Puppeteer is one of those games that will become beloved in a year. Not because it’s a “cult classic” type of experience, but because it’s being released at the end of a generation during one of the busiest release schedules in recent memory. A week before its release, we had the similarly inventive Rayman Legends, five days later they’ll be a title going after the same market in Wonderful 101 and, of course, the unstoppable Grand Theft Auto V is coming just a few days after that. While there’s really no other title like Puppeteer out there, it’s the sort of game that’s easy to ignore upon its initial release in the face of commanding competitors. To help combat this, Sony is shrewdly releasing the title at the discount MSRP of $39.99, hoping that gamers buy first and play later. No matter how one finally experiences Puppeteer, however, there’s little doubt that it will eventually become a revered little property thanks its huge imagination and even larger heart.
The story begins long ago when the moon realm was ruled by a beautiful goddess. Everything was as it should be until one day Little Bear stole two of his mistress’s most precious possessions: the black moon stone and a magic pair of scissors known as “Calibrus.” After declaring himself
Man Bear Pig Moon Bear King, he invaded her castle, smashed the white moon stone to pieces and obliterated her. He then gave a piece to each of his generals, including a giant snake and tiger. Now living in the castle and ruling the realm, Moon Bear King wanted to ensure things stayed as they were, so stole the spirits of children and locked them inside puppets doomed to defend the castle and do his bidding. One day, a boy named Kutaro is captured and before he knows it, has his head ripped off and eaten by Moon Bear King. His body is discarded into the depths of the castle’s dungeons where he is soon assisted by a magical cat named Ying Yang, who is an obedient servant of a witch. While the witch acts like she is trying to help Kutaro, her appearance, candor and secret monologues suggest that she has ulterior motives. She sets Kutaro on a quest to retrieve both the Calibrus and white moon stone pieces in the guise of restoring the world, when she really just wants to rule it herself.
Puppeteer is basically the most elaborate play ever staged. While everything seems to be happening in reality, there’s a constant stage, narrator, audience and obvious props in the background. There’s even points in the game where characters refer to the fact that they are self-aware, like one scene where the Sun Princess asks for the removal of a giant frog who is overacting. This creates a charming tongue-in-cheek like atmosphere where literally anything can happen. While the dialogue is thoroughly hilarious, the style does lead to things becoming a bit too hyperactive. From the moment the curtain raises (literally), the story hardly takes a moment to breath. There’s an enormous amount of untraditional backstory in a matter of minutes and there’s rarely a moment after that without dialogue. Besides the epilogue and prologues, there’s a skit before, during and after every boss battle. If that weren’t enough, the narrator is constantly giving backstory during the levels themselves and your companion also frequently makes little quips.
This amount of story is appreciated, but the fact that it’s constantly ongoing makes it hard to follow. Trying to navigate some of the trickiest parts of the level while concurrently following what the narrator is saying is difficult for even the best multitaskers. It wouldn’t be so confusing if not for the fact that game constantly skips around and adds new characters, making it so missing just a few lines of dialogue can halt comprehension of the story. While this can make things convoluted, the story itself does at least make sense. I attempted a second playthrough where I paused in the midst of conversations and levels when the narrator began speaking to process the events and everything began to make more sense. On a side note, the default audio is unbalanced and makes it even harder to hear the dialogue amidst the constant music and sound effects, so turning down everything but the narrator and characters will also assist in picking up all of the details.
Gameplay itself is an interesting take on traditional side-scrolling mechanics. Kutaro can first only jump, roll and duck, with more abilities added as the game progresses. These include being able to throw bombs to get rid of enemies and objects blocking the way, sending out a hookclaw to grab onto ledges and pull things, and executing a body slam attack. The most unique thing about gameplay, however, is the use of the Calibrus. The Calibrus are giant magical scissors that can be used to both dispose of enemies and navigate through levels. There’s portions that are only accessible by cutting through things like rope, flags, banners, leaves and more. So long as there’s something to cut, Kutaro stays in the air by mashing the square button. Sky Cut adds even more diversity to this element when its unlocked, allowing Kutaro to pause in midair after cutting something and vault forward. It’s an enjoyable mechanic that especially shines in boss battles, where sometimes Kutaro must cut hundreds of feet into the air to reach the brute.
Another interesting feature is that Kutaro doesn’t have a constant head. As his noggin is currently being digested by a giant moon bear king, he has to rely on heads found throughout the environment. There’s near a hundred heads in all, all quite diverse and mostly hilarious (be sure to read the descriptions in your head collection for even more hilarity). There’s bats, spiders, squids, taiko drums, guillotines and even submarines. If Kutaro takes damage, the head pops off and must be reclaimed within a few seconds before disappearing forever. If Kutaro loses all three heads, he loses a life. Besides acting as lives, heads can also unlock secrets in levels, such as bonus stages and prize wheels. The head system is awesome, both imaginative and a completionist’s dream, with tons of backtracking required to unlock them all. The only issue is that heads can not be swapped out and default to whatever head randomly pops out of a spawning point. As the secrets require a certain head action to be unlocked, it can be frustrating to know that you have the head, but just don’t currently have it with you. Some sort of system allowing you to swap heads on the fly would have been preferable.
Visually, the game is exquisite. It utilizes a very unique art-style that frames characters larger than life in a constructed/fake sort of way that is somewhat reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet, yet very original. Taking notice of how background objects like clouds are actually held up by sticks is humorous and characters bursting into the screen make it a perfect candidate for playing in 3D. Because everything takes place on a stage, environments don’t generally scroll. Each part of a level is typically a room that fills the screen that must be conquered to get to the next one. Longer levels were cleverly designed to wrap around an object like a tree trunk, allowing for a continuous platforming experience while still technically never leaving the same field of vision. Environments range from jumping across a snake’s back in a desert to climbing up the masts of a pirate ship, making each act wholly unique from the last. Making the most of the environments are constant companions such as the flying cat, Ying Yang, or the absolutely adorable Sun Princess, who can be moved around with the right stick to investigate objects by tapping R2. Some objects release Moonsparkles (a hundred of which add up to an extra life), while others release heads or other secrets. A second player can optionally control the companion, but no matter what method is used, it adds an extra layer of depth to gameplay.
Coming out at a budget price amidst an onslaught of quality titles, Puppeteer is one of the biggest surprises of the year. With multiple acts full of robust stages, unlockable picture books, tons of collectable heads and bonus levels, it’s a substantial platformer that commands attention with unique gameplay mechanics and clever level design. While the story is too hyperactive for its own good and the narration is constantly distracting, the dialogue that’s heard can be quite charming and even hilarious at times. Another winner for JapanStudio, Puppeteer is a strong addition to Sony’s increasingly impressive stable of first-party franchises.
Platform: PlayStation 3