We’ve been lucky enough to get some quality old-school 2D platformers in the past couple of years. From the New Super Mario Bros. titles to Donkey Kong Country Returns and most recently Rayman Legends, a genre that was for a time considered antiquated after the gaming industry made the jump to 3D has showed off that there is still plenty of life in it.
As much as I like all the previously mentioned games, they all have one notable downside for me, and that is the actual plots and character personalities. They have virtually no dialog or cutscenes outside of brief openings and endings, relying more on their gameplay to engage the player. There’s nothing wrong with that if your gameplay is strong, but I often find myself wondering with titles like these why we can’t have the best of both worlds.
Enter Sony’s Puppeteer, a 2D platformer that not only has fun gameplay, but some of the best presentation and personality I’ve ever seen in a game. Combining both dark and comical fairy tail elements, a charming, LittleBigPlanet-esque hand-crafted look, and a lively cast, capped off with fun gameplay full of variety, this is a title that PS3 owners should not pass up.
The story, as well as most levels, open with still images and narration, filling in some of the blanks. Essentially, the world the game takes place in was formerly in a peaceful state under the rule of a moon goddess, until the tyrannical Moon Bear King overpowered her, threw the kingdom into chaos, and began capturing citizens for diabolical purposes.
The game opens with a boy named Kutaro, who has the unfortunate triple whammy of being captured by the Moon Bear King, turned into a living wooden puppet, and having his head bitten off before being thrown in the king’s dungeon. With help from a shady witch with her own greedy intentions, Kutaro not only escapes the dungeon and finds a makeshift head, but obtains an enchanted pair of scissors called Calibrus, and sets out to stop the plans of the Moon Bear King and his animal generals scattered around the world.
At its core, the story is pretty straightforward and simple. What makes it special is the sense of personality everything has, and the obvious amount of effort put into character dialog, voice acting, design, and animation. From an artistic standpoint, Puppeteer is easily one of the most beautiful titles on the PS3. Everything, despite the common theme of having them look like they were crafted of various materials, seems so alive and appealing.
It helps that the actual dialog is also well-written and delivered. While character personalities are generally broad, their interactions are just plain fun to watch. The conniving witch, who keeps popping up to provide tutorials for newly gained abilites, is a riot, and Kutaro’s traveling partner Pikarina (more on her later), who serves as more of an audience avatar than the mute lead, points out the ridiculousness of various plot elements, breaks up impromptu musical numbers, and even gets into an argument with the narrator.
Even the basic setup has a charming touch. Similar to The Gunstringer, the story is presented as a theatrical play, showcasing what must be the most technologically advanced puppet show in existence. Curtains are displayed on the far left and right sides of the screen at all times, and you can hear the audience react with gasps, laughter, and applause at appropriate moments.
I knew little about Puppeteer‘s actual gameplay going in, and thankfully, it is also top-notch for the most part. Each surprisingly lengthy level tends to introduce some sort of new gameplay mechanic while making good use of ones that have already been established, ranging from throwing bombs, body slamming the ground, and most importantly, the scissors.
Calibrus isn’t just Kutaro’s only method of attack (as opposed to standard jumping on enemies), but is used to navigate through environments as well. In a very clever touch, you’ll often come across objects suspended in midair, such as leaves and water spouts, which are made of paper, and Kutaro can propel himself across these sections in midair by snipping through them with a press of the Square button.
Where the gameplay stumbles a bit is in an aspect that serves as both the health system and the main method of unlocking secrets. By both simply progressing through the story as well as travelling off the beaten path and looking for secrets, Kutaro can obtain dozens of various types of new heads to wear as substitutes for his original eaten noggin. You can hold up to three at a time, switching between them with the left and right buttons on the D-pad.
Every time Kutaro is injured, his current head falls off, and you have only a few seconds to get it back before it disappears for good. Lose all three, and get ready to restart from a checkpoint. To give you a fighting chance, you’ll be able to find more easily visible heads scattered throughout each level. Indeed, I rarely found myself outright dying, so I can say that this system works pretty well.
The more cumbersome side of head collecting is how they are used to unlock secrets. In various parts of each level, when you stand in a certain spot, you’ll see a glowing icon of a certain head appear. If you have it currently equipped and press down on the D-pad to perform a brief animation unique to each head, you’ll unlock some sort of secret, be it a bunch of the shards you collect for extra lives a la Mario’s coins or a full-fledged bonus level.
The fact that you usually have to remember which head you’ll need due to not currently having it and come back later is definitely a bit of a bummer. The fact that there’s not really any skill or creativity in using the heads also is a shame. I would have liked it if the heads had distinct impacts on the gameplay itself, maybe providing new abilities, attack or speed boosts, or whatnot. It feels like a wasted opportunity.
The last interesting gameplay component comes in the form of Pikarina. While players move Kutaro around with the left analog stick, she can fly around the entire screen with the right stick, and with the R2 button, can prod and poke specific objects to uncover secrets. This is a neat ability during the slower parts of the game, and the fact that a second player can control her solely adds a neat cooperative aspect. The downside is that during some of the more fast-paced or urgent sections, it’s harder to be precise and timely with Pikarina, which can result in missing some secrets.
Despite the aforementioned issues, the bulk of Puppeteer is still great fun, and the wonderful presentation is like icing on the cake. While there were points that I thought the intro cutscenes for specific levels went on a bit too long, the majority of them are great fun to watch, and the fact that you get some great gameplay after them is a real treat. I highly recommend Puppeteer not just to platformer fans, but anyone looking for a charming, lighthearted good time. Don’t let the child-friendly aesthetic scare you off, because there’s a lot to love about this title.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.
With phenomenal presentation and good gameplay to boot, Puppeteer is a title that platforming fans should not miss out on.