounding success.