Sony‘s Japan Studio has been involved with some of the more unique games from this generation. Titles like Gravity Rush, Tokyo Jungle, Demon’s Souls and even the upcoming Knack all possess that certain flair recognizable with the studio. Their newest effort, Puppeteer, is just as bold and just as different -nothing anyone wouldn’t expect. Nontraditional as it may seem, Puppeteer is chock full of risk with just as much reward.
All the world is a stage in Puppeteer. Much like last year’s Black Knight Sword, the entire game is framed as a play unfolding in what could only be a miles deep stage. Red curtains and spotlights are always present throughout the journey and one of the few constant reminders to the player that all the characters are merely actors fulfilling a role. In light of that, those actors are never hollow and the story is never by-the-book. Players take on the role of Kutaro, a boy who has been transformed into a puppet and had his head ripped off by the tyrannical Moon Bear King. With the help of the Moon Witch and the cat Ying Yang, Kutaro must retrieve a magical pair of scissors named Calibrus. Using Calibrus, Kutaro will cut his way through Moon Bear King and his generals to rescue the Moon from the havoc they have caused.
At it’s heart, Puppeteer is a youthful story full of evil, threatening animals ensnaring the souls of children and ruining a colorful, happy world. It borrows formulas from the best children’s tales but isn’t chained to them. Instead, Puppeteer is a game that never feels too childish and never too mature. Striking that balance allows for some all-ages humor plus a few jokes that would go over a kid’s head while they sit there google-eyed at the bright colors and moving worlds. It might be because of those elements that some of the more “hardcore” gamers will be turned off by the story. Instead of being cute and whimsical, characters could be just plain annoying with their high-pitched or overacted voices. While some parts are unavoidable, those who get exhausted from the lengthy cutscenes have the option to skip them and dive right back into the gameplay.
The game’s script is notably strong. Even if Moon Bears and Sun Princesses are someone’s cup of tea, the playful dialogue never misses a beat. Puppeteer has a narrator who takes most of the storytelling reigns. Puns, conversations with characters and even a few great bits of fourth wall breaking are natural and never forced. When all these elements combine, it’s difficult to not appreciate the care that went into setting Puppeteer’s stage.
Though dubbed as a platformer, Puppeteer’s traditional platforming elements might be its weakest. Kutaro is able to jump and dodge over all sorts of obstacles but it often doesn’t mesh well. Nailing jumps is not an exact science, especially when covering large distances with objects that make Kutaro bounce higher. Some sections of the game make this flaw painfully apparent; more often than not, though, it’s because the other mechanics of Puppeteer just feel more unique and fresh.
Because Kutaro was decapitated, he must find a head. Dozens of heads are found throughout the game and they serve as both health and gameplay aid. Kutaro can have up to three heads at one time, selectable with the directional pad. Each head has a special action which is activated by pressing down on the d-pad. For the most part, the special action only results in a cute animation specific to the head. The bat head tries to fly away, the pirate ship head shoots out a cannonball and so on. The real purpose of these special heads is that, when used in the right location, they will activate something or take the player to a bonus level. Bonus levels are a timed distraction that will help the player collect Moon Stone shards (100 equals an extra life). But if the player has the right head during a boss fight, activating it can result in some assistance that will help skip part of the fight. While it isn’t required for advancement, the player is encouraged to revisit areas with the right combination of heads so they can see what happens when activated. When he is hit, Kutaro literally loses his head as it bounces away. Much like Sonic and his rings, the player only has a few moments to recover the head before it is lost forever. This can often result in mad recovery dashes to not only keep a head but keep the right head needed for a level. In a way, this system causes the game to skew a little towards the easy side. If Kutaro or the head falls down a pit it means an instant loss, but because heads are easy enough to obtain or recover, the player won’t lose many lives.
After obtaining Calibrus during the opening moments of the game, things really open up. Calibrus is one of the best methods of transportation in the game. Things like smoke trails or leaves on a tree can but cut by the magical scissors and cutting along them will allow the player to cross large distances. When Calibrus is used as a kind of zip line or to navigate long sections, it results in tense moments of dodging obstacles and picking the right path to take. The scissors are also a major part of boss fights because different pieces of them will need to be severed. It gets a bit overused in the form of capes and cloths but still feels fun to do and looks incredibly cool. Boss fights are large and epic affairs that can sometimes span entire levels. From the first world to the end, bosses never truly disappoint but it is a shame that most of them end with a quick time event.
Throughout the course of the game, Kutaro gains new powers like the ability to throw bombs, latch on to and pull hooks, body slam enemies and block attacks. The primary purpose of these abilities is to defeat enemies or progress through levels. However, there are many opportunities for backtracking in earlier stages and opening up new areas or discovering hidden heads. It’s a nice way to extend the game and inject variety into the gameplay. The player is also encouraged to spend time interacting with the environment. By using the right stick and R2 button, the player can move around the scenery and “investigate” certain points of interest. Usually some Moon Stone shards will pop out, other times it will reward a new head or just a cool animation. It isn’t crucial to the game but it provides just another reason to pay attention to the well-crafted worlds.
Graphics & Sound
And what a world it is. Puppeteer could have taken its play and stage theme too literally and obscured the screen with curtains and a bunch of other busy things. Instead, it’s executed in a way that feels natural and appropriate. The movie Coraline comes to mind when thinking of an initial reference point for the game’s general look. While the characters and art style have that three-dimensional claymation feel, much of it has a more “papery” feel – after all, we are dealing with things that can be cut to ribbons by magical scissors. It might not be a graphical marvel because some models don’t look as great closer up but it never muddies the look.
Having a game with creative characters and some unique worlds is easy enough to do. How Puppeteer sets itself apart is in some impeccable scene direction and environmental design. Each stage is full of so many moving pieces and watching them all pop into place to create these sprawling levels is incredible. Rarely does a screen transition into one where everything is already in place. At first, the mechanic seemed like a gimmick where it would allow the player to see the next section of a level in the background. Within the course of a few minutes, the game truly embraces how it unfolds a scene or a world to the player. A typical forest or underwater or Wild West level becomes this collage of interesting pieces and clever secrets. Seeing it in motion absolutely never gets old and it is one of the coolest effects used in any game.
It might not be until the player falls underwater and is treated to a lengthy song from some mermaids that they finally begin to appreciate the work that has gone into Puppeteer’s audio. On a general level the soundtrack is quality. World themes are good and they fit with the environments. But that isn’t where the audio presentation shines. The voice cast fires at all cylinders when working with an excellent script. Knowing when something is well acted or well voiced is easy enough. Here it sounds like everyone is just having a great time. Jokes that could come off stupid or amateur are delivered in a way that will make anyone laugh.
On the most basic level it is easy to recommend Puppeteer because it has a budget price tag of $40. That cheaper price in no way represents a cheaper experience. Without a doubt, Puppeteer shines quite brightly among an already great year for Sony exclusives. The pedigree of Japan Studio should have erased any doubt that the game wouldn’t be a creative experience. It may have some rough edges but Puppeteer manages to be fun enough to support its brilliant art design. A great approach to platforming with Calibrus and the large variety of heads and powers will give plenty of reason to keep Puppeteer around for awhile. Hopefully it isn’t too long before we get to see where else the world can take us.