If you’re a fan of unbridled imagination and creativity, if you’ve adored the LittleBigPlanet games, if you appreciate the sometimes over-the-top artistic nature of this developer, Puppeteer is for you. In fact, it was tailor-made for you. There’s a whimsical charm blended with a frenetic, seemingly acid-induced zaniness that makes this game undeniably appealing. A platformer first and foremost, Japan Studio opts to let their creative juices run free and before long, you’ll realize that this is like no other platformer you’ve ever played.
It’s difficult to evaluate the visual splendor of Puppeteer. I don’t mean that I question its quality; that much is absolutely evident at every turn, as the inspired backgrounds, diverse and ridiculously crazy landscape, and beautiful animations are all excellent. Sometimes, though, it’s almost too insistent. We occasionally lose track of the protagonist, Kutaro, just because so much crap is going on all at once. That’s a bad word – “crap” – but you get the gist. The whole presentation is wonderfully dark and comically foreboding and I loved every wacky element. It’s just that at times, it felt like a little…much. Maybe it’s just me.
The sound molds itself to the off-the-chain nature of the game, in that the effects are various and almost impossible to define, and the soundtrack is fittingly loony. On the one hand, the music inspires traditional thoughts of a standard fairytale but on the other, the tracks mirror the frantic quest and force you to acknowledge that the designers may not have been fully sober. That isn’t meant to be a mean-spirited comment; I’m just trying to match the style of the game I’m evaluating. Again, though, the great audio can get lost in the shuffle at times, simply because that shuffle is jam-packed with tons of content. But the voice acting is top-notch.
Puppeteer has a little of everything and despite feeling a tad repetitive at times, there’s always something especially charismatic about this production. Kutaro has been stolen away to the dark side of the moon, where the evil Moon Bear King holds sway. The villain places Kutaro’s body in a puppet who must serve as a slave, but Kutaro doesn’t do everything he’s told and in a fit of rage, the Moon Bear King rips off Kutaro’s head and tosses it away. Now, believe it or not, the dark side of the moon has all sorts of diverse environments, and it’s through these landscapes Kutaro must travel on his noble quest.
Adopting the colorful, highly active world of Japanese puppet theater, the game utilizes musicals and plays throughout the course of the quest. Everything we see takes place on a stage, as each level is preceded by the rising of a red curtain. During the level – or rather, the performance – invisible stagehands remove and replace sets with efficient skill, and the spotlight always finds the main players. The audience is also very real, and their reactions accompany just about everything you do. It’s an odd experience, really; it does feel like a performance in some weird, twisted way, and when the audience boos, you feel as if you’ve let them down.
Vivid, dynamic, and endlessly imaginative, the levels/sets Kutaro traverses are constantly changing and always immersive. The characters are nicely drawn and although it’s unfortunate that Kutaro doesn’t have any lines of his own, the other players in this strange dark comedy make up for his silence. The narrator is fantastic as well and in truth, I mention this in the gameplay analysis rather than the sound evaluation, simply because the narrator’s perfect voice adds such fantastic whimsy to the on-screen action. There are snow-capped mountains, deep oceans, witches, demons, goofy friends, and plenty of appropriate gags.
The game’s mechanics aren’t flawless but they’re usually reliable. More inventiveness can be found in those mechanics, such as the constant search for new heads for Kutaro. If you snag the dinosaur head, for example, you will transform a stegosaurus into a wild herd of rampaging beasts, which trample any enemies in their path. The Spider head causes a huge spider to come out of nowhere and bring you to a special bonus stage. You can hold only three heads at a time, so there’s some strategy and planning involved. If you need help finding more heads, rely upon the flying cat, YinYang, who you control with the right analog stick. YinYang is freaky but he’s great at locating goodies, such as those critically important heads.
There’s also incentive to replay levels because as you might expect, some areas are locked until you can locate certain heads. Find those heads and return to the levels in question. Also, don’t forget that those heads are essentially lives for Kutaro; this amps up the difficulty, but it can also be pretty frustrating to lose an important head at just the wrong time. Most of the time, though, you’re gleefully bounding your way through ingeniously designed levels, and the fun factor rises thanks to the Calibrus. As you may have seen, these are large mystical scissors that destroy enemies and can also alter your environment.
Cut your way through all sorts of obstacles and open up new areas, take the blades to any nasty invader, and relish the cheers of the crowd. There are a few simple puzzles involved and the boss battles are excellently constructed and quite rewarding. But as I said above, there’s often too much going on behind Kutaro’s antics, so it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the action. The physics aren’t quite refined enough, either, so certain platforming sections can prove seriously problematic. Lastly, I have to say that while I never really have a problem with QTEs, I’m not convinced they have a place in this game. They just seem superfluous to me.
But overall, Puppeteer is loads of zany, beautifully crafted entertainment. It’s original and amazingly creative, and the ambiance and atmosphere is second-to-none. The mechanics are inspired (even if they’re not all perfectly implemented), the story is simultaneously cute and dark, and the boss battles always stand out. It has its drawbacks but in general, this is an experience that will bring out the kid in you. Okay, so that kid might have a few nightmares, and he may throw a minor tantrum when he loses a head he’s been saving for something special, but that’s acceptable. It’s acceptable because in the end, we find that we have sated the child within.
The Good: Excellent visual design. Great voiceover work throughout. Inspired gameplay mechanics. Fantastically designed, rewarding bass battles. Nicely paced, with an appealing, charming story. Diverse, engaging environments. Unparalleled creativity.
The Bad: On-screen action can be discombobulating. Not all platforming is perfectly executed. QTEs are questionable.
The Ugly: “Okay, I’m sick of losing that damn head!”
10/3/2013 Ben Dutka