Sony pulls a few strings.
This looks familiar
A PlayStation 3 exclusive, a 2D platformer, with artistically arranged and charmingly lo-fi cardboard cut out sets, bearing a verbose English narrator at the helm and chock full of prattle, playfulness and whimsy?You’d be forgiven for thinking the description of Puppeteer bears more than a passing similarity to LittleBigPlanet.
In presentation and style it might evoke comparisons to Media Molecule’s creative level-builder, but in terms of story and gameplay themes it’s far closer to the Mega Drive’s Dynamite Headdy, with its puppet-based premise, a story of an evil King, and a protagonist with a detachable head. The game’s director, Gavin Moore, has even touted it as an early influence alongside the obvious Italian plumber-shaped genre benchmark as well as more interestingly old school shoot-‘em-ups like Parodius.
The puppetry theme is consistent, not merely a jumping off point. It pervades everything, rarely putting a foot wrong, with the narrator mischievously breaking the fourth wall throughout, playing to the audience as they laugh, cheer and applaud the absurdly comic drama unfolding.
The backdrop to the action is a series of well designed sets, often darkened and with your presence illuminated by a spotlight which follows your every movement. Even the pause menu is thematic, signalled by the drawing of the stage curtains and bearing the title “Intermission”.
Being designed for 2D and 3D displays (sadly I only viewed it in 2D), it’s easy to see why Moore favours the latter option, as the stage set-up and diorama-like design means a static viewpoint but lots of layers going into the screen and thus easily definable depth; helped also by the ever presence of the foot lights at the bottom of the screen, the curtains still visible at the top and on either side, boxing in proceedings in the foreground. Stage backdrops can flip up from behind or in front of the main plane, and objects can fly out of the screen towards the viewer.
The story is a dark fairytale of a maniacal Moon Bear King whose lust for power leads him to capture the souls of children.
You control Kutaro, a boy (in puppet form) without a head, aided in your journey by a floating ally, Picarina. A witch, a kidnapped princess, a magical pair of scissors and a shattered item of power handily leaving shards for you to collect marries the Hans Christian Andersen meets standard game design mash-up of Puppeteer, resulting in a journey to reclaim your head and soul via some charismatic platforming.
It’s billed as a one or two player game, with Move integration. Whosoever gets the wand must point Picarina around the stage, whilst the primary player will control Kutaro. It’s a nice asynchronous multiplayer that takes into account how children often prefer to play games - cooperatively but not identically. On the face of it, there’s a distinct pecking order in terms of who’ll take the lion’s share of the gameplay, but Picarina’s primary role is to investigate the environment, and player two is an ideal role for perhaps a younger sibling looking for interaction but without the pressure.
Heads I winYour first task is to find a new head, and in this world they work like lives. Taking damage will result in your noggin swiftly departing your shoulders; pick it back up before it disappears though and it’ll reattach with no penalty. Even running out of heads doesn’t mean all is lost, as the in-game coinage is Moonsparkles; collect 100 and you’ll come back to life even when you’re bereft of back-up bonces.Collecting heads isn’t just a stylised alternative to lives though, as they are utilised for interacting with certain contextual events.
Your introduction to this mechanic is a skeletal figure dropping from the rafters with a ribcage chock full of Moonsparkles. Simply choose the right head via the D-Pad and prompt its accompanying jig to trigger the event; in this case the bag of bones’ chest bursting and showering the collectible shards everywhere.
For all the inventiveness, it still feels very LBP in the opening sections
There are differences however. For one, there’s little of the Sackboy sponginess here, Kutaro is more an agile Pinocchio, jangly wooden limbs, with a timely jump, crouch and a roll manoeuvre your navigational mainstays. His sprightliness also lends a hand when you miss an edge as he’s able to grasp it and ping himself back to safety, Spiderman-style.
As you progress you also realise Puppeteer is designed around the tools you gain. The use of Calibrus, the enchanted scissors, is the main string to the gameplay bow. It gives you a weapon with which to not only fight the enemies (little boys who’ve been ensnared and cruelly transformed) but also to zip through levels and reach high places by snipping along objects and propelling yourself.
The puppet show premise, and the static camera complementing the 3D design, limit the scope of levels to some degree. It’s harder to make the hop, skip and jump of a platforming jaunt seem epic when focusing the viewer on a singular spot. Luckily the levels themselves get progressively more inventive to alleviate this issue. Some change backdrops sharply, whilst others elongate the basic left-to-right navigation by twisting the stage into the circles of a screw-like contraption.
The audio mirrors this creative multi-layering of effects. The orchestral backing swings from bright and breezy to moody and atmospheric, with the narrator’s delivery matching the tone. All the while, the audience cheer and applaud in time with the scenes’ crescendos. It’s well worth playing in 5.1 if you can.
An epic yarn?It’s not a very long game, with three curtains to each act and seven acts, most stages (curtains) are tethered to the 30 minute mark. Longevity is increased by the de facto issue of further non-narrative based criteria to meet. There are a certain amount of heads to be found, souls rescued and bonus stages to discover in each curtain, and on your first playtrough - even if this is a game intended for a younger audience - you won’t have amassed anywhere near the final amount. mainly because you’ll not have the correct heads at that point, so further playthroughs are necessary for completionists.
It’s extremely rare to find a game with an intelligent script and expansive audio that is willing to appeal to a broad market without dumbing down.
Moore’s claim last year that the game would run to 15 hours if you blasted through, and far longer if you wanted to find all the hidden items such as the 100+ heads, looks to have been vaguely right, but the story probably clocks in at closer to twelve hours. But what a twelve hours it is. It’s extremely rare to find a game with an intelligent script and expansive audio that is willing to appeal to a broad market without dumbing down. Puppeteer not only manages that feat, but it does so in style.
The script is sharp, akin to the classic mirthful Lucasarts adventure titles of yore, tongue wedged firmly in cheek. The art direction and character design tell the tales well for the younger gamer, but just about every puppet with a line to utter has something funny to say, and like Pixar’s take on the classic Disney themes, it’s done in a postmodern way. The narrator’s monologue linking obesity to socio-political history is the type of thing you slow your progress to hear. There are even achievements for listening to a few excessively lengthy background soliloquies in their entirety; no gimmick when the scripting is as highly polished and uniformly mischievous as it is here.
It’s razor sharp, and bursting with cheeky asides, all heightened by some top notch voice acting, particularly Stephen Grief as the narrator Professor Gregorious T Oswald - dialling in to just the right tone of hamminess with lines like “But those vividly luscious days are lost...like frogs in a blender”.The levels are the perfect backdrop for this fine dialogue, they bounce around with absurdity that’s built from familiar movie themes. Disney, Lewis Carroll, Pirates of the Caribbean and Tim Burton all find themselves evoked or parodied to some extent.
The musical interludes could be a bridge too far, but that’s a matter of taste. For me, the icing on the cake was a 2001 reference that, frankly, I was not expecting to see.
That’s the strength of Puppeteer, it’s so crammed full of ideas that you don’t look too closely at the gameplay, which is every inch aimed towards children. The various tools assembled, like a shield and bombs indicate a level of strategy that isn’t really there for adults. Levels don’t punish, instead they gently nudge the player, giving every indication what they need to do before the time arrives. Only the boss fights differ in challenging by way of the standard routine of learning attack patterns before striking, followed by the growing phenomenon of ending with a volley of quick time events.
If that sounds like a criticism, it really isn’t. Puppeteer is designed to be safe in gameplay terms and cinematically thrilling. There are so many narrative ideas swirling around that each act could probably have been elongated into a game in its own right.
- Visually creative
- Sharp script
- Atmospheric audio
- Fun factor
- Very easy to beat
Puppeteer PS3 ReviewPuppeteer may have been designed as a children’s game, but it’s got universal appeal written all over it.
Like a great Pixar film, it is able to be all things to all people, accessible for the kids but giving enough of a knowing wink and a smart line to the adults to keep them interested, if not entranced.
It’s safe and simple in platforming terms, but capably offsets this for even the older gamers thanks to its presentation; brimming with artistic verve, great voice acting and an intelligently humorous script that draws you in, it has a charm that’s hard to fault.
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