Puppeteer is the latest game to emerge from behind the curtain of Sony’s Japan Studio, a developer known for their propensity towards creating games that seem to fill a middle ground between indie and AAA productions. Along with this is an atmosphere of family-friendliness that seeks to engage with children as much as their parents, though their games don’t typically resonate nearly so much with the Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto audiences. Puppeteer takes great pride in adopting these philosophies, offering a gorgeous 2D sidescroller with some very good ideas.
Among these is the setting. As the name implies, Puppeteer takes place on a stage with the character and level design all following the ethos that you would expect to find at a puppet theatre. Exaggerated dimensions, complexity delivered through layers of simplicity, rough wood and fabric creations; it combines realistic visuals with an imaginative art style, creating a unique aesthetic that rarely fails to wow the player, particularly when it comes to the generally spectacular character design. It’s a memorable style that is repeated across a wide array of different environmental backdrops, ensuring that it is never really taken for granted. The idea of a stage also allows for the world to shift and change as you move through it, with elements dropping in and out. This works better in theory than in practice, though, as it is more commonly reserved for the bookending cinematic cutscenes and transition sequences, rather than the action that you participate in.
Scale is of the utmost importance in 2D games and Puppeteer never seems to sit just right. Most commonly it sits too close. While this gives you a good view of the detail that has gone into every facet of the design, it comes in exchange for a small amount of smoothness in the flow of the gameplay. Further affecting that smoothness is the animation, which seems a tad too jerky. It’s only a small drawback that could be attributed to the visual aspirations of the game, but it is worth mentioning. These are small issues and neither impacts the experience enough to definitively turn players away.
That theatre presentation follows into the sound. Underscoring the action is the idea that you are playing to an audience, with gasps, claps and laughs accompanying you as you go through the motions. It’s another of those small touches that separates Puppeteer from its contemporaries. Unfortunately this is the only area where that much can be said. Sound effects quickly fall into the realm of repetitiveness, and are typically lacking in impact anyway. They’re perfectly adequate for the production, but rarely stand out. The same can be said of the music. Although of a high standard, the themes and tracks rarely offer anything more than the standard accompaniment that we are all familiar with. The voicework is often melodramatic to the point of campiness, though perhaps this is excusable in light of the fact that the game is tailored to a younger audience. Again though, it does get the job done and brings a certain level of familiarity to each of the character archetypes.
The ursine villain speaks in a menacing baritone, while the witch has a cracked, querulous tone. A pirate has the swashbuckling tendencies that we naturally affiliate with the “profession” while each of the twelve generals has voicework that fits with what you would expect from the animals of the Chinese Zodiac given anthropomorphic form. None of it is spectacular, but it works to the needs of the narrative. That story is based on a premise that informs what is promoted as Puppeteer’s most unique gameplay concept. The silent protagonist is Kutaro, an ordinary boy who was transported from his bed to the moon one night, turned into a puppet and had his head, and soul, consumed by the Moon Bear King, usurper of the throne of the Moon. The Moon Witch, Ezma Potts, sensing something special in the boy, tasks him with recovering Calibrus, a pair of magical scissors, with which he can defeat the Moon Bear King and restore the Moon Goddess.
It’s straightforward, if not exactly simple, but it quickly becomes bloated by the necessity of toppling each of the Moon Bear King’s twelve generals before being able to tackle the big bad himself. It pads the adventure out to about fifteen hours across seven acts, with each being divided further into three curtains. Were the gameplay not as fun as it is, it would quickly become a chore to slog through the ridiculous twists and turns of the narrative. It’s not all bad, but the moments of good storytelling, comedic brilliance and pop culture references come far too rarely to be able to maintain any real excitement over the course of the adventure.
If you’re interested in Puppeteer, it is because it is a 2D platformer before any other reason. The gameplay on offer is fine, even if it doesn’t quite match up to the complexity or imagination of its contemporaries. There are two points of difference in this game, the first being the aforementioned Calibrus, with which you can take to the skies if there is anything that you can cut. More than a simple traversal system, however, the scissors are also your primary weapon for taking out the enemies that assail you on the journey. It adds an extra dimension to the gameplay, but the novelty doesn’t last the duration because of the lack of diversity in what they can do and before too long it becomes impossible to shake the feeling that you’re going through the motions.
The other concept is based on the story element that Kutaro has lost his head. Dotted throughout the adventure are a total of one hundred heads, many of which require you to complete an obscure objective to gain access to. Each of these heads has a secret, from opening up a bonus stage, to giving you a shortcut through levels or providing a wheel of fortune. The concept has its legs cut out from under it by the fact that these heads usually serve no greater purpose than being your reserve lives. The story sees you gaining access to four additional heads that expand your abilities, but its a shame that this same idea wasn’t applied to the rest of them, even if it did mean cutting down on the total.
It is also further let down by its boss battles. The actual battle of each makes use of at least one the abilities that you have accumulated, but they don’t test the player’s skill in any real way. It certainly doesn’t help that each requires you to perform the same menial action three times before you are finally allowed access to the cinematic QTE segment that will see them defeated. And then there are the QTEs – a tired, much-maligned way of ending battles in games. It’s a shame to see this lack of originality. Even though the core gameplay is tight, responsive and very enjoyable, these uninspired elements leave you walking away unsatisfied with the game as a whole, and the lack of any notable difficulty curve does the game no favours, either.
So, Puppeteer is a game with ideas that are almost universally let down by a lack of imagination when it comes to the execution. While perfectly enjoyable as a single-player experience, it is best played with a co-operative partner playing as the sidekick character of Pikarina, a role that my eight-year old nephew took in our playthrough. He found it to be more enjoyable than I did, but struggled with random points throughout the game when taking on the role of Kutaro, further betraying the lack of any semblance of a difficulty curve.
I really wanted to love Puppeteer, but it is so happy to be simply adequate that it is impossible to do so. It’s likeable, sure enough, and could be a treat for a younger audience, but there are much better games in this genre out there.
(Reviewed on PS3)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 4.5/10
Gameplay/Design – 6.5/10
Visuals – 8.5/10
Sound – 7/10
Lasting Appeal – 7/10
Overall – 6.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: Playstation 3
Developer: Sony Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Ratings: ESRB: E10+, PEGI 7+, ACB PG