“All The World’s a stage”, the great bard once said, “and all men and women are merely players; they have their entrances and exits, and one man In his time plays many parts, His Acts being Seven Ages”. How apt a phrase, how important a one, and one that was remembered to me by this week’s game – Puppeteer!
Puppeteer (SCE Japan Studios, 2013) is a PS3 exclusive title that is beyond charming in every way, and is based entirely on a very elaborate puppet show, with the levels all being designed to give the aesthetic of props for a stage play, and a large amount of the game is based around that very concept, with several elements included to emulate the feeling of watching a puppet show or stage play.
Our story begins with a narration from our snarky omnipresent and omniscient narrator Mr G (Stephen Greif), who informs us that the Moon is in a state of disarray. The Moon Goddess (Rachel Atkins) has been overthrown by the power hungry Moon Bear King (Nick Ellsworth), who had grown bored of ruling over the dark side of the moon. Seizing the Light Moon Stone and shattering it to pieces, the Moon Bear King took control of the moon and gave the shards to his generals. Using his new found power, the Moon Bear King began to steal away the souls of Earth Children to feed himself and grow stronger, and this is where our hero enters the picture.
Kutaro’s soul was brought to the moon and locked inside a puppet for the amusement of the Moon Bear King, who then proceeded to bite off the puppets head and swallow it, throwing Kutaro to the kitchens of the witch Ezma Potts (also Rachel Atkins). Potts is very much against the Moon Bear King, and enlists Kutaro into her plan to take the kingdom back. With the help of her cat Ying Yang (Kerry Shale), Kutaro is sent to recover Calibrus, a magical pair of scissors that once belonged to the Moon Goddess.
By sheer luck or fate, Calibrus lets itself be wielded by Kutaro, and the young puppet sets out on a journey to overthrow the Moon Bear King. He is quickly joined by the peppy Sun Princess Pikarina (Julie Rogers), and the pair set out across the length of the moon to reclaim the Moon Stone Shards and restore the Goddess to her rightful place.
The story itself is not particularly deep, but it doesn’t need to be or pretend to be anything else. It’s a simple plot to move the game forward, as the writers wisely knew that the story didn’t have to be mind-blowing if they had something better to offer – character. Much like any stage play, it is through character and performance that we become enraptured, and Puppeteer uses this to full advantage. Every character, with the exception of silent protagonist Kutaro, is armed with jokes, retorts, one-liners, scene stealing delivery and, of course, actual character and development. This actually extends to our narrator, who snidely remarks on the action and commands your attention with his delightful descriptions and deadpan humour.
Each and every character is filled with life and energy, even those that barely appear. Pikarina is a constant source of amusement, as she speaks for the player (occasionally calling out cliché), whilst also taking moments to comment on how adorable a panda is, or getting distracted by the prospect of sushi (including a rather amusing argument with an octopus sushi chef). Each of the bosses are ladled with personality enough to make them something more than just the next objective – rather, they become something you look forward to so you can see what bizarre spin the game has in place for them.
Gameplay wise, Puppeteer starts as a fairly simply platformer. You run and jump your way through levels, avoiding obstacles and enemies in order to get to the next area. This changes when you gain Calibrus, which grants you an attack, and gives you a greater range of movement, as you can cut cloth or paper/ card, allowing you to move vertically up areas or across large gaps. Still, it’s fairly standard fair. You can also collect Moon sparkles, and having a 100 of these will give you a new life.
That is, until you consider the next two mechanics. Using the right analogue stick (or a second player), you can control Ying Yang or Pikarina (whichever is used that level) to examine the environment and find secrets - specifically heads. If you remember, Kutaro has no head, but he can adopt new ones using a range of different items (including skulls, squid, helmets, model boats and even spiders). These heads act as both your life and as a means of finding hidden areas or shortcuts. Each head has its own ability, which are all for show unless used in specific places (which are marked, for ease of use). By using specific heads at those places, you can earn different rewards, ranging from collectibles, shortcuts, bonus levels, or even an easier way to beat a boss.
You also collect special moves and upgraded abilities as you go along, all of which have both an environmental and combat function. These include a shield (which deflects attacks and lasers, but can only be hit so many times before needing to be recharged), bombs, a grappling hook (that gets you to new places or lets you grapple your enemies), and wrestling moves (which easily disposes of foes and helps with puzzle solving), as well as a boost cut for cutting cloth. With these combined, gameplay becomes a constant dance of moves as you switch seamlessly between all of these in order to progress past obstacles.
There are also levels that mix up the gameplay by placing you on a vehicle, where you follow a linear route and find yourself dodging the very fast onslaught of obstacles, and having to make very quick decisions at to when to jump or to duck. These are probably the least interesting sequences, but they provide brief spurts of adrenaline, as many of the courses require quick reflexes, and a single mistake can be very deadly.
A second player can join the game, but they are limited to using Ying Yang or Pikarina, and are largely used for searching environments. Not that this is without its merits, as it allows for the second player to pick up collectibles whilst the main player navigates through a level, and some sections are arguably easier with two people. The second player can also still attack enemies (by stealing their heads) and, if they want to annoy you, steal Kutaro’s head as well.
Graphically, the game looks amazing. Almost everything is designed to look like wood, paper or cloth, right down to the character looking like wooden puppets (to various degrees of stylisation). The texturing brings much of it to life, though the cloth looks a little… shiny, I guess would be the best description. However, the actual physics on the cloth are great, as it actually cuts where you cut it. All the character movements are also designed to mimic this aesthetic, making a lot of the character movements delightfully jerk with a lot of flailing.
The music in this game is absolutely lovely – composed by Patrick Doyle, the score is bombastic and elegant, weaving through genre and inspiration. It also includes several musical numbers, all of which seem to be perfectly calibrated to parody Disney movies (the first has a Snow White aesthetic, the second a Little Mermaid style). Both are actually very amusing as well as musically brilliant, with many little jokes scattered throughout. The singers are all very talented, though perhaps a bit too high pitched, though Julie Rogers is perfect in her brief moments of song.
The core game may be seen as being slightly short – there’s only 21 levels – but each level does its absolute best to offer its own unique visuals and challenges. The first few levels are the most similar, with a dreary castle backdrop, though every level from then onwards gets its own unique art and design elements. With new mechanics and features being a regular occurrence, very little of the game feels repeated, though there are the odd moments where parts feel recycled.
Perhaps my favourite part of the game is the stage play trappings. The narrator provides a constant source of amusement, and the audience react to the more dramatic moments or laughing at the odd joke. This actually carries over into the odd line of dialogue, where character’s will occasionally acknowledge their in a play, talk about costume changes or interrupt the narrator. Perhaps the best example is when Pikarina realises that one of the characters is not being played the normal actor, and eventually drags Kutaro out of the cut scene as the replacement actor is overacting to the extreme.
Outside of the main game, there are several amusing diversions. Once found, you can replay any bonus levels to your heart’s content, and beating an act (3 levels) will unlock a picture book, where Mr G does all the voices and provides background information on many of the characters (which is usually rather tragic and depressing). There’s also a gallery of all the heads you’ve collected and hints on where to get the missing ones. This actually has one of my favourite instances of flavour text, with each head having its own very silly description. It also shines light onto the background of the game as an actual stage production, informing you as to who the actors behind the characters are. This is also present if you leave the game at the title screen, where characters will start panicking because you’re not on stage. It’s a fun detail, and one that really endeared me to the game.
My one complaint about the game is that it’s actually too easy. I had maxed out my lives early on in the game, and, save for a few levels, it was usually very easy to keep specific heads (usually I’d lose a head by accidentally replacing it rather than losing it). Even early on, it was clear I would never lose all my lives, leaving me with a surplus I then abused when trying to achieve specific optional objectives. There were also moments where I found myself getting ahead of the level simply because I easily mastered the boost cut, forcing me to slow down because I was getting to my destination too quickly. It’s a minor issue, but one that did linger throughout the entire game.
As a final side note, Puppeteer actually takes advantage of both Playstation Move (for the second player) and 3D capability. It’s somewhat odd to see a game have both of those features, and both are used very well. It certainly seems as though this was supposed to be a bigger title for the Playstation. Shame they didn’t bother to advertise it.
Puppeteer is a very charming and lovely game. It’s a very fun platformer, whose characters and design elevates it above the usual platforming flair. If you have a PS3, then I cannot recommend it enough.