Klonoa, Tomba, Pandamonium, Rayman, Megaman X7 & 8; the Playstation brand has been home to some of the most charming platformers ever created. This is a list that continues in perpetuity; a list that not only enumerates all of the exclusive platformers of the Playstation family of consoles, but one that makes a sizable contribution toward cataloging all of the games collectors chase down and pay top dollar for. A list too long to print in its entirety.
Puppeteer continues this trend by putting its first, and best, foot forward in an effort to elevate the platforming genre on Sony’s current gen console. Like Odin Sphere on the PS2 (or Burning Rangers on the Saturn, or Warrio World on the GameCube, or any number of other hangers-on), it debuts during a time that’s not traditionally friendly to daring new IPs. The PS3 is on the way out, making way for new and more exciting developments. Moving forward, all AAA titles, though appearing on PS3, will (mostly) be crossing the gap to PS4, as well. Money is being spent on preorders, and speculative launch-title mania. It’s during this time in a console’s life that wonderous adventures get overlooked in favor of what’s shiny and next gen. I’m here to ensure you don’t miss this particular piece of buried treasure.
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Words by James Bacon
Taking a look at Puppeteer’s pedigree, you need only a really rather elementary grasp of assessment in order to see the levels of charm, whimsy, wonder, and satisfaction you can expect from it. Japan Studio has helped craft the most memorable games of the PS2 era: ICO and Shadow of the Colossus (Team ICO), as well as Rogue Galaxy (Level-5); one of the single best experiences for Sony’s Vita – Gravity Rush (Project Siren); and in their loving hands lies the hope and dreams of video-gaming emotion-junkies, everywhere: The Last Guardian (also Team ICO).
While Puppeteer is far more lighthearted than any of the aforementioned titles, it shares with them the poignancy with which its emotional output has been crafted. You’ll smile genuine smiles, laugh warmly at situational humor and punny turns of phrase, and generally have the pants charmed right off you.
The plot goes something like this: The Moon Bear King (?), former subject of the Moon Princess, has decided it’s time to advance his career, and so he revolts, capturing the Princess and killing off her loyalists. He does this with the help of his twelve generals, with whom he shares the powerful White Moon Stone, by shattering it into pieces and distributing them, granting his corrupt cadre special powers. He then sets about stealing the souls of Earthbound children, sealing them within puppet bodies, and eventually either destroying them, or converting them to Grubs (his foot soldiers). Along comes Kutaro, the first boy to ever successfully climb the Tower of Despair, proving he is the chosen one, and setting out to reclaim Calibrus, a magical pair of scissors… but not before having his head pulled off by Mr. Bear King. Since he’s a puppet, he can substitute his bifurcated bean for other noggins just laying around, though! Enter, the gameplay mechanics.
As far as gameplay goes, well, you can only say so much about running to the right and jumping. The game forces you to use the analogue stick to move (as the D-pad has been reserved for switching heads and using their unique abilities), and this makes jumping and running feel a bit floaty. The animations contribute to this as well, since Kotaru doesn’t just walk through himself when you change directions (he actually turns himself around). Along with the decent physics engine, this makes Puppeteer feel a lot like Little Big Planet’s campaign platforming. Not a bad thing, by any means, but feeling the controls out will take a level or two.
The mechanics, however, are what set the game apart. What I expected, versus what was delivered, unfortunately exposes a disparaging deficit. I knew going in that the game functioned around the collection of heads, all with their own unique abilities. I was looking forward to, what I thought, would be a sort of updated version of Kid Chameleon. Heads that transform you into different creatures, all with different problem solving abilities. What I got was a game of Go Fish. You see, the heads don’t DO anything. If you press down on the D-pad, they all have a special animation (which is charming as HECK, and entirely endearing… even if it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting), but that’s it. You can activate certain special features throughout any given level (bonus rooms, or a wheel of misfortune, among other things) if you have the correct head and perform its animation in the proper spot, but since you’re only allowed to carry three at a time, you’ll find you get told to ‘go fish’ a lot.
The good news is that the game provides the variety I was looking for, but in a very limited capacity. At certain intervals you collect the heads of the Moon Princess’ most loyal subjects, all of which grant you a new ability. The knight’s head, for example, allows you to block attacks and redirect projectiles (there are also ninja bombs, and body slams, among others). These are not heads you have to collect more than once. As soon as you get them, usually after a boss battle, the ability it confers will be assigned to a button, and your gameplay will change from that point forward, combining with Calibrus to for truly intelligent puzzle moments. Calibrus is magical set of shears is able to change the environment around you by cutting through cloth. This is used in everything from boss battles to the aforementioned puzzles, and it opens up the game considerably. When you snip fabric, the scissors pull you along for the ride, making impossible jumps actually achievable… so long as you’re slicing skills are up to snuff. And this mechanic, more than any of the others, lends itself to the setting, and in brilliant fashion.
The game takes place on a stage. All of the platforms are set dressings, and all of the characters are puppet players. The game’s style looks like Little Big Planet meets Stacking, and it’s all done in the style of Japanese Bunraku. It is magical. Watching layered sets unfold and the interactions between elements; entire structures changing right in front of you to provide a different perspective. I was consistently impressed.
Many a great looking game has been undone by terrible voice acting, but that is not the case, here. The characters are full of personality only competent VO can provide, and the humor contained in the dialogue is only elevated by the delivery.
‘Risky’ is a bit of an understatement, considering this new IP has been launched at the tail end of a console generation. Far less charming games have done so, and succeeded… though not typically a timely success, usually involving the foisting of collectors prices upon hard to find hard-copies. It’s this sort of move that can sink a franchise, but Puppeteer rises above. Will it succeed commercially? Only time will tell. But should it not, and should you decide not to heed my advice and purchase it immediately, you’ll have missed out on yet another Klonoa. Another Burning Rangers. Another Odin Sphere.
Verdict: 7.5/10 (Good): Flighty controls and a largely disappointing ‘power ups’ system keep this game from perfection, but the pluck, vim, and vigor with which it delivers its special brand of performance art platforming will be remembered fondly for generations to come.