Puppeteer

October 22, 2013

After the prior generation was plagued with a genre slump, this generation has been rather generous towards side scrolling platformers. I grant significant credit of the boom to the bustling independent industry. Giving smaller developers opportunities to distribute games digitally, avoiding the hoops and trappings of a traditional publisher, has allowed platformer loving creators to blossom and the market in turn see a significant resurgence of “traditional”, and then some, side scrolling jumpers. And this has made me one happy gamer, because damn¬†I love those games.

That being said, with the exception of Nintendo’s tour de force, most developers have shied away from investing too many resources (whether they be time, budget, or manpower) into said platformers. Hence the smaller, indy dev thing. It would seem the investment is still a risk, unless you’re on a Nintendo console, or a timeless mascot that will sell regardless of quality (looking at you, hedgehog).

But not all non-Nintendo developers are down and out. To my delight, Sony recently stepped up to the plate with own retail platformer: Puppeteer. Developed by SCE Japan Studio, Puppeteer marks a rather substantial production investment from Sony into the genre, to the greatest lengths than they’ve done so in a very long time. And best of all, it’s an investment that’s paid off. Puppeteer is big, beautiful, and bloody good.

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If the name wasn’t a give away, a quick glace at a screenshot and trailer will be. Puppeteer is a game that thematically and¬†stylistically embraces theatrical puppetry. You’ve probably seem those comical shorts, two puppets controlled by hands and/or strings interacting with one another to a live audience, and Puppeteer is exactly that virtualised as a platformer. SCE Japan’s commitment to this style unmatched, the entire art and audio teams attentively sculpting a production that never shies away from giving the impression that you’re watching an authentic, if logistically unbelievable, puppet show performed right before your eyes. The narrative self awareness is particularly charming, hushes and murmurs from a make-believe audience, curtains and stage lighting playfully spun by the puppet performers. Puppeteer regularly breaks the fourth wall to confront the fantasy and your investment in it, giving its relatively classical, family friendly tale of good vs. evil a cheeky, light-hearted structure.

What occasionally breaks the experience is what I guess could be considered an over indulgence in the stage theme. Anybody who’s attended a lively theatre performance that makes and effort to engage with the audience will know how loud, boystrous, and often chaotic the sound can be. Actors break character and talk over one another, all towards an audibly reacting audience. As the logistics of video game development ensure Puppeteer will always be a carefully planned and linearly orchestrated experience, it’s not uncommon to have dialogue cut off mid sentence should your play get ahead of the narrator, and the embracing of a lively theatre results in some scenes perhaps going too over the top with a loud, confusing entanglement of actor performances. Combined with some set pieces and scripted sequences dragging on a bit longer than they probably should for the sake of a flashy stage sequence, Puppeteer‘s narrative occasionally lost its grip on my interest, either because I had a hard time understanding exactly what was going on, or because I was eager for dawdling scenes to move forward.

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When you are moving forward Puppeteer is a joy to play. I was surprised to find SCE Japan hasn’t relied too heavily on replicating the same speed and momentum that most platformers share. Moving protagonist Kutaro through stages is a wee bit slower than other platformers, likely a result of the compartmentalised “stage” themed levels which often have you moving through a rotating stage piece, or vertically. Kutaro’s somewhat rigid jumping style and lack of momentum is a little off putting at first, but exists to shape play towards Kutaro’s various scissor power-ups, among others, working in tandem with jumping platforms.

Indeed, Kutaro’s enchanted scissors are just as much at the forefront of Puppeteer‘s style as the stage theme itself, frequently used as a quasi-cut at will mechanic to traverse the landscape and conquer opponents. While jumping may lack momentum and oomph, cutting does not, Kutaro able to make use of free cutting momentum to cover distance without ever touching the ground. Think of it like this: a set piece may require Kutaro pass over gorge obviously too wide to jump, meanwhile an overhanging tree continually sheds leaves blowing in the wind across the gap. In Puppeteer, this challenge would be conquered by Kutaro jumping an cutting into the airborne leaves, moving from leaf to leaf as they dance in the air to make his way across the pit.

This is Puppeteer‘s most inventive quality, something that sets it aside from other platformers, and a staple of the design that is kept at the forefront from start to finish. Other powers, like bombs, supplement Kutaro’s world interaction, ensuring you’ve always something unique and interesting to do in each of the game’s many scenarios.

If anything disappointed me it would be the way Kutaro’s many heads are integrated into the formula. As he’s a puppet, Kutaro is able to collect themed heads throughout stages. As these essentially function as Kutaro’s health bar (getting hit knocks off a head, which you must collect before it disappears), they’re either found through randomised head drop power-ups, or by meeting certain contextual criteria in a stage. Working out where and how to unlock heads is basically Puppeteer’s¬†versions of collectables, encouraging replay to find them all. Additionally, each head has a taunt-like function that can be used contextually at very specific points in certain stages, unlocking alternate routes and hidden areas. It sounds good, but it’s really just a rudimentary lock-and-key concept, as silhouetted background cues make it obvious which head is required to activate the new goodies. Don’t have the right head? You’ll have to replay. To Puppeteer‘s credit, these contextual cues sometimes pop-up in the game’s more climatic fights, as a way to weaken the opponent or shape the course of battle in your favour. But by and large, Puppeteer‘s collectable heads are just that; collectables, with no real unique power qualities of their own.

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Even if I do think that was a missed opportunity, it’s not really one that discredits the game. As said, Puppeteer makes use of powers and gimmicks through other means, like the cutting, and so the heads simply sit alongside the rest of the experience as a fun collectable system. And as collectables they’re not invasive to the course of regular play. If you want to ignore them, by all means do so. And if you want to go back and find them all once the credits have rolled and indulge in the bonus content, the more the merrier.

And that’s one of Puppeteer‘s most enduring qualities; the will it instils on the player to just…keep playing. It’s a surprisingly long and varied game, the adventure sweeping you through a number of acts and themes backed by a narrative that gives plausibility and reason to where you’re going and what you’re doing. Meanwhile the wealth of raw playable content, diversity in the mechanics at play, and bonus collectables keep it true to its old school platformer roots.

Puppeteer is an accomplished production, finely tuned to its themes and directive, while rarely forgetting the heart of the genre. It doesn’t quite scratch the same itch as other, more traditional platformers, but I don’t think it’s trying to. It’s trying to be its own thing and, for a most of the adventure, does so impressively. It’s rare that non-Nintendo hardware sees high production side scrolling platformers, and even rarer that they turn out to be great games by their own merits. Puppeteer is both, at a very affordable price, so grab a ticket and enjoy the show.

Positives:

Brilliant puppetry themed audio and art | Original cutting mechanic | Diversity and content | Enchanting narrative

Negatives:

Narrative occasionally clashes with play | Underwhelming multi-head concept

Overall Score: