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When Papo & Yo was shown off at E3 in 2011, I was instantly intrigued. The puzzle platformer, set in a dreamlike world, looked unlike anything else. It wasn’t until following the game’s development that I realized there was much more to the story. From the opening quote, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t going to be your average game:
“To my mother, brothers and sisters with whom I survived the monster in my father.“
Minority Media’s creative director, Vander Caballero, has been very upfront with his reasons for making Papo & Yo. What appears to be a fantastic adventure is actually an allegory of his childhood, and it’s not as rosy as you would expect from the glowing exterior. At the center of the game is a story about a boy and his complex relationship with his father, an abusive alcoholic.
Quico, a young boy growing up in the poverty-stricken favelas of South America, is accompanied by his friend and protector, Monster. This large, lumbering, ambiguous creature is addicted to poisonous frogs. When he’s not under the amphibian influence, he’s great to be around. Coaxing the docile giant around with the allure of delicious coconuts, he’ll often provide helpful assistance, like stepping on a large switch. In other instances, he’ll lay down to take a nap, allowing Quico to reach a high ledge by bouncing off his coconut-engorged belly. However, when he becomes polliwog-plastered, he’s a fiery, dangerous and destructive force that must be avoided or subdued with rarer rotten fruit.
Not long after the start of the game, Quico meets Lula, a friendly robot pulled from his reality. She functions as a jet pack, allowing Quico to jump longer distances. There are also special switches that only she can activate. She’s (almost) always there to offer advice or direction – but I don’t despise her like that annoying Navi from Zelda.
The visuals, aided by excellent art direction, are great for a downloadable title. Changes from the early design are vastly superior. I’ve never seen a shantytown look so good. Graffiti is also scattered throughout the world, which provides ample opportunities to stop and look at real world pieces of art within a virtual piece of art. (Did I just break your brain?)
The music compliments the theme well. A acoustic mix of guitars, various other strings, woodwinds, and percussion really sets the mood. These Latin rhythms can be beautifully melodic, or tribally savage. They know when to crescendo, and they know when to get out of the way. Toward the end of the game, the beauty of it all really begins to tug at your heartstrings.
The surreal, child-like fantasy setting allows for some interesting, unbridled platforming. The M.C. Escher, or Inception-like ways the environments transform are sure to throw you off from time to time. I often had a smile on my face, whether I was moving massive buildings by simply lifting a small cardboard box, or watching a building sprout legs or wings. All of this is accomplished with various chalk lines and switches that intermingle throughout the world – though calling them chalk lines is selling them a bit short since they often take on an ethereal form. The platforming and puzzles aren’t too difficult. Conquering them to see how the world will react next is the real prize. Hints, in the form of cardboard boxes that Quico places over his head, provide brief explanations of mechanics if needed.
Throughout the game, Monster’s addiction, and that dream of curing it, weighs on your mind. The threat of his wrath is ever present. Frogs – which themselves are beautiful – often appear or impede your progress. A few hours in, you’ll be hastily smashing them against the wall to avoid Monster’s rage.
If there is one problem with the game, it’s with a few technical issues. There is a noticeable amount of screen tearing, and some very minor texture pop-in. The frame rate also seems to chug on a few occasions, mainly when the autosave kicks in. There’s a fair amount of clipping and collision detection could be a bit more precise. Because of it, animations often come off somewhat stiff. Also, while fleeing from Monster, the camera tends to pan behind the hulking beast, making it difficult to see Quico.
Still, those minor annoyances aren’t enough to ruin the gravitas of the game. While you may notice them, they are but an errant brush stroke on a much larger canvas.
Lately, especially in the downloadable space, there have been many games that straddle the line between video game and art. Often times they seem to favor the art, and let gameplay go by the wayside. Because of that I often find the comparison a bit pretentious. However, Papo & Yo is a brilliant mix of both that is clearly worthy of the title. I applaud Vander for his strength to expose such vulnerability and pain. The video game medium moves one step forward because of it. Never have I felt so emotionally attached to a game. I’ve smiled during games; I’ve laughed during games. I’ve even gotten angry from time to time. But never has a game had such a cathartic release. Papo & Yo elicits a response that until now had only been reserved for music and movies: tears. For that alone, the game is worth experiencing.
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- Unrivaled emotional storytelling
- Whimsical surrealism never ceases to amaze
- Music enhances the entire experience
- Minor technical issues with the Unreal Engine keep the game from achieving perfection
- Animations are a little rough around the edges
- Little to promote replayability other than 25 collectable hats
Full disclosure: I am an insanely awesome individual. The even more awesome team at Minority recognized this and rewarded me (and two others) with a free copy of the game for submitting winning pictures in their Button Contest on Facebook. I’m glad to have even the slightest interaction with them, because the game had such a profound impact on me. Thanks again, Deb.