Puppeteer

An enjoyable night at the theatre.

Something I’ll always give Sony credit for, it’s their alacrity to take a chance with new types of game experiences. Even with the impending launch of their next-generation PlayStation, Sony’s commitment in this area endures, paving the way for games such as the unique platformer, Puppeteer.

Puppeteer tells the story of Kutaro, a young boy who’s stolen away from his bed in the middle of the night and whisked away to the moon, where he’s transformed into a puppet by the nefarious Moon Bear King. The Moon Bear King, as it so happens, usurped the moon from the Moon Goddess three years prior, in which time he’s made a habit of taking the souls of Earth’s children to feed his evil power. But winds of change are blowing, and even with his head cut off, Kutaro takes up a magical pair of scissors called Calibrus and sets out on an epic journey to restore peace and defeat the Moon Bear King.

Set within the Magical Theatre, a unique and wonderful setting for a game if there ever was one, the events of the story play out like some soft of interactive stage show; complete with wooden puppets and cardboard set pieces held up with stage poles, and even a word-wise narrator (voiced by Stephen Greif) who does an incredible job of framing the action on-screen, and more than once providing a few chuckles of his own. It’s all fairly charming, and alongside the story filled with its numerous literary reference and colorful, well-written characters, Puppeteer is sure to bring a smile to any who plays it.

Likewise, the visual aesthetic of the game — thanks to the stage show design — is nothing short of remarkable and is simply a treat to watch as level environments continually unfold and change. There’s always something happening on-screen, be it the backdrop moving and shifting as you progress, or just the smallest of details which help bring the vivid world of Puppeteer, and its delightful cast of characters, more to life. Much like the story, the character design and visual makeup is a masterstroke in game design, one that uses the full power of the PlayStation 3 to create a bold artistic statement.

While both Puppeteer’s story and visual design deserves considerable praise, it’s the inconsistent platforming gameplay that’s sadly the weakest pillar here. However, to its credit, the game does endeavour something new and unique in this tired genre. The crux of which lies in the aforementioned magic scissors, Calibrus.

With these mighty shears in hand, its most basic function allows Kutaro to slice and dice through enemies and environmental objects alike. Beyond this, Kutaro is able to snip through the air by cutting into puffs of smoke, feathers, and dangling flags, making clearing large gaps childs play. This made way for some intriguing level designs, with the standard “go always right” flipped on its head. As a whole, it’s certainly an interesting mechanic and one that with perhaps a little more polish could had set a new standard for the genre.

What ultimately holds Puppeteer’ back from this goal it back is the basic platforming, which feels loose and unrefined. You’ll find none of the fluid and responsive platforming goodness the likes of Super Mario or Rayman are known for, instead, you’ll experience that same feeling of ‘hit or miss’ prevalent in Sony’s own LittleBigPlanet. Every time I tried to make a daring jump, Calibrus or not, I often found myself pummeling to a very “cheap” death, where after a while I began to dread the sight of platforms. Certainly, something you don’t want to feel while playing a platformer.

And the cause of Puppeteer’s shaky platforming I believe lies in its own desire to try something different, which it does indeed succeed in doing to a point. Alongside Calibrus, there’s also four special abilities Kutaro comes to obtaining as you progress through the game; blocking shield, bomb, giant stomp and hookshot. All interject a refreshing change to the flow of gameplay, but ultimately do nothing to save the underlying issue facing its platforming action.

These problems aside, by no means, is Puppeteer rubbish when it comes to gameplay. It’s ultimately still a joy to play, and when you factor in the replayability thanks to the numerous bonus stages, storybooks and collectable heads — which serve as replacements for Kutaro’s own missing head — there’s certainly a lot to keep you engaged. Though it’s a bit of a shame the aforementioned collectable heads don’t feature their own special ability, instead, they serve as keys to unlocking the bonus stages hidden through the game.

Puppeteer is a masterstroke of game design, one that beautifully blends a strong visual presence with an outstanding narrative. What holds it back is the unbalanced gameplay, which in its attempt to bring new and unique ideas, falls short of offering the tight, fluid experience we’ve come expect from the platforming genre.

But this shouldn’t put you off. If you own a PlayStation 3 you still owe yourself a night-in at The Magical Theatre. A wonderful setting where a colorful cast of characters, all of whom are both charming and endearing, will put on a show you’ll not soon forget.