It’s safe to say that while the people at Nintendo sit in their chairs and twiddle their thumbs as they churn out “new” 2D Mario games that lack enthusiasm, innovative ideas and fresh gameplay twists that fans love the company for, the rest of the gaming development world are still coming up with fantastic designs and presentations for a genre that first started its life in the early 1980s. We’ve already had the amazing Rayman Legends by the team at Ubisoft Montpellier, which ended up being one of my favourite platformers in the last 15 years. But that shouldn’t be the only game on your radar, because for the last two years, a company has been working away in a studio crafting a little title called Puppeteer that you may remember was first shown off at Gamescom 2012 and caused quite a stir thanks to its unforgettable theatre and puppeteer aesthetics.
And I’ll be honest, after the first couple of hours with the game, the aesthetics were still in my mind. The artwork on display in Puppeteer is amazingly well crafted. This is truly a distinctive style that manages to capture to heart of puppet theatrics and render them into a video game foundation. It’s like watching a show when you were a kid and having a jolly good time with loveable puppets. The game never stumbles over with its presentation. Everything is set on a stage in a show house, with the audience sitting down below, cheering when the red curtains open or laughing and booing at the action on stage, the atmosphere is wonderfully captured and the animation is delightfully crafted to represent the stiffness of puppetry. Watching the characters bop around on stage, singing and dancing in one act, crying for their lives in another, is all so charming and heart-warming, especially if you grow tired of the death and destruction in video games.
Puppeteer tells the story of one little boy named Kutaro, a silent protagonist, who has had his soul captured by the evil Moon Bear King, a devilish individual who transforms kids into puppet slaves to guard his castle. Kutaro has just been converted from his human form, but luckily (I guess you could call it that?) for him, he ends up having his head chomped off and his body cast aside for waste. Fortune has blessed itself on little Kutaro, as thanks to help from a new friend, the magical talking cat, Ying-Yang, Kutaro finds a replacement head and aims to escape from the castle with one of the Moon Bear King’s prize possessions, a pair of magical scissors called Calibus, and then use that power to save the kingdom.
The story is helped along by strong voice acting and a well written script. A narrator is used to tell the audience (and player) the plot. This storyteller has a stronger focus in the game compared to Sony’s other 2D platformer LittleBigPlanet, as the narrator always has something to tell. The banter between the characters and the narrator, and the scripted scenes where the characters go off on tangents, bickering over small little things, and even breaking the fourth wall on numerous occasions, are invoking the essence of theatre play. It wouldn’t surprise me if the team spent time watching puppet shows and theatre plays, and noted down every formula from that entertainment medium to use in Puppeteer.
The presentation is even stamped into the DNA of the level design. Puppeteer is rapidly switching its background, slotting away a piece of the level and propping down the next one with a loud clunk, as the scenery falls into place, allowing Kutaro to continue on with his adventure. It’s a design that I haven’t ever seen happen before, let alone in a platformer. I hear that when Puppeteer is played in 3D it’s an amazing showcase for the effect. Each of the game’s seven acts (each one includes three lengthy stages) are based on a theme, such as a castle, the woods, the moon, and even pirates. Water is made from thin pieces of paper, while clouds and petals float around as coloured cut-out shapes and the trees are held up by metal rods. A lot of care has gone into making sure Puppeteer stays within the boundaries of its theme, and every one of those themes manages to standout, thanks to the creative imagination.
But a problem arises from all this work done on encapsulating theatre – the game loves to talk too much. You might remember that I had an issue with the forced cutscenes in DuckTales: Remastered, and in Puppeteer this is taken to the extreme, dragging you out with minute long cutscenes. When it comes to platforming games, I like to be able to get through a stage without interruption. I find that if you’re forcing the player with so much stop-starting in a 2D platformer that you end up stopping the flow of the gameplay. I don’t have a problem with Puppeteer’s lengthy intro and endings to the chapters; I just wish that it wasn’t so full of moments that pull you from the action.
Puppeteer is a magnificently presented game crafted with love by Sony’s Japan Studio, but what about the gameplay? You’ll be doing lots of jumping, and Kutaro’s handling feels comparable to LittleBigPlanet – there is an essence of floaty jumping that keeps you in the air and removes that ideal precision that you get with platformers with more responsive controls. It’s not a problem for most of the game, but on rare occasions where you need that accuracy, it can be a pain to hit the specific point you’re aiming for. The game is simple to understand. There is never anything too complex; you’re a puppet boy, and you jump and cut things – easy enough to understand for anyone of any age.
Alongside Kutaro is his little fairy buddy, Pikarina. She acts similar to the Star Pointer feature in Super Mario Galaxy, except with way more character and the ability to interact with the environment. Pikarina is controlled with the right stick, like a mouse cursor, and the R2 button is used to activate hidden areas or trigger objects in the background that will lead to little charming animations. You will also use the red-haired princess to find moon pieces, glowing yellow bits that are littered in every nook and cranny. Collect 100 of these and you’ll gain an extra life. Lives never seemed to be a problem in Puppeteer (thanks to all the moon pieces scattered around), and the life counter just feels like a meaningless number.
Kutaro has two powers at his disposal, head switching and the command of Calibus. Replacement heads are found in the game’s levels, with up to three stocked within Kutaro’s arsenal at any one time. Heads also act as hit points. If poor Kutaro is touched, his head will roll off his shoulders and the player will be given a limited time to retrieve it. Lose all three and a life is lost. The three heads can be switched at any time, a mechanic that is wired into finding even more secrets. These are hinted at by the glowing head symbols. Apart from that, many of the heads look cosmetically cute on Kutaro, but aren’t useful. I wish the heads offered much more functionality, such as contribution to Kutaro’s skills, rather than having its usefulness sealed away thanks to the game design.
On my first playthrough, I often found myself never having the correct head – unless forced upon for story reasons – that it made finding the secrets rather awkward and frustrating. There is no way to equip a head before a level, which is strange because there is a head gallery that shows you every head you’ve collected from all the game’s acts. The only way you can change your heads is by finding additional heads within a level that will replace one of the three you have equipped, so you have to be careful not to accidentally replace the one you want to keep.
Calibus is a key mechanic in Puppeteer’s gameplay. As soon as you pick the magic scissors, the gameplay begins to include various actions for them and opens up thrilling twists on the typical 2D platforming. They are also Kutaro’s only way to attack. Enemies die within a chop or two, leaving behind a soul trapped in a balloon that you need to cut to collect. Calibus adds additional mobility to Kutaro, allowing him to cut through scenery to keep him travelling through the air. Kutaro will find himself cutting through leaves, clouds and flags, all made out of prop materials.
What makes Calibus neat is how its worked into scripted scenes, such as fighting one of the many awesome boss fights. For example (mild spoiler alert!), you’ll have to tap square to ride along trails of rope that follow up through a snake’s spine. It’s these reckless scenarios that Kutaro finds himself in that lead to some of the best parts of the game. Even the mini-bosses are quite fun, despite all of them being defeated by cutting their cloth off. Luckily, the bouts are designed with an assortment of tasks to mask the repetition.
Kutaro gets access to additional powers as you continue to work your way through the game, such as a shield that can reflect attacks, a rope that is used to pull objects towards him and ninja bombs that offer a way to explode blockades and remove other dangerous substances. These are often mixed with Calibus to offer inspiring puzzles for a platforming game. These won’t get anyone stuck – they are fairly easy to understand – but their execution is cleverly crafted that you will enjoy every part of solving them.
Puppeteer is a superb demonstration of one team’s imagination let loose on the stage. The presentation is through the roof, encapsulating everything about puppet shows and crafting a game with a distinctive look like no other out there. While the gameplay doesn’t quite match the graphics of the game, or the excellent execution of Rayman Legends, Puppeteer is a title that should be looked at differently, a game that wants to take the player for a ride through the wonderful world of puppetry, a one of a kind platformer and experience that you won’t find anywhere else but on Sony’s PlayStation 3.